Sarah Vowell, Author and Humorist: Interview on The Sound of Young America

| 0 comments
Photo credit Bennett Miller
Show: 
Bullseye
Guests: 
Sarah Vowell

Our interview with Sarah Vowell on her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, was taped in front of a live audience at All Saints Church in Pasadena in March 2011.

Sarah Vowell is an author who writes about history from her own perspective, which includes not just the facts but her own running commentary on the people and events that make up our history, and is sprinkled with anecdotes of her own experiences while exploring the subject.

Unfamiliar Fishes follows the history of Western intervention in Hawaii up until the annexation of the state, and is out now.

JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program, at least in public radio circles, barely needs any introduction at all; it's Sarah Vowell. She's made a career for herself as a very particular kind of popular historian. She doesn't so much write as a historian, presenting what Werner Herzog recently called to me “The accountant's truth.” Rather, she writes from her own perspective, a perspective that is very contemporary and very funny.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.
Click here to stream or download the podcast!

This is a podcast-exclusive interview on The Sound of Young America. I spoke with Sarah at a book event here in Los Angeles. It was held in the meeting hall of a church, and we didn't really get a sound check, so if you happen to notice that my voice sounds a little bit weird, that's why. That's just what happens once in awhile when you're recording on the fly.

Sarah's new book is called Unfamiliar Fishes. It's about the history of Hawaii, specifically that part of the history of Hawaii that runs just before the arrival of Europeans to Hawaii's annexation to the Untied States at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of the book is about the relationship between the native people of Hawaii and the European missionaries and the European missionaries children who settled there. Let's go to my conversation with Sarah Vowell.

The thing that I started thinking about when I was reading the book was the idea of who is interested in history, and also who is a historian. There's this really lovely person that you meet in the course of your research; you meet her in the library, this Hawaiian woman who left Hawaii and came back and essentially became a family historian when she returned. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about that lady and the circumstances of how you met her and her life.

SARAH VOWELL: Her name is Laurel Douglass, and she is a missionary descendant. She is a descendant of one of the New England missionaries who came to the Sandwich Isles in the 19th century. Her ancestor ended up running the school where the royal children - - is this who you were talking about?

JESSE THORN: No.

SARAH VOWELL: Okay. Her ancestor great something grandfather and her great something grandmother ran this school for the Hawaiian royals, and I think five of those children in the school ended up being future monarchs of the islands. My friend Laurel is a missionary descendant, she went to Punahou School, which is the school President Obama went to, and was raised to be a proper 50s white girl in Hawaii and then she left to become a blackjack dealer in Reno. She stayed in the continental US for a couple of decades at least, and then came back to Hawaii after her son died. She said when her son died she just started reading, and one of the books she read was about Queen Liliʻuokalani and the overthrow of the monarchy.

She went home and started researching her family history, which is - - there are a lot of people who research their family history, but she researched and was very passionate about it; not because she's proud of her ancestors, she kind of hates her great-grandfather and has a real loathing because he whipped the royal children and he was abusive and disdainful of them. She sees it as her mission to tell the truth about him and her family. I thought that was a new twist on the genealogical researcher; someone whose eyes light up when they see their ancestors name, but only because she burns with a fury for what a jerk he was.

JESSE THORN: I remember when I was a kid my father sitting down with my grandparents and recording all the genealogical history that they knew and it was to me the most boring thing that a human being could do on Earth. It was more boring than anything, alphabetizing the card catalog of the New York Public Library. It's coming now as I approach 30 that the idea of family history doesn't make me want to cry.

SARAH VOWELL: That's because you're closer to death.

JESSE THORN: Without putting too fine a point on it, it struck me that this woman was driven back into her roots and her ancestry by death further down the chain; by the fact that her son died.

SARAH VOWELL: When I met her it was a kind of archival-meeting-cute, because I was introduced to her by the director of the Hawaiian historical society in the mission house's archive. She had just been to this other archive, and she found one of the royal children's diaries. I met her and she immediately flipping through folders, and she'd found this passage in the royal kid's diary that mentioned her own ancestor being born - - the two teachers had a baby.

Then she's flipping through and finding the part where - - she's flipping through to show me one of the passages about the kids being beaten, and they thought, what an interesting lady. The next day she took me on this hike to see the ruins of the summer palace of Kamehameha III. Remember when I met you, Jesse, at your radio show? That was also nice.

