What do you do when you’ve made a career of cracking wise, but the things you want to write about aren’t funny anymore? If you’re Sarah Vowell, you produce the lovingly reviewed and utterly frustrating Unfamiliar Fishes, a chronicle of the events precipitating the United States’ hostile annexation of Hawaii.
Vowell made her name with accessible, wry, and often hilarious anecdotal essays about listening to the radio (Radio On, 1997) pop culture and family (Take the Cannoli, 2000), her quirky politics (The Partly Cloudy Patriot, 2002) and her own obsession with American history (Assassination Vacation, 2005.) She was an early contributor to McSweeney’s, part of Dave Eggers’ cool-nerd empire, and This American Life, Ira Glass’ benevolent public-radio cult. What all this business had in common was Vowell herself—the brains, the comic timing, the irreverence. How many writers appeared repeatedly on Late Night with Conan O’Brien? She sounds like a hoot to have at a party.
But you know what’s not a hoot? Hawaiian history. Between 1778, when Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the islands, and 1890, the native population of Hawaii plummeted from more than 300,000 to 40,000, almost entirely due to European disease. Eons-old traditions of sustainable agriculture were replaced with a plantation system that devoted land and water to exportable sugar while citizens starved. A cash economy replaced barter, encouraging the accumulation of wealth to white landowners. In Vowell’s words, “Within one year , working-class Hawaiians had been denied the right to vote for half the legislature, the Hawaiian king became the puppet of a white oligarchy, and one of the archipelago’s best ports [Pearl Harbor] was handed over to a foreign government.”
Fourteen years into her career, Vowell has become a far better historian than smart-aleck. Her research is exhaustive and occasionally exhausting, retreading the same hundred years between the arrival of Hawaii’s first missionaries and its annexation as a state. Vowell traces these years in terms of missionary life, the advance of literacy, manifest destiny, the whale trade, the Spanish-American War, and, ever-so-briefly, the parallel destruction of Native American cultures on the mainland. Unlike earlier works, Unfamiliar Fishes is a single narrative, as opposed to episodic essays, unbroken even by chapters. And that narrative stays almost entirely in the past, with the relatively few present-day passages often relying on Vowell’s eight-year-old nephew, Owen, to say the darndest things, such as “They shouldn’t kill whales!” and “I can’t believe they killed so many whales!”
Child-like horror at massacres past is exactly what Unfamiliar Fishes inspires. Vowell seems to know this—her snark drops away for many pages at a time and then resurfaces, regularly but briefly. You can almost hear her editor complaining, “This hasn’t been funny in a long time…” So you get passages like this:
“When it came time for the oligarchs to frame a constitution for their new country [the Republic of Hawaii], Lorrin Thurston wrote Sanford Dole a letter on March 10, 1894, with his thoughts on the subject. It reads so much like a long Randy Newman song sung from the point of view of an uppity, powerful white man delighting in his own self-importance that I can’t peruse Thurston’s words without hearing Newman’s piano accompaniment twinkling in my head. Thurston writes, ‘I hope that those who are drafting the constitution will not allow fine theories of free government to predominate over the necessities of the present situation.’”
I appreciate Vowell’s intelligence, her rigorous research, and most of all her efforts to engage a broader audience in reflection on how our country came to be what it is. But I have no idea what Randy Newman is doing here.
Nor can I quite grasp what appears to be an uncanny incidence of naïvete, very late in the book, when almost all Hawaii’s damage has been done. “On March 17, 1900,” she writes, “Henry Cabot Lodge delivered a speech in the Senate in which he took up the crucial question of whether or not the imperialist developments of 1898 were a betrayal of the ideals of 1776.” Lodge pointed out that a “healthy percentage” of America’s English colonists in 1776 were loyal to the crown and were not asked consent to sever ties, and that the Founders had not asked consent from white women or residents of African descent, nor from the inhabitants who populated the Louisiana Purchase. “We forced the Southern States back into the Union” without consent, Cabot observes, bought Alaska from the Russians without consulting the citizenry, and in Cabot’s home state of Massachusetts, “women and children are disenfranchised, thus restricting registered voters to one fifth of the state’s population…”
In the face of so much discontent, Vowell wonders aloud: “I’m not sure what is more disturbing—that the annexation of the Philippines, along with Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam in 1898 is a betrayal of the principle of self-government established in 1776 or Lodge’s assertion that the principle of self-government was, is, and always will be a delusion.”
I know what’s disturbing: Vowell as apologist. “Expecting capitalists to refrain from gobbling up the earth is like blaming Pac-Man for gulping down pac-dots—to them, that’s what the land is for.” And furthermore, Hawaii shouldn’t have been wearing that dress.
The imaginary editor I have assigned to Vowell, the one who makes her quip about misery, I’ve decided is also responsible for the conclusion of Unfamiliar Fishes, which tries to assert that Hawaii—the Hawaii that loved and ate and worshiped and sang for centuries before the European invasion—somehow persists. She opines this dreamily while sharing the breakfast buffet with Owen on the patio of a Four Seasons.
It’s the one time in the book I wished she’d said, “Just kidding.”
Emily DePrang is a contributing writer for the Observer.