On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been 30 years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000. Lafayette's arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history. Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted the country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.
I do have one sort-of complaint, which is something I've noticed in all of Vowell's historical books: She tends to jump around a lot, going off on digressions, skipping over some events, and alluding to others out of chronological order. I've discovered that if I have a decent basic grounding in the subject she's talking about, I find this charming and pleasant, but if I don't, it can become a little difficult to follow. And, unfortunately, my entire previous knowledge of Lafayette, courtesy of aforementioned crappy high school history classes, can be summed up as, "He was some French guy who helped out in the Revolutionary War, and I guess he must have been useful somehow." Poor Lafayette. Sarah Vowell has convinced me he deserves better.
Rating: I debated over the rating for this, due to the sometimes-I-didn't-follow-it-so-well thing. But then I asked myself, would I recommend this book to someone interested in the subject matter? And the answer is yes. Yes, I certainly would. So I'm being very slightly generous and giving it a 4/5.
Lafayette was still a teenager when he left his young bride behind and snuck out of France to join the American Revolution against the wishes of his family, but he ended up becoming such a key figure in the winning of the war that cities all over the country are named for him. Vowell has a special knack for revealing the personalities of the many historical figures she writes about, their foibles, revealing quirks, and strengths. Since Lafayette had a close relationship with George Washington he features prominently in the book and I really appreciated getting a clearer picture of the man behind the myth. Vowell even manages to make battles and military strategy interesting, in part by keeping her focus on the people involved, and in part by not overlooking the missteps or ironies of the situations.
Vowell finds plenty of opportunities to relate the struggles of the Revolutionary period to American politics today, pointing out that many current ideological divisions and tendencies have an origin, or at least an analog, dating back to the founding of the country. The book also covers the aftereffects of the Revolutionary War in France and Britain, and the America of 1824, which was when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson competed in a notorious presidential election and the then elderly Lafayette made a return trip to the country that was still so besotted with him that two thirds of the population of New York City welcomed him ashore. While researching the book Vowell visited historic sites in America and France and she takes readers along on those trips too, giving us her impressions of tourist destinations like Williamsburg and Valley Forge while relating what happened there in the past.
In this book Vowell manages the neat trick of being both funny and stirring. She clearly loves history, and she makes it very easy to join her in that passion.
I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.
"What the French took from the Americans was their theory of revolution, not government. Their cutting, not their sewing."
"Jacob Ritter was so appalled by the day's patriotic gore that he had an epiphany... It says something about the ugliness of Sept 11, 1777 that this boy woke up a Lutheran and went to bed a Quaker."
I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about the young man who willingly (and very eagerly) left his wife and child behind to fight a war for another country's independence. I was a little surprised when I started reading to find that Vowell's book was not so much a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, but an examination of the American Revolution as a whole. This is the first book by Vowell that I've ever read, and it took me a while to get used to her time-jumping, sarcastic style (which was not unwelcome, just unexpected). By the end of the book, I felt like I got a good feel for the major players in the Revolution, but not as complete a picture of Lafayette as I wanted. The last few pages on the statue of Lafayette in the park across from the White House, however, gave me all kinds of patriotic feels, so the impact that he made on our country (though many have forgotten it) can still be felt.
The universal admiration is contrasted to the "Somewhat United States" where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today's political discord is just par for the course.
The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen's childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew. Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.
This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America's cultural consciousness.
Not only do I love her life, I love her style--observant, sarcastic, and insightful--all delivered with a healthy dose of humor. This is the third Sarah Vowell book that I've read and each of them has presented a story that I thought I knew--or should have known--in way that proved I only knew the bullet points or in same cases the myth.
In the case of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell takes on the part of the French in the Revolutionary War through the life of its most famous character, General Lafayette. It's hard to even write that term "General" because the dude was only 19-years-old when he received that rank. Apparently, all that fighting the French and English had been doing for centuries and the personal toll it took on Lafayette (his father was killed in battle early in Lafayette's life) made Frenchmen in general and Lafayette in particular much better at the art of war than the typical America. So the young commission.