JESSE THORN: In Sarah Vowell's last book The Wordy Shipmates, she wrote with some fondness for the bookishness of 17th century New England protestants. Her new book Unfamiliar Fishes traces missionaries in the 1800s who leave New England for Hawaii, and her feelings about them are much more mixed. In this next part of our conversation, she compares the two.

SARAH VOWELL: The Puritans, the original ones, are a little more lovable to me just because some of them were such great writers, like one of my favorite pieces of writing is John Winthrop's sermon A Model of Christian Charity; whereas the later New England missionaries that I write about who go to Hawaii, they leave Boston Harbor in 1819. Once they arrive they invent a written Hawaiian language, the teach most of the Hawaiian people to read within a generation, they bring printing presses with them and translate the Bible into Hawaiian, they publish millions of pages of text books, newspapers, other books, almost all of it in Hawaiian. In the middle of the 19th century, the Hawaiian islands might have had the highest literacy rate in the world they were so successful.

On the other hand, their program -- which was to travel for six months to this other country who had not invited them, show up there and tell the locals how very wrong they are about everything -- is a little condescending. Part of the book chronicles some of the difficulties with that. Then, of course, their children grow up to overthrow the Hawaiian monarch and hand the islands over to the United States. So...um...

JESSE THORN: It's a balancing act is what you're saying.

SARAH VOWELL: Yeah. I think what they went their to do, because I'm not religious, I find that part of it ridiculous. I do still admire them as people and their fortitude and their courage. They had very hard lives and they gave up lives of relative comfort in their hometowns with families and friends and just went off to this far away land because they wanted to save these people from the eternal flames of hell. When you look at it that way it was darn nice of them.

JESSE THORN: Let's talk a little bit about the native Hawaiian side of this interaction. What was going on in Hawaii before missionaries started showing up, in that time between just before Captain Cook stumbled upon the Hawaiian islands, and when missionaries started coming in to convert everyone to Christianity.

SARAH VOWELL: Captain Cook first landed on Kauai in 1778 in January, which is right when George Washington and Lafayette and those guys are shivering at Valley Forge, to give you some context to what's going on over here. Before that, several hundred years at least, maybe a thousand years before that, voyagers and settlers from the Marquesas in Tahiti settled Hawaii, and all of the islands were interrelated feudal chieftains.

After Cook arrived and these western ships started showing up one of the chiefs from the big island, Kamehameha, he started acquiring cannons and took on a couple of advisers, Europeans, form the ships that were passing through, and he started conquering all the islands using this new technology and guns and other western weapons. The verb the Hawaiians use to describe that process is he united the islands, but he conquered one island after the other except for Kauai which eventually submitted to his rule. By 1810 he had established the Kingdom of Hawaii, in which all the islands were under his rule.

JESSE THORN: Tell me a little bit about how the relationship between these missionaries who arrived in the beginning of the 19th century and these kings and queens of Hawaii developed over the first part of their history; the first 20, 30, 40 years.

SARAH VOWELL: When the missionaries of Pioneer Company was sailing from Boston in 1819, while they were on route Kamehameha the Great died and his son took over. He was in power, and when the missionaries arrived they were under his thumb, and they had to get his permission to settle, and he finally gave that to them for a year at a time. It was smart of them to suck up to the royal class, because it wasn't there was a king and then there were a couple of his father's queens who were very powerful. The Queen Mother and another woman who was the most powerful of the queens, Kamehameha's favorite queen, and the missionary's big coup early on was converting those two very powerful women to Christianity. That opened a lot of doors for them in terms of convincing the government to do things like regulate liquor, outlaw fornication and adultery.

Meanwhile, at the same time, the whalers start coming from New England, too. Just like the missionaries all these people were born within about 150 miles of Boston Harbor, but where the missionaries are convincing the ruling class to outlaw fornication and adultery and regulate liquor, the whalers, when they start showing up in Hawaii in droves, as sailors on leave have a lot of interest in fornication, liquor, and adultery. So the New Englanders clash. One whaling ship on Maui, when they find out they will be denied prostitutes, they fire a cannon at the mission house in Maui.

