Sarah Vowell

On this date in 1969, Sarah Jane Vowell was born in Muskogee, Okla. She majored in Modern Languages and Literatures at Montana State University, where she received her B.A. in 1993, and went on to receive an M.A. in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Vowell is the author of several books as well as an essayist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Esquire and McSweeney’s among many newspapers and magazines. Vowell has been a frequent contributor to public radio’s “This American Life” since 1996, the show’s first year. Vowell voiced the character Violet in the film “The Incredibles” (2004).

Many of Vowell’s books examine not only American history but the history of religion in America, through a combination of road-trip memoir and insightful historical content. Assassination Vacation (2005), which is about presidential assassinations, also covers much ground in 19th-century American history, including cults and quasi-religious themes. The Wordy Shipmates (2008) tells the story of the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts, and touches on the true origins of the idea of religious freedom in America—not the Pilgrims’ or Puritans’ idea, but rather that of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, who was exiled from Massachusetts Bay for his refusal to adhere to church doctrine. More recently, 2011’s Unfamiliar Fishes tells the story of the loss of the traditional Hawaiian religion and the islands’ conversion to Christianity by missionaries from New England, as well as the story of the short-lived Hawaiian monarchy and the eventual U.S. conquest (instigated by the first missionaries’ descendents) in 1895. In her works that deal with religion, Vowell is fascinated by the figures involved, who she often finds sympathetic yet misguided.

Photo by Tammy Lo under CC 2.0

“I can relate [to Spanish King Charles II’s belief that the corpse of St. Francis of Assissi would cure his various illnesses]. . . . I crave my relics for the same reason Señor Bewitched bunked with the late saint. We’re religious. I used to share the king’s faith. And while I gave up God a long time ago, I never shook the habit of wanting to believe in something bigger and better than myself. So I replaced my creed of everlasting life with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ‘I believe in America,’ chants the first verse of one of my sacred texts, The Godfather.'” 

—Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation, 2005

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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