He proved himself a loyal and able leader and endeared himself to the Americans so that when he returned to the United States nearly 30 years after the end of the war and after having endured a harrowing time back home during the French Revolution, he was met with hugs by the Founding Fathers.
So I knew that the French backed us during the Revolution and I knew that Lafayette was one of them, but I really didn't understand how decisive the French help was. Without them there wouldn't have been us. Vowell does a really good job of showing the reader that as she takes us from walks through the mansions of pre-revolutionary France to tours of US battlefields to an interview with George Washington in Colonial Williamsburg. I learned a lot.
All that being said, as much as I liked unlearning all that stuff I thought I knew before, I missed the funny Sarah. There were a few places in this book where I guffawed, but mostly she seemed more ticked off than in her other books. I'm not sure if that's a sign of the times, the subject matter at hand, or maybe she was being funny and I was just too much of a stick in the mud to recognize it. They ARE the Founding Fathers, don't you know?
Anyway, the more serious tone is not enough to keep me from recommending this book - it's good! - but if you've never read Sarah Vowell before start with something else, like Unfamiliar Fishes or Assassination Vacation.
This is a much-forgotten aspect when it comes to writing about history by historians. Historians seem to believe that you can write "history," or you can write for the general market. This short-changes both audiences.
It's not enough to simplify history in order to make it seem more exciting — this is the pseudo-argument at the heart of every high school history textbook I've ever read, that to include all the conflicting and somewhat contrasting evidence would be "confusing" and therefore boring. To their minds, we must all think that George Washington had his cherry tree, never told a lie and ascended to Mount Olympus when his time on this earth was complete.
Vowell and her ilk show us the flaws in the marble busts that so often serve as our only reminders of our leaders. The titular Lafayette should be considered as one of the great heroes of the American Revolution ... but only because he was spoiling for war, and at times probably endangered his troops in his lust for military honors.
But that makes him more interesting, not less. He's a whole human being with conflicting ideas and wants. He's an actual person who made decisions (and mistakes!), rather than a mythical figure who felled giants and battled trolls with immaculately coiffed wigs.
reader: the author and several actors for all quotes
format: Overdrive digital audio, 8:07
read: Feb 3-13
Vowell is the snarky, entertaining, historian with the funny voice. She is also sharp and thorough, although there isn't really all that much to dig up on Lafayette. The French Lafayette is an obscure hero with a somewhat recognizable name. He played a critical role in the American Revolutionary War/War of Independence, but did not do anything we can specifically point to as heroic and helpful. I suspect we tend to know him, but only as some French helper to George Washington in some possibly important but poorly defined way.
Vowell also doesn't do straight narratives. She does walk us through the war, but with many references out of sequence and many side-tracks along the way, and often having little or nothing to do with our subject at hand.
I'll give this one kudos for being short, entertaining, and informative. It was well worth my time and something of a medicine to current events. I always find this revolutionary era inspiring, irregardless of the baggage I carry when I approach it.
The real Lafayette was quite something, a spoiled orphan with an astonishingly charming, pure, and faux-humble personality. He was a French noble of a military family who came to the not-yet-independent-or-united states at the age of 19 to fight the British, and avenge his father's death. A surprisingly fine and suicidal youth, he would spend several years in the American Revolutionary War/War of Independence, becoming more prominent, taking George Washington as something of a surrogate father. He played a very large role in helping to motivate the French government to provide critical and, for them, self-destructive support of the America states. He matured in America. His biggest military accomplish appears to have been his decision not to attack Yorktown - long story there, but he chose to wait, sacrifice his own glory, save a lot of causalities, further endanger a French fleet (who, because of this, fought a little known battle - the Battle of Capes, that saved the states...really), and let the Yorktown advantage play out, ending the war. Lafayette was then 24, and a much more mature military leader. He still had a challenging life ahead. He would return to the now independent and united states in 1824, himself and his family having survived imprisonment and likely execution during the French Revolution. He toured the country, a universal hero celebrated by all Americans.