JESSE THORN: There's a secret shipment of prostitutes that's sent there.

SARAH VOWELL: Hawaiians sort of get the worst possible extremes of Americans at this time. They get the buttoned up Puritan killjoys and spring break, basically. It's not like the regular normal Joes were taking six month voyages to Polynesia at the time.

JESSE THORN: These Puritan killjoys are insinuating themselves into a religious power vacuum early on in this time because one of the kings, in a power consolidation move, gets rid of all the priests.

SARAH VOWELL: Yeah, when Kamehameha the Great died, as these first missionaries are on the sea on their way there, his son takes over and in consultation with those two queens I mentioned, he breaks the kapu, which means basically he destroys the old village and fires all the priests and has the temples abandoned and has all the old idols burned and the old religion is kind of kaput. Meanwhile, when the missionaries arrive and find out the old religion has been squashed by the king, it's their lucky day, a gift from god. They were able, I think, to make a lot more progress quickly because of that.

JESSE THORN: The kings and queens - -

SARAH VOWELL: It's also one of those things that makes me love non-fiction. If you were writing that, if you were making up a story about this and say, oh, as the missionaries are on their way there the old religion is abolished by the king. That seems a little implausible.

JESSE THORN: A little convenient.

SARAH VOWELL: But it's nevertheless true.

JESSE THORN: Sarah went on to describe big shifts in Hawaii over the course of the 1800s. The native population plummeted due to outbreaks of various diseases brought in by the American whalers, plus an influx of plantation workers from Asia arrive to harvest Hawaii's big new crop: sugar.

As a result the ethnic makeup of Hawaii shifted dramatically, and the existing dynasties lost some of their relevance. Here Sarah talks about the weird hybrid government that emerged out of Hawaii's monarchy in the late 19th century before the islands were annexed by the United States.

SARAH VOWELL: After the last of the Kamehameha dynasty died, and he died without naming a successor, so to get a new monarch they had an election, but the candidates were from a very small pool of the highest of the high chiefs, and one of them was named David Kalakaua and another one was Queen Emma, who was the widow of one of the former kings, and the legislator had to vote on one of those. So for awhile Kalakaua was the king elect. That system combines all of the worst things about democracy and monarchy. It's sort of unfair that only people with really fancy blood are eligible, and then when one of them loses there's all the sore feelings that comes after an election once ones candidate doesn't win, not that I know anything about that.

JESSE THORN: I get the impression that Kalakaua was not the most high-efficiency, high-competency king, either.

SARAH VOWELL: It's the Gilded Age, so a lot of your world leaders are going to be iffy on the moral issues. His counterpart, President Grant - - when Kalakaua came to the US to lobby for an economic of reciprocity between Hawaii and the United States, President Grant threw him a state dinner, he was the first foreign leader to get a state dinner, and President Grant was also overseeing one of the most corrupted administrations in our history. It wasn't a good time for good government in general in the world.

Kalakaua, they called him the Merrie Monarch. He liked to have a good time, was a bit of a drinker like President Grant. Kind of a gambler, which led to some of his corruption, just because he had to get some extra scratch to pay off his gambling debts. Politically he could have been a little more conscientious about his role as king. Culturally he's still wildly beloved in Hawaii. Part of his Merrie Monarch bon vivant, Johnny Goodtime side, manifested itself in a love and a support of all the old Hawaiian traditions that missionaries had disdained, like Hula, the Merrie Monarch festival of Hula in Hawaii is named in his honor because he helped revive the art form, he put it at the center of his coronation, he had a lot of Hula chants collected and transcribed. He had the Kumulipo, which is the genealogy, the history of Hawaii, from the beginning of time up through his own ancestors, he had that transcribed and published. Culturally he's still quite beloved there for his patronage of all of these native art forms that were kind of on the decline because of so much missionary influence.

JESSE THORN: As the land starts to concentrate in the lands of the Haoles, the white folks, and the power starts to concentrate in the hands of those people, and as sugar becomes an increasingly important part of how those people are making their money, the system of government starts to get real shaky as those people start to wonder whether it's in their best interests to have this king in power.

