Sarah Vowell

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Sarah Vowell
Vowell standing onstage in front of a microphone holding papers
Vowell in 2007
Sarah Jane Vowell

December 27, 1969 (1969-12-27) (age 50)
EducationMontana State University, B.A.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, M.A.
OccupationHistorian, author, journalist, essayist, social commentator, actress
Years active1987–present

Sarah Jane Vowell (born December 27, 1969) is an American historian, author, journalist, essayist, social commentator and actress. Often referred to as a "social observer," Vowell has written seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. She was a contributing editor for the radio program This American Life on Public Radio International from 1996 to 2008, where she produced numerous commentaries and documentaries and toured the country in many of the program's live shows. She was also the voice of Violet Parr in the animated film The Incredibles and its 2018 sequel.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Vowell was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and moved to Bozeman, Montana, with her family when she was eleven.[2] She has a fraternal twin sister, Amy. Vowell earned a B.A. from Montana State University in 1993 in Modern Languages and Literatures[3] and an M.A. in Art History[4] at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. She received the Music Journalism Award in 1996.


Published works[edit]

Vowell is a New York Times bestselling author[5] of seven nonfiction books on American history and culture. Her most recent book is Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015), an account of the young French aristocrat who became George Washington's trusted officer and friend, and afterward an American celebrity––the Marquis de Lafayette.

In a review for The New York Times, Charles P. Pierce wrote, "Vowell wanders through the history of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, using Lafayette's involvement in the war as a map, and bringing us all along in her perambulations… and doing it with a wink."[6] NPR reviewer Colin Dwyer wrote, "It's awfully refreshing to see Vowell bring our founders down from their lofty pedestals. In her telling, they're just men again, not the gods we've long since made of them."[7]

She also wrote Unfamiliar Fishes (2011), which discusses the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the Newlands Resolution. In her Los Angeles Times review, Susan Salter Reynolds wrote of Vowell, "Her cleverness is gorgeously American: She collects facts and stores them like a nervous chipmunk, digesting them only for the sake of argument."[8] "Unfamiliar Fishes is a big gulp of a book, printed as an extended essay", wrote Allegra Goodman in The Washington Post. "Lacking section or chapter breaks, Vowell's quirky history lurches from one anecdote to the next. These are often entertaining, but in the aggregate they begin to sound the same, veering toward stand-up and a shaggy dog story—more David Sedaris than David McCullough." Although Goodman also wrote that "Vowell tells a good tale" with "shrewd observations", she found that "the narrative wears thin where casual turns cute and cute threatens to turn glib."[9]

Vowell's earlier book, The Wordy Shipmates (2008), analyzes the settlement of the New England Puritans in America and their contributions to American history.

Her book Assassination Vacation (2005) describes a road trip to tourist sites devoted to the murders of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and William McKinley.

She is the author of two essay collections, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2002) and Take the Cannoli (2000). Her first book Radio On: A Listener's Diary (1997), is her year-long diary of listening to the radio in 1995.

Her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Esquire, GQ, Spin, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the SF Weekly, and she has been a regular contributor to the online magazine Salon.[10] She was one of the original contributors to McSweeney's, also participating in many of the quarterly's readings and shows.

In 2005, Vowell served as a guest columnist for The New York Times during several weeks in July, briefly filling in for Maureen Dowd. Vowell also served as a guest columnist in February 2006, and again in April 2006.[11]

In 2008, Vowell contributed an essay about Montana to the book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.

Public appearances and lectures[edit]

Vowell signing books after a lecture at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, 2010

Vowell has appeared on television shows such as Nightline, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,[12] The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Show with David Letterman, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.[13]

In April 2006, Vowell served as the keynote speaker at the 27th Annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference.[14] In August and September 2006, she toured the United States as part of the Revenge of the Book Eaters national tour, which benefits the children's literacy centers 826NYC, 826CHI, 826 Valencia, 826LA, 826 Michigan, and 826 Seattle.

Vowell also provided commentary in Robert Wuhl's 2005 Assume the Position HBO specials.

Voice and acting work[edit]

Vowell's first book, which had radio as its central subject, caught the attention of This American Life host Ira Glass, and it led to Vowell becoming a frequent contributor to the show. Many of Vowell's essays have had their genesis as segments on the show.

In 2004, Vowell provided the voice of Violet Parr, a shy teenager, in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles, and returned to her role for the film's sequel, Incredibles 2, in 2018.[15] Additionally, Vowell has also lent her voice to the character for various related video games[1] and Disney on Ice presentations in the years following the film's release. The makers of The Incredibles discovered Vowell from episode 81 – Guns[16] This American Life, where she and her father fire a homemade cannon. Pixar made a test animation for Violet using audio from that sequence, which was included on the DVD of The Incredibles. She also wrote and was featured in a documentary included on the same DVD entitled Vowellett - An Essay by Sarah Vowell, where she reflects on the differences between being superhero Violet and being an author of history books on the subject of assassinated presidents, and what it means to her nephew Owen. Vowell also played Fernanda, Theacher Aunt Deborah and Mary Kelly in The School Future.

Vowell provided commentary in "Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President McKinley", which is part of the History Channel miniseries, 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.

She is featured prominently in the They Might Be Giants documentary Gigantic. She also participated on the DVD commentary for the movie, along with the film's director and They Might Be Giants' John Linnell and John Flansburgh.

