Sarah Vowell

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Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell.jpg
Born Sarah Jane Vowell
December 27, 1969 (1969-12-27) (age 45)
Muskogee, Oklahoma, United States
Education School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Occupation Author, journalist, essayist, social commentator, actress
Years active 1987–present

Sarah Jane Vowell (born December 27, 1969) is an American author, journalist, essayist, social commentator and actress. Often referred to as a "social observer," Vowell has written six nonfiction books on American history and culture, most recently Unfamiliar Fishes which was published in 2011. 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 in the animated film The Incredibles.[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 has also received the Music Journalism Award in 1996.


Published works[edit]

Vowell is a New York Times bestselling author of six nonfiction books on American history and culture. Her most recent book is Unfamiliar Fishes (2011), which traces the growing influence of American missionaries in Hawaii in the 1800s and the subsequent takeover of Hawaii's property and politics by American sugar plantation owners, eventually resulting in a coup d'état, restricted voting rights for nonwhites, and annexation by the United States. A particular focus is on 1898, when the U.S. "annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba, and then the Philippines, becoming a meddling, self-serving, militaristic international superpower practically overnight." [from the dust jacket] The title of the book is an allusion to a quotation from the aged David Malo, who had been the first Native Hawaiian ordained to preach and Hawaii's first superintendent of schools:

If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man's ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

Unfamiliar Fishes, pp. 138–139

Vowell's earlier book, The Wordy Shipmates (2008), examines the New England Puritans and their journey to and impact on America. She studies John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" – and the bloody story that resulted from American exceptionalism. And she also traces the relationship of Winthrop, Massachusetts' first governor, and Roger Williams, the Calvinist minister who founded Rhode Island – an unlikely friendship that was emblematic of the polar extremes of the American foundation. Throughout, she reveals that American history can show up in the most unexpected places in modern American culture, often in unexpected ways.

Her book Assassination Vacation (2005) describes a road trip to tourist sites devoted to the murders of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell examines what these acts of political violence reveal about American national character and contemporary society.

She is also 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.[5] 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.[6]

In 2008, Vowell contributed an essay about Montana to the book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. Vowell is set to publish her next book, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” in October, 2015.

Public appearances and lectures[edit]

Vowell has appeared on television shows such as Nightline, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,[7] The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and the Late Show with David Letterman. She also appeared several times on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.[8]

In April 2006, Vowell served as the keynote speaker at the 27th Annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference.[9] 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's 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, the shy teenager in the Pixar animated film The Incredibles and reprised her role for the various related video games[10] and Disney on Ice presentations featuring The Incredibles. The makers of The Incredibles discovered Vowell from episode 81 – Guns of 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 is included on the DVD version of The Incredibles. She also wrote and was featured in Vowellet: An Essay by Sarah Vowell included on the DVD version of The Incredibles, where she reflects on the differences between being super hero 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 on 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.[10]

On November 17, 2011, Vowell 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.[11]

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. In an interview with The A.V. Club, when asked if there was a God, she stated, "Absolutely not".[12]



Year Title Role Notes
1987 End of the Line Diner Waitress (uncredited)
2004 The Incredibles Violet Parr (voice)
2010 Please Give Shopper
2011 Hit So Hard
2013 A.C.O.D. Lorraine


Year Title Role Notes
2006–2007 Six Degrees Edie 2 episodes
2009 Bored to Death Journalist
2011 Jimmy Kimmel Live! Herself Special guest
2011 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Herself Special guest
2015 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Herself Special guest

Video games[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
2004 The Incredibles Violet Parr (voice)
2012 Kinect Rush: A Disney-Pixar Adventure Violet Parr (voice)
2013 Disney Infinity Violet Parr (voice)

Partial bibliography[edit]


External links[edit]