'Lafayette in the Somewhat United States' brings the French founding father to life

Sarah Vowell trains her irreverent historical imagination on the revolutionary ally who made the American Revolution a global struggle.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States By Sarah Vowell Riverhead Books 288 pp.

We Americans tip our hats to Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, commonly known as Gilbert, more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette: a teenage French aristo who worked pro bono for the American revolutionary undertaking, Enlightenment notions swimming in his head, gratified to give counsel, willing to take a bullet, and bringing a measure of brio and dash to a rough and homely rebellion; looking danger in the eye and regarding himself in the mirror, and liking what he saw.

Sarah Vowell isn’t here to shatter this image, or necessarily praise the man, in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. She shapes him as her research and freethinking, freewheeling, brassy braininess tells her to shape him. Critics of her pert, sui generis style of history telling purse their lips and tut-tut: too indie, too alt-vibe, too uppity. Well yeah! Or, rather, duh! And keen as a knife while being highly entertaining, too.

Lafayette gets plenty of page space: his family could trace their warrior heritage and manly military glory back to the Crusades; he was a graceless rube on the dance floor at Versailles; he purchased a cinnamon plantation in French Guiana to emancipate its slaves; he sailed to America to repair the affronts of the last wars with the English; he left a pregnant wife behind in France; he was a “single-minded suck-up,” which “made him a first-rate advocate for his men” (Vowell can be quite direct) – the good and bad that add up to a character. But to call this book a biography, even just a slice of Lafayette’s life, feels confining. Vowell is a restless thinker and roamer who likes to connect dots, even if they are miles and years apart; Vowell is as much a believer in “spooky action at a distance” as Niels Bohr.

Entanglement History. Even when her depiction of an episode winds up looking like a drawing by Cy Twombly, it illuminates: “I tend to incorporate found objects into my books.... I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past – the traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bits and bobs I learn form looking out the bus windows or chatting up the people I bump into on the road.”

Bricolage History. Vowell’s method brings the genius loci into focus, local color as a wormhole into the past, the curiosities of circumstance that allows us, for instance, to understand Quakers taking up arms, or to become bewitched by a historical reenactor: “Watching her is so mesmerizing and oddly sacred that it never occurs to me to interrupt her and ask her name or how she got into the yarn-winding reenactment biz, maybe because she isn’t recreating; she is creating.” Vowell is in the moment, and so are we. This is an intimate, idiosyncratic form of history that wakens and realizes our relatedness to events – the degrees of separation between then and now are not great (Kevin Bacon history), just follow Vowell’s dots or your own – while delivering a whopping canvas as choreographed as a graphic novel.

It is not so much who Lafayette was as what he ignites – in the writer as well as in the reader – that animates this book. He sparks thoughts on just how strange bedfellows the French monarchy and republican rebels actually made. “Les insurgents,as the French referred to the Americans, wanted what all self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists want; to become state-sponsored terrorists.” (Vowell wields a sharp stick, and her preferred target is the eye.) The rebels need the French navy and French francs, and if the French monarchy had to tax French subjects – and speaking of taxation, Vowell finds an unimpeachable connection between “governmental ineptitude, shortsightedness, stinginess, corruption, and neglect,” then and now, with our national “hypersensitivity about taxes – and honest disagreements over how they are levied, how they are calculated, how that money is spent, and by whom” – or, to pull out the sharp stick, “our centuries-old, all-American inability to get our shit together.” It is amazing the number of times you can poke a pair of eyes.

But the flintiness that served the Revolutionary foot soldier through his deprivation took its place aside another national trait that Lafayette admired: boycotts as an expression of self-reliance. To every act of Parliament, there was a boycott. The Homespun Movement “was an extensive effort by American women to abstain from purchasing fabrics imported from Britain.” Vowell writes. “The movement culminated in the moral, political, and sartorial victory of the brown homespun wool suit George Washington wore to his first inauguration.... It came to signify an earthy, self-reliant, utterly American way of life,” the virtues of the natural man with which Jean-Jacques Rousseau had beguiled the French and many other Europeans who migrated to the (internationalist) cause: Thomas Paine; Frederick Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben; Thaddeus Kosciuszko; Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. The tone of this passage displays Vowell’s appealing unpredictability: she can romance history as easily as lay on the sass.

Then there is the sustaining, mutual-admiration society of Washington and Lafayette. “Lafayette wrote to Washington from Boston Harbor, ‘Here I am, my dear general ... in the midst of the joy I feel in finding myself again one of your loving soldiers.’ According to Lafayette, upon the news of his return, Washington’s ‘eyes filled with tears of joy.’ ” There is a great deal of this, from both men, almost to the point of treacle, until it is remembered that while the cynic’s self-interest had its part, it also true that each man had the other’s back, and each helped fulfill the other’s needs and wants.

Vowell brings a learned, wiseacre hand to this work, full of its own brio and dash, and with that legerdemain that finds you embracing history – first in sympathy, then empathy, and on to identification.

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