In today’s unrelenting 24/7 news cycle of domestic political squabbling, international insurgencies and terrorism, and crushing economic conditions, it’s easy for most Americans to lament the early 21st-century as a period where the world has simply lost its collective mind. Taking a step back a couple hundred years to the late 18th-century in Sarah Vowell’s wildly entertaining Lafayette In The Somewhat United States, readers are easily transported to a period where the citizens of Europe and the American Colonies could have easily drawn the same conclusion in an era where broadsheets stood in for the Drudge Report, Politico, CNN and Fox News.
NPR, Daily Show and history nerd darling Vowell has made a career mining US history for the formative stories and personalities which have shaped us into the frustrating and wonderful mess we Americans are today. In her previous works, Presidential assassinations, dogmatic religious zeal, patriotism, colonizing of native peoples and other complicated parts of our centuries of experience have all been covered through travelogues and overviews of writings which all contribute to our American experience through the modern day. It is only fitting then that Vowell has eventually arrived at the very origin story of the United States with the period of the American War of Independence. As always though, Vowell has chosen to come at this era through the not-so-likely lens of an enlightened and angry fatherless teenage French aristocratic immigrant who is often ignored in most of our modern memory: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, or the Marquis de Lafayette.
Vowell’s book provides an overview of the period with Lafayette as its star and a supporting cast of European and American aristocrats, playwrights, arms dealers, politicians, farmers, artisans, militarists, merchants, wives and strivers of the idealistic and violent era. Lafayette is portrayed as a young guy of the Enlightenment seeking personal glory, riches and yes, some political change on a worldwide stage. From the letters, diary entries and articles of the day quoted heavily throughout the book, Lafayette and these other folks are largely represented from their educated, wealthy one-percenter status which allowed them to reshape history. Although gunpowder and battlefields loom large in the story, Vowell shows it was in lavish dinner party conversations, drunken alehouse arguments and heady congressional debates where the real work of Revolution got done.
Vowell’s journey takes her to out-of-the-way field trips in Europe, oddball artifacts displayed under glass and Revolution-era National Park Service sites stateside. In this she also brings her book, as she does in all her work, into the present during the government shutdown of said National Park Service sites in our modern political era of dysfunction. Like all good history, Vowell’s connection between past and present paints the picture of how our hundreds of years of squabbling and infighting sits at the American core. This is ground Vowell has covered in all her books, showing what a mess we are, how we never really learn our lesson and that we always manage to survive and get things done. Depending on your leanings and perspective, this might be a comfort or a challenge to your own experience.
That a bunch of talc-wigged guys (and women) would grow a cohort of “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” warring against the British monarchy into “state sponsored terrorists” backed by the French monarchy is a truly weird American story. By the time we get to the Battle of Yorktown, the War of Independence is effectively won by Lafayette, Rochambeau and their French forces, cementing the remarkable patriotic American tale into world history largely with a French accent. Lafayette In The Somewhat United States is also a tale perfect for Sarah Vowell’s smart voice.