Lafayette, a descendent of Christian warriors stretching back to the Crusade, cheerfully belly flopped into the bloodbath.
And later, on his farewell tour of the US, it's easy to imagine him in a sort of Dickensian popular tour. Because this is a book about how Vowell feels about things she reads and places she goes and What History Means to Me, there is no pretense of reporting, no effort to be fairhanded. There is humor; there's snark: especially every time he manages to impregnate his wife before running off for several more years. It all works because it makes us think about what history means to us, and some of it is funny and some of it is rage-inducing, and all the best bits were never included in our text books.
Sarah has successfully moved from entertaining essayist to skilled researcher. And, in the process, she still keeps that adjective “entertaining.” This is an entertaining and information-filled discussion of the American Revolution, the role of France and Lafayette, and just how dysfunctional this country has been since the very beginning.
The framework around this piece is the story of the Marquis of Lafayette. If you didn’t know, Lafayette is one of the heroes of our (that is, the United States) independence. And one of the points of this book is that, while Lafayette was held in high status for a very long time (look at the things and people – including my maternal grandfather – named after Lafayette), his fame has diminished over time.
But that is just a framework. While there is extensive and interesting information on Lafayette, we also learn about the role the American Revolution played in France’s revolution, the incompetence of the Continental Congress in running a war, the details of the Battle of Yorktown and how close that came to coming out differently, the support the colonies had back in British Parliament, how a ragtag band of misfits, yokels, and farmers were turned into a real fighting force…288 pages, and all this plus more is discussed in pretty good detail.
Now, I’m not going to say this is a historical treatise worthy of a reviewed journal. But it is well researched and tells the story in an entertaining way that kept me reading.
For some, I am sure Sarah Vowell’s approach becomes bothersome and irritating. The sudden juxtapositions of her approach to research and personal incidents may not sit well with some readers. But that is just a part of what attracts me to her writing. She can be knee-deep in a real, historical discussion, and then she suddenly thrusts the real world (her real world) in there. It makes it more entertaining, and it makes it more…real.
This is a worthy addition to the Sarah Vowel canon and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys her writing, is interested in history, or wants to learn much more about the American Revolution.
I did sometimes wish for more straightforward biographical information on Lafayette -- but any good non-fiction book should leave you wanting to learn more, right? And this book made me want to learn more about Lafayette, Washington, and the general course of the war. It's becoming increasingly clear that most of my Revolutionary knowledge is about the statesmen and the causes -- very little about the war itself.
A fascinating read.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version. I enjoy Vowell's voice; an NPR alumnae, she may be an acquired taste, but I find that her own reading is the best interpretation of her wry wit. The real treat is the impressive cast of readers who portray the historical figures, including Nick Offerman as George Washington, John Hodgman as John Adams, John Slattery as the Marquis de Lafayette, and Patton Oswalt as Thomas Jefferson, among others. Highly recommended -- especially the audio edition!
Granted, it's been years since I've studied or even though of the American Revolution, but I don't remember hearing much about Lafayette at al and he was an integral part of the war. In fact, if asked before listening to this book, I would have assumed Lafayette was historically tied to New Orleans instead of the American Revolution. Nor would I have said that the French were most responsible for winning the war than our underfunded, underfed, and almost naked Army and militia. But, that's just like America: we think of our past only as it gives us pleasure, and we only ever take pleasure in our role as the Hero. And, that is what I like the best about Vowell's work, and recommend it to anyone: she highlights forgotten parts of our history in such a unique and interesting way, her lessons stay with you forever, and she isn't afraid to point out our excessive pride and our faulty historical memory. If you're looking for jingoism, Vowell isn't the amateur historian for you.
As far as the narration goes, I thought I would enjoy Vowell's take on her own work more than I did. I'd probably steer anyone interested in her work to pick up the book instead.