The Annual Mark Twain Lecture Series: Sarah Vowell, Author and Voice Actress, Talks Humor and History


On Friday, April 11, St. Mary’s College of Maryland held the seventh annual Mark Twain Lecture Series on Humor and Culture. The evening’s guest was author and journalist Sarah Vowell, who is best known for her historical non-fiction books, which are often written with a darkly humorous tone. Her most recent books include The Wordy Shipmates (2005), a history of Puritans in Massachusetts, and Unfamiliar Fishes (2011), a history of American imperialism in Hawaii. She is also known to wider audiences as the woman who voices the character of invisi-teen Violet Parr in the 2004 Disney Pixar film, The Incredibles.

Vowell kicked off the lecture portion of the evening with an excerpt from her book of essays, Take the Cannoli (2000) about her experience at Disney World with late author and 2012’s Twain lecturer David Rakoff. The title of this piece, Species-on-Species Abuse, is taken from Rakoff’s description of a group of tourists that feed parts of the turkey legs they are eating to pigeons. Occasional asides by the author and a pause to shake a spider off her book punctuated Vowell’s natural humor. Despite the sometimes surreal, awkward experience she describes Rakoff and herself as having, Vowell seems to take away surprise at the earnestness she discovers from the depressing experience, which appropriately enough included a visit to the Magic Kingdom’s “Tom Sawyer Island.”

Her second excerpt, taken from Unfamiliar Fishes, describes a part of her experience as a tourist in Hawaii with her nephew. “Hawaii 78,” a song by  Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole about the threat that urban development poses towards Hawaii’s ecological and cultural environment, comes on at a restaurant. It’s message appears to starkly contrast the “Over the Rainbow” cover for which Iz was famous, and which no tourist to Hawaii can go five minutes without  hearing. “What’s it about?” Owen asks Sarah, to which she replies “It’s about how people like us wrecked this place.” It’s immediately after this line that she cheerily concluded her lecture portion of the evening.

Vowell then sat down for a question and answer session with Dr. Ben Click, Department Chair and Professor of English here at the College as well as the organizer of the Twain Lectures, and Dr. Charles Holden, a Professor of History. The session started with a question about why one should study history, to which Vowell replied that she found herself fascinated by the stories that make up history–but she also added that she found it easier “to pry into someone’s life if they were already dead.” When asked who from history she might want to hang out with, she considered briefly rekindling her love affair with fellow trumpet player Louis Armstrong before deciding “Maybe Jesus? He was a weird guy.” She explained that she has always preferred the company of weird people to offset her own weirdness.

The evening concluded with a Q&A session with students. Also at the lecture also presented the winners of the Twain Caption Contest and the Assault of Laughter Writing Contest. In the writing contest, junior Chris Joyce, last year’s second place winner, took first place, senior Thor Peterson took second, and ’09 alumnus Greg Croisetiere took third. In the caption contest, sophomore Meagan Blizzard came in first, followed by sophomore Ari Pluznik in second, and senior Nick Brown in third. This concluded another successful chapter in the Twain Lecture Series, building high hopes for next year’s speaker and events.