The Partly Cloudy Patriot makes an unusual addition to the bedstands of most readers of American history. In this motley collection, 34-year-old Sarah Vowell keenly applies the lessons of popular culture to American history and vice versa.
Those of us who know Sarah Vowell first met her on the Trail of Tears, during a documentary that aired in 1998 on the public radio show “This American Life.” Vowell and her twin sister took a few days to travel from Georgia to Oklahoma, a trip their Cherokee ancestors made by forced march sixty years earlier. Sarah, a misanthropic brunette, and Amy, a cheery blonde, are identical where it counts in radio: in their matching cartoon-style voices. Vowell instructs us that we will know her as the “grumpy” one; as the story unfolds, she is also the sarcastic one, the indignant one and the heartbroken one.
Vowell has been hailed as the “freshest voice” among critics of Americana. Anyone who has heard her unusual speaking voice is forced to smile at the comment, but her essays reveal its truth. What makes Vowell so fresh? As a young girl in Oklahoma in a Pentecostal Christian household, she was only allowed to listen to musicians who appeared at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Then her family moved to Bozeman, Montana, a college town where Vowell availed herself of the intellectual pretension of German movie houses while living in the home of her father, a gunsmith. In a lifetime of 34 years, Vowell has grown up through several generations of American culture, leaving behind rural Christian roots in an odyssey that finally lands her in New York City.
Her first book, Radio On, takes a critical look at radio in America, a medium that exerts an important influence on American society and lacks any quality control. In her second book, Take the Canoli, Vowell indulges her obsession for Godfather movies. She’s entranced by the black and white moral world and the cult of the family and applies them comically to her own life. Vowell’s newest book draws a fantastic sketch of a modern, passionate, ambivalent patriot.
The title essay riffs on a quote from Thomas Paine in 1776, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” Vowell, a self-professed “partly-cloudy patriot,” describes her own confused response to the September 11 attacks:
when the newspaper I subscribe to published a full-page, full-color flag to clip out and hang in the window, how come I couldn’t? It took me a while to figure why I guiltily slid the flag into the recycling bin instead of taping it up. The meaning had changed; or let’s say it changed back. In the first day or two the flags were plastered everywhere, seeing them was heartening because they indicated that we were all in this sorrow together. The flags were purely emotional. Once we went to war, once the president announced that we were going to retaliate against the `evildoers,’ then the flag again represented what it usually represents, the government. I think that’s when the flags started making me nervous. The true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government.
By the essay’s end, however, the clouds have parted and Vowell has reaffirmed her devotion to her country. But her collection has more to offer this tidy ending. “California as an Island,” “The Nerd Voice,” and “Cowboys v. Mounties” were my favorite essays—not because they addressed the issue that had brought me to the book, but because they were written by a person whose attitude towards her country’s history is informed by everyday experiences. In “California as an Island”, Vowell tells about an abysmal year of her life working in a map gallery in San Francisco. The gallery’s owner, Graham Arader (whom Vowell refers to as “The Grahamarader” because of his action hero prowess), has a sharp intellect and business sense which allow him to sell map-paintings by selling the history behind them. Among the realizations Vowell shares that:
Graham Arader’s America is a prettier picture than mine. And he believes in it. That is why, as he would say, he is the best, the finest, the most successful antiquarian map dealer in the history of the world. His is an easier picture to sell. But it’s also a lovelier, less sarcastic one to buy. I want to buy it … I think the reason I wasn’t cut out to be a good map seller or a good Californian had something to do with the fact that I dressed up as Wednesday Addams for Halloween that year … Namely, a sneaking suspicion that there’s always a darker side of nice.
In the middle of an amusing essay about a woman ironically discovering her angst in the Golden State, Vowell seamlessly interweaves the thesis of the collection: deep ambivalence. She leaves her job understanding that “there’s something educational about trying to see the good in things” and at the same time knowing that she has a predilection for seeing good and bad in equal parts.
In such a strange collection it’s comforting to reunite with “the point”—but the “point” is two-fold: it’s America and it’s what Sarah Vowell thinks of America. These two themes meld perfectly in “The Nerd Voice.” Vowell breaks down a contemporary political battle into an age-old struggle—nerds vs. jocks. In this case, Gore is the nerd, and his fatal flaw is that he has not learned to be a modern American nerd. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is her teaching point. The relevant characters are Giles and Willow. Giles is the British mentor who keeps Buffy on task. Vowell writes, “the humor regarding the two Englishmen tends to revolve around the way they make no apology for knowing things.” The savvy nerd teen Willow, on the other hand, is self-deprecating, and thus her peers accept her. Gore has not learned the lesson of the television show. Vowell’s assessment is off-beat and convincing. “While the preemptive mockery software is automatically included in most nerd brains under the age of forty, it still needs to
be installed in Gore.”
Vowell uses similar logic to explain the relationship between Canada and the United States. This time the archetypal heroes aren’t nerd and jock, but cowboys and Mounties. In the United States, cowboys were lawless bandits fighting disenfranchised natives. The Canadian Mounted Police were established to prevent just this kind of thing from crossing the border. But Vowell’s essay is not trying to tell us that the Americans were heinous—rather, she uses the example of American and Canadian heroes to point at the persisting difference between the two countries. Vowell interviews a Mountie:
In the States, the Mountie is a squeaky-clean icon. Does that ever
bother you that the Mountie is not `cool’?
He stares back blankly. I ask him, “You know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t.”
“There’s no darks side,” I tell him. “The Mounties have no dark side.”
In her essays, Vowell never forgets to have fun and she never forgets her history. She writes to the former presidents and gives them pointers about arranging their presidential libraries. She visits landmarks of America’s past, including Gettysburg and Salem, Massachusetts, and finds strange artifacts of modern life. There are essays that falter and stutter; spending too much time in tangents or harping on undeveloped ideas—but by the end of the collection Vowell has painted an intriguing new picture of America. She tells us our American flag should be the picture of the hissing snake that reads: “Don’t Tread On Me.” But I think she’s not exactly right about it. The “Don’t Tread On Me” version of American history is probably flapping on the reverse side of the stars and stripes; and Vowell has done what she set out to do, turned it over, exposing America to another side of itself.