Sarah Vowell Explores American History With One Foot Firmly in the Land of Humor

by Shyam K. Sriram

13 January 2016

Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and every bit a statement on post-Obama politics, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an interesting work that serves multiple purposes.
 
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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Sarah Vowell

(Riverhead)
US: Oct 2015

For a country that prides itself on the classical liberal ideal of individualism, the United States is sure indebted to France. Not that being indebted to any one country takes away from a sense of identity, but as for those of us who are Americans, I think we know full well the constant rhetoric about how no place is like America because of some indomitable spirit that sets us apart, apparently, from everyone else. This is also the ego that makes the rest of the world hate us, but I digress. Even though our history is one that usually identifies a split with Great Britain as our starting point, we often forgot how much American independence was predicated on French support – financially, psychologically, diplomatically, and perhaps most important, militarily.

Yet, in a country with so many places of French etymology—Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Champaign, Illinois; Bel Air, California; etc. – we remain largely unaware of our debt to France and the interweaving of its history with ours. I lived in West Lafayette, Indiana for almost five years and never really stopped to think about the origin of the town’s name; I was too busy getting hammered at Harry’s Chocolate Shop (look it up). After reading Sarah Vowell’s new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, it dawned on me, just as it did during her research, that everyone has a “go-to Lafayette-labelled noun”, but few of us every stop to thinking about it.

Part travelogue, part historical narrative, and every bit a statement on post-Obama politics, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an interesting work that serves multiple purposes. On one level, it’s an excellent introduction to early American history, which brings forth a better understanding of Lafayette and the contemporaries we know and love – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams. However, its main contribution, as I see it, is highlighting lesser known figures and events including John Dickinson, the 1824 presidential election, the Olive Branch Petition, the Homespun Movement, Admiral de Grasse, the plight of American POWs during the Revolutionary War, the Fabian Strategy, and General Nathaniel Greene, aka “The Fighting Quaker”. I have taught American history and government at the college level since 2003 and learned so many things, from this book, for the first time.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is also a sharp addition to the canon of American political science work that has bemoaned one major question since Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes wrote about it in 1960’s The American Voter; why do American voters know so little about their government? Vowell asks a serious question, ironically prompted by her discussion with some Quakers in the Brandywine Valley: if there is so much writing on violence, particularly its use in American history, why do Americans know so little about not only war history, but history in the first place?

Still, on another level, Vowell has attempted to do what she does best: explore American history with one foot firmly in the land of humor. With references to Bruce Springsteen, Internet trolls, Matthew Broderick, the George Foreman Grill, Rob Lowe, and her ever-present nephew, Owen, as well as Teddy Newton’s amazing illustrations (I actually laughed out loud when I saw his drawing of Benjamin Franklin), Lafayette in the Somewhat United States does the unthinkable and makes a book at American-French relations … funny. Sacré bleu!

Vowell, who rose to fame as a contributor editor for WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life, attempts to extend her magic touch to the story of the Marquis de Lafayette, possibly the most influential Frenchman ever in the history of the United States. How did a 19-year-old French aristocrat from a military family manage to escape his wife, family, king and government, in order to join the colonists in their war against Britain? More importantly, how did this teenager become a general, distinguish himself in combat, become an ally for the rest of his life, and eventually, the “best friend America ever had”? How, indeed.

However, it would be unfair to pair Vowell with that other media commentator turned American history author, Bill O’Reilly, whose recent works on Lincoln and Kennedy—Killing Lincoln (2011) and Killing Kennedy (2012), naturally—attempt to churn old ground on the two most famous presidential assassinations in an effort to get American people interested in history again. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, on the other hand, is every bit a book of well-researched scholarship, as it is a cathartic missive for Vowell to ponder curious parallels between current and past American political and historical development. I counted 83 citations in the bibliography, and it’s obvious to me that the author spent as much time reading the personal letters of a number of figures of the Revolutionary War era, as she did historical works.

At the beginning, this book reminded me of an extended episode of Drunk History (Comedy Central), but the content changed and became somehow stuck between satire and history; it’s as if Vowell was unsure of how serious she was supposed to be. Her style is to interpolate facts with witty, sometimes deadpanned comments, and while it works overall, it also gives Lafayette in the Somewhat United States an exasperating feel. Yet such a criticism has been leveled previously against Vowell, who has made a recent career of writing similar examinations of American history that combine the serious with the silly, e.g., 2005’s Assassination Vacation, 2008’s The Wordy Shipmates, and 2011’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

For example, she begins the book with this question: “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” But the American obsession with taxation doesn’t appear again until page 155, when Vowell manages to connect the lack of food and infrastructure for Washington’s troops to the current mismanagement of the Veteran’s Administration and asks, “Is it just me, or does this foible hark back to the root of the revolution itself? Which is to say, a hypersensitivity about taxes—and honest disagreements over how they’re levied, how they’re calculated, how that money is spent, and by whom.”

On the next page, she describes this as “our centuries-old, all-American inability to get our shit together.” She’s not wrong, but this example is but one of many times when Vowell starts a topic, and then quickly changes gears.

What of the namesake himself? Since I knew so little of Lafayette before reading this work, and now feel like I have a greater understanding of 18th and 19th century American history, I can hardly fault the author’s sincere and cogent effort at educating the public. From another perspective, however, there were times when I found myself scribbling in the margin, “What happened to Lafayette?”

Vowell doesn’t reveal the reason she wrote this book until almost the end, when she mentions, almost in passing, that she was initially motivated by Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida who introduced a bill in 2003 to move American remains from French cemeteries back to the US because France was “a country that has turned its back on the United States.” Later, while visiting Herman Melville’s home in Massachusetts, Vowell says she was looking at an exhibit and saw an 1824 dress worn by the future Elizabeth Knapp Shaw Melville when she was presented to Lafayette during his victory lap. According to Vowell, this started her thinking that “Americans had forgotten France’s help in our war for independence in general and the national obsession with Lafayette in particular.”

The problem is that many Americans, and not just politicians like Brown-Waite, are so caught up in this out-of-control jingoism, that we pretend to care about being American without accepting what that entails. For Vowell, it’s the telling and retelling of tales about how a poorly-fed and clothed, motley group of people, barely American, were, despite all odds, able to use “DIY Yankee pluck” to defeat an enemy that did not want to let us go, but worse, believed that we would not be able to survive without their help.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States shows us that it was more than just one man who was able to enthusiastically support a vision of a free United States. It took a friendly European power (with an agenda of their own). Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette is the author’s conclusion, where she beautifully recounts the many instances where Lafayette was paid the highest panegyric praise including an almost tear-inducing account of Colonel Charles E. Stanton standing before Lafayette’s tomb on the Fourth of July, 1917, in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, and telling the crowd,

America has joined forces with the Allied Powers … and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here”

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

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