Lit Guides

What He Said There | Summary and Analysis

Summary of What He Said There by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is an American author and social commentator who wrote The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2002) as a collection of essays incorporating America’s great past coupled with her own personal life. She is witty and satirical in her approach but also firmly grounded in knowledge about her country in various domains. Chapter 1 of the book titled “What He Said There” is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address which to Vowell, are subjects commanding great interest. Her exceptional skills at seamlessly blending the political with the pop culture allow this piece to be a pleasure rendering read while also revealing intricacies about the spectacle of public speeches and their underlying motives. 

What He Said There | Summary

The first chapter of Vowell’s essay collection reflects on Abraham Lincoln and his political image that the author perceives on her journey to Gettysburg, the landmark of the American Civil War. Her arrival into the town paints each scenario in the colors of the war whether it is the children playing soccer on a field that marks the defeat of the Unions on the first day of the battle or the train platform that brought Lincoln from Washington years ago. She even tries to recreate a presidential scene with a fake Johnny Reb by asking him for directions. Vowell spills the purpose of her visit- to attend the 137th anniversary of the cemetery dedication ceremony at which Lincoln delivered a powerful speech. But the motive does not rest there. She is in the town not to learn something more about Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg but out of her preoccupation with the Civil War itself which interferes with her daily activities. Philosophically, she is searching for that missing clue to her life’s puzzle.

Further, a few historical details about the war form the mid sections of the chapter. Vowell takes a keen interest in the subject as it opens a gate to many unexplored questions. She exposes the objectification of the dead victims through number plates on their graves instead of their names. Even Lincoln’s role as a persuasive orator and committed politician couldn’t escape her. Subtly enough, she hints at Lincoln’s desire to be a politically diplomatic man, capable enough to swing situations. She traces both Jesus and Mayor Daley in him. As a writer, Lincoln’s mind impresses her to the core. On her visit to David Will’s house as a part of her itinerary, she experiences a wave of closeness and similarity with Lincoln as she observes his mannequin. A sense of wonder engulfs her concerning the speech Lincoln delivered on the day years ago, which is now being celebrated. The magnanimous personality, according to Vowell is also a procrastinator like her who couldn’t complete his speech till the designated

At the celebratory ceremony of the speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, many opening acts fuels Vowell’s impatience who is sitting in the crowd for the sake of listening to Lincoln’s impersonator Jake Getty reciting his speech. The chapter concludes with the author envying an eight-year-old who in his “artsy-craftsy” age is still learning about Abraham Lincoln, the reality of the American education system which teaches “to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln — him they…[teach] us to love.” 

What He Said There | Analysis

As sarcastic and witty as it can be, Vowell’s essay is an eye-opening and interesting take on the great American figure Abraham Lincoln. It is no doubt that Lincoln was a great orator and a more influential writer. There is also no denial that he led the country during the toughest moments in its history. But Vowell also brings to our notice the political man he was. The foremost tip she borrows from his words is to “always start with the good news” as he did in his Gettysburg address by recalling the equality principle in reference to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For a writer, success lies in delivering a compelling narrative that the author honestly affirms. She attributes her journey, not to a “rubbernecking tourist” adventure who encounters the horrific truth of war in the light of self-awakening. Instead, the Civil War has always been on her mind which marks its presence in small moments of her daily routines such as rubbing off her makeup with a cotton pad. Cotton as a cash crop invokes the dark days of slavery and the consequent suffering of the blacks. 

Lincoln the politician was not a pure Jesus. He needed to win at Gettysburg and his efforts to keep people with him during the war would ensure his victory and gratitude in the future. Vowell’s personal stance on Lincoln’s opinion about Gettysburg is noteworthy. She suspects Lincoln to have used politically sophisticated language as a garb to hide his true feelings about the war. His words exercised great control when he could have just said: “Goddamn fucking Meade” to criticize General Meade for letting General Lee flee. 

The language of the essay is both conversational and formal. Amidst her attempt to recreate a presidential movement, she rebukes the fake Johnny Reb for his ignorance about the town. Also, serious contemplation on slavery is undercut by the banal inquiry into the brown vs black eyeliner smudging race. At times, she even adopts a clarifying tone to justify her presence in Gettysburg which is purely out of interest, an interest enough to lead her to all critical landmarks. The high point of satire comes when she mocks the speeches of men in power who honor the dead and attempt to immortalize them for their sacrifice. She ascribes the fate of the victims to “a cameo in some kind of art” in such speeches. Common folks do not remember brave hearts because they died. Rather, they are kept alive through repeated words of men on stage speaking from a position of authority. 

Vowell targets public speeches like the Gettysburg address for its versatility in acting as a cover-up for the “slavery mess” of the founding fathers, in addition to its function as a eulogy and New Jersey’s governor Christine Todd Whitman’s proclamation “Our government doesn’t have all the answers, and it never will.” The author suggests the latter to be a code for “Sorry about that icky photo that shows me laughing as I frisk an innocent black man on a State Police ride-along.” Often words fail to speak for the actions. 

Unique and creative enough, she juxtaposes the historical with the contemporary as seen in the instances of the children playing soccer during the football season on the war field and locals queuing up for a movie show at the Majestic theatre for Meet the Parents. During her visit to David Will’s house which now is a museum, she inspects Lincoln’s mannequin built as a figure polishing his speech. In a humorous dig, she complains about the lack of any mannequin built for her even after delivering longer Aerosmith record reviews. In a playful commentary, Vowell also reflects on the American education system which holds a major responsibility in shaping young minds to like, hate or love a public figure. This conditioning does not allow one to accommodate alternate views about the concerned figure, in this case, our beloved Abraham Lincoln. 

What He Said There | Literary Devices


Allusion – Vowell alludes to the famous anti-war painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso to articulate the human need for art to better understand reality. 

Metaphor – For Vowell, Gettysburg is a pilgrimage, an eye-opening and engaging journey to self-realization. 

Also, the graves of unnamed yet numbered men appear to her as sculptures, beautiful works of art rather than mere “bodies.”

Interestingly, the Gettysburg Address is compared to a soybean for its versatility to form various products. 

Simile – Vowell compares the children playing soccer to a “bunch of Belgians.”

She also compares herself to a pilgrim who in a state of mess is looking for the missing part in her life. 





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