LaFayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
This book is an extended biographical essay recounting the life and times of LaFayette, the young (19!) French aristocrat who crossed the Atlantic to fight for American independence. This somewhat strange young man not only fought and led troops, his presence surely influenced French opinion and policy, helping to cement the desperately needed financial and military support against England.
Lafayette’s story inevitably crosses paths with all the leading lights of the American war, including George Washington and his generals, and many of the important politicians. His own letters reveal a romantic enthusiasm for the American cause that truly was authentic.
One of Vowell’s themes is how disunited the United States were during the revolution, and ever since. For this purpose, Lafayette’s deep devotion to the cause stands out as a clear contrast. If all Americans were as selfless and couragesous as this French teenager, the war and aftermath would have gone much differently.
She offers a rounded picture of Lafayette (and others), recalling his young wife, left pregnant in France while he chases his dreams of glory. We also understand the somewhat shaky relations between America and France. After the American victory (made possible by French naval and land forces), Lafayette returned home, and soon was involved in the French revolution. This did not turn out as well as the American Revolution, and Lafayette soon was exiled to Austria to avoid the Guillotine.
Vowell tells us of Lafayette’s return visit to the US in 1824. He was met with overwhelming enthusiasm, which she says is larger than Beetle mania or other more recent popular crazes. He represented the best of the American revolution, as the young country began to move into post-Revolutionary leaders and culture.
And, of course, when American troops arrived in France in 1917, they marched to Lafayette’s gravesite and famously declared, “Lafayette, we are here.”
Vowell tells Lafayette’s story with a mixture archival history from his letters and other contemporary sources, discussions with historians, and anecdotes from her travels to historic homes, monuments, and battlefields. This is pretty peculiar way to do “history”.
Actually, she comments it the book that she considers herself “historian adjacent”, and explains her approach:
“Having studied art history, as opposed to political history, I tend to incorporate found objects into my books. Just as Pablo Picasso glued a fragment of furniture onto the canvas of Still Life with Chair Caning, I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past—traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bits and pieces I learn from looking out bus windows or from chatting up the people I bump into on the road.” (p. 113)
This, then, is Vowell’s signature style, and I guess you either like it or you don’t. I like it, at least every so often.
Vowell is also author of Unfamiliar Fishes (2011) (about American settlers in Hawaii), which I liked, as well as other eccentric books on American History.
- Vowell, Sarah, LaFayette in the Somewhat United States, New York, Riverhead Books, 2015.
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