Calling Sarah Vowell a historian doesn’t seem right. She certainly deserves the title, considering her ability to write beautifully about history and, as the lengthly bibliography at the end of Lafayette In The Somewhat United States proves, research the hell out of her subject. Maybe it’s just hard to picture David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin, say, waxing poetic about a visit to Bruce Springsteen’s house or providing a heartbreakingly funny mid-book interlude about the Quaker community’s complicated history with the Revolutionary War. Sarah Vowell’s books always, to their great benefit, have heavy doses