I am very, very late to the Sarah Vowell party that apparently the rest of the reading public has been attending for years, but guess what? Still a great party.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States* is an irreverent, hilarious, completely engaging narrative account of the adventures of the Marquis de Lafayette, the “teenage French aristocrat” who volunteered to fight for a country not his own.
Ms. Vowell begins her tale with Lafayette’s triumphant return to the United States in 1824, during which a truly remarkable percentage of the population turned out to welcome him (great Melville anecdotes in this part, if you were on the lookout for those) in a fractious political year. Then she rewinds to give us a sense of LaFayette’s background and his shenanigans that led to his transatlantic crossing (including skipping out on his pregnant wife, NBD), continuing on through his participation in the American Revolution. Along the way, she gives quick but information-filled sketches of the figures we all know much better than LaFayette, like Washington and Jefferson, and less well-known fellows like Henry Knox (the one the fort is named after), Rochambeau, and Admiral Howe (a Brit).
If you like your history peppered with sarcasm and one-liners, this is just the book for you. A few of my favorite gems include quips about the “traditional Parisian generosity of spirit” (17), the best one-line take-down of Versailles I’ve ever read, which makes me feel better about never seeing it (includes the word “flimflam”), and, with regard to Henry Knox, “that old Yankee proverb that if you can sell a book, you can move sixty tons of weaponry three hundred miles in winter” (84).
But the book is also astute in its analysis. For instance, Ms. Vowell points out that one of the reasons the American Revolution succeeded and the French decidedly did not (as Lafayette found out in an unpleasant fashion) is that Americans had been self-governing, effectively, for years before they took up arms; their idealism was backed up by practical experience. Of a philosophical disagreement with some learned Quakers, she remarks, ” I don’t think I see American history as war. I see it as a history of argument” (114). And she even contemplates what might have been had we–Americans plus the French, that is–lost the war; since Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833, the abhorrent practice might have ended thirty years earlier here, too. A sobering thought.
If you read this book (and I recommend that you do), you may find yourself wishing, as I did, that Ms. Vowell will return to 1824 and Lafayette’s visit in another book. I wanted to know more about the visit itself (and Lafayette’s life after it, especially his personal life—how did that marriage turn out, really?) but also more about the divisive election during Lafayette’s grand tour and the political environment in the 1820s. And let me tell you—until I read Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, I never thought I’d write that last sentence.
*This is a review of a publisher’s advanced copy of the book, which in no way affected my review.