SARAH VOWELL: Eventually after he dies and his sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani, comes to power, they do overthrow her literally. But really, as she put it, they overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy when they force King Kalakaua to sign this new constitution that severely limits the voting rights for certain political offices for people who don't own enough property or have a high enough income, which keeps a lot of the native Hawaiians from voting and gives this little circle of missionary descendants a lot more power over the king. They kind of force themselves into his cabinet and he becomes kind of a figurehead.

The main reason that they go on to overthrow his sister when she becomes Queen after his death is that she is writing a new constitution to restore voting rights to the natives and to get rid of some of the more nefarious parts of that old constitution and they accuse her of treason for writing this revolutionary document. That's when they stage their Coup d'Etat against her.

JESSE THORN: I'm sure that you had spent more time thinking about Hawaii as a vacation destination as the Aloha state, as the birthplace of Barack Obama and those kinds of things than you had thinking about 19th century Hawaii before you started this.

SARAH VOWELL: Well...no.

JESSE THORN: No?

SARAH VOWELL: I started it before he was elected, though don't get me wrong, the first thing I thought when he was elected was, yay, I voted for him and he won, the second thing I thought was, that could be good for the book. I was already in this before he came to power.

JESSE THORN: What I'm saying is, I imagine there was a point in your life when the visit to Hawaii episode of The Brady Bunch loomed at least right up there with Kamehameha III.

SARAH VOWELL: That presupposes that - -

JESSE THORN: Okay, fine!

SARAH VOWELL: I'm just not a beachy person. That part of Hawaii never really appealed to me. The first time I went there was just to go see the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, and that's how I got sucked in to the story.

I also went to the palace on that trip and took a tour and got interested in that, and then years later came back to Honolulu with some Californians for a concert, and I remember trying to talk them all into going to the palace and taking the tour because it's such a fascinating story and we really don't think about this and it's so tied in to Pearl Harbor because the Japanese wouldn't have bombed Hawaii for being American if Americans hadn't overthrown the queen and handed over the islands to the United States. I was unsuccessful, they just wanted to sit on the beach or something. That was the moment where I realized, oh, I think I'm pretty interested in this stuff considering how worked up I'm getting about it.

In fact, the origin of this book is, don't sit on the beach, go take a tour of a Victorian mansion where the only monarchs who ever lived in the United States used to live.

JESSE THORN: What was it that ignited you to the point that you wanted to fly to Hawaii, many thousands of miles from where you live, and stay in a hotel - -

SARAH VOWELL: It was a real bear of a commute, I have to say.

JESSE THORN: Albeit a hotel from Hawaii 5-0, from the opening credits of Hawaii 5-0.

SARAH VOWELL: I did stay in that building, yes.

JESSE THORN: And then spend your Hawaiian days in an archive reading the diaries of missionary women and the memoirs of Hawaiian kings and queens.

SARAH VOWELL: Don't forget the whaling newspapers.

JESSE THORN: What was it about the story that motivated you to the extent that you were willing to dedicate years of your life to it?

SARAH VOWELL: That moment when I realized how interested I was in that subject, trying to convince people to go learn more about it, I should also say that I had written this book that's partly about President McKinley, it's mostly about him getting shot, but when I was researching that I got fascinated with the Spanish-American War era.

So 1898 became this obsession of mine because it's kind of the year we became who we are now, and Hawaii is part of that because that summer we were invading Cuba, invading the Philippines, taking over Guam and Puerto Rico, that's who we annexed, Hawaii. The moment I realized how interested I was in the story, what was going on in Hawaii in the decades leading up to that, I was already there with my profound obsession with 1898 and the Spanish-American War era. Those two things just kind of came together in my mind as one little eureka of book idea.

JESSE THORN: It's really this moment where manifest destiny goes from being about coast to coast and maybe Canada or something to extending across the world, which is something that we're still struggling with now. I mean, right now.

SARAH VOWELL: I don't know what you're talking about. No, after 1898 we stopped and were like, no, we don't want to meddle in the world's affairs. That's not who we are.

JESSE THORN: Well Sarah, thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me.

SARAH VOWELL: Thank you, Jesse, for getting all dressed up and taking the time to query me.

JESSE THORN: How about a big round of applause.
That's our time for another Sound of Young America program. I have been your host Jesse Thorn, America's Radio Sweetheart.

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you're interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

Listen Now
Embeddable Audio Player Code (Copy and Paste)