In September 2006, Vowell appeared as a minor character in the ABC drama Six Degrees. She appeared in an episode of HBO's Bored to Death, as an interviewer in a bar. In 2010, Vowell appeared briefly in the film Please Give, as a shopper.[1]

On November 17, 2011, Vowell briefly joined The Daily Show as the new Senior Historical Context Correspondent.

Personal life[edit]

Vowell is part Cherokee (about 1/8 on her mother's side and 1/16 on her father's side). According to Vowell, "Being at least a little Cherokee in northeastern Oklahoma is about as rare and remarkable as being a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago." She retraced the path of the forced removal of the Cherokee from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma, known as the Trail of Tears, with her twin sister Amy. In 1998, This American Life chronicled her story, devoting the entire hour to her work.[17]

She is unmarried and has never had children.

Vowell is on the advisory board of 826NYC, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for students aged 6–18 in Brooklyn.

Vowell is an atheist, though she describes herself as "culturally Christian."[18] In an interview with The A.V. Club, when asked if she believed in God, she stated, "Absolutely not."[19]



Year Title Role Notes
1987 End of the Line Diner Waitress Uncredited
1999 Man in the Sand Herself Documentary
2002 Gigantic Herself
2004 The Incredibles Violet Parr Voice
2010 Please Give Shopper
2011 Hit So Hard Herself Documentary
2013 A.C.O.D. Lorraine
2018 Incredibles 2 Violet Parr Voice


Year Title Role Notes
2006–2007 Six Degrees Edie 2 episodes
2006 The Colbert Report Herself 1 episode
2009 Bored to Death Journalist
2010 Lafayette: The Lost Hero Herself Documentary
2011 Jimmy Kimmel Live! Herself Special guest
2011, 2013, 2015 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
2011 Last Call with Carson Daly
The Tavis Smiley Show
2015 Conan
2016 Well Read V

Video games[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
2004 The Incredibles Violet Parr
2012 Kinect Rush: A Disney-Pixar Adventure
2013 Disney Infinity Credited as Sara Vowell
2014 Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes
2015 Disney Infinity 3.0
2018 Lego The Incredibles

Short film[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
2005 Vowellett – An Essay by Sarah Vowell Herself, writer, archive footage Included as a bonus feature to The Incredibles on home media; details Vowell's voice work during the film while also writing Assassination Vacation and how her This American Life writing/narration earned her the role of Violet.

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • 1997 Radio On: A Listener's Diary ISBN 0-312-18301-1
  • 2000 Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World ISBN 0-7432-0540-5
  • 2002 The Partly Cloudy Patriot ISBN 0-7432-4380-3
  • 2005 Assassination Vacation ISBN 0-7432-6003-1
  • 2008 The Wordy Shipmates ISBN 1-59448-999-8
  • 2011 Unfamiliar Fishes ISBN 1-59448-787-1
  • 2015 Lafayette in the Somewhat United States ISBN 1-59463-174-3


  1. ^ a b c Sarah Vowell on IMDb
  2. ^ Vowell, Sarah. Take the Cannoli. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0743205405.
  3. ^ Schmidt, Carol (April 30, 2010). "Vowell's constant". Montana State University. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  4. ^ Assassination Vacation, pg. 242
  5. ^ "Hardcover Nonfiction: Apr 03, 2011 - Apr 17, 2011". The New York Times Best Seller list. April 10, 2011. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  6. ^ Pierce, Charles P. (November 17, 2015). "Sarah Vowell's 'Lafayette in the Somewhat United States'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 7, 2016.
  7. ^ Dwyer, Colin. "'Somewhat United' Brings Lafayette Down From His Pedestal". Retrieved February 7, 2016.
  8. ^ Salter Reynolds, Susan (March 26, 2011). "Book review: 'Unfamiliar Fishes' by Sarah Vowell: The 'Partly Cloudy Patriot' author takes on American imperialism and exceptionalism". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 21, 2011.
  9. ^ The Washington Post
  10. ^ "Sarah Vowell". Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  11. ^ "Sarah Vowell". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  12. ^ North, Anna (October 6, 2009). "Sarah Vowell, Jon Stewart, And The Freedom of the Bowl Haircut". Jezebel. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  13. ^ "Barnes & Noble Biography: Meet the writers - Sarah Vowell". Steven Barclay Agency. Archived from the original on October 22, 2012.
  14. ^ "Women Writers Conference Announces Creative Nonfiction Contest". University of Kentucky. October 11, 2005. Archived from the original on February 20, 2012.
  15. ^ "D23 Expo: Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios: The Upcoming Films". July 14, 2017. Retrieved July 14, 2017.
  16. ^ "81: Guns". This American Life. October 24, 1997. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  17. ^ "107: Trail of Tears". This American Life. July 3, 1998. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  18. ^ Vowell, Sarah (January 21, 2008). "Radical Love Gets a Holiday". The New York Times. Retrieved July 3, 2015. Because I am a culturally Christian atheist the same way my atheist Reform friends are culturally Jewish, ...
  19. ^ Thompson, Stephen (October 9, 2002). "Is There A God?". Retrieved July 3, 2015.

External links[edit]

External audio
Consonant Vowells: Sarah Vowell on This American Life and Hearing Voices
How A French Teenager Helped Save Us From 'The Fatal Tendency Of Disunion', John O'Brien, KUOW, November 12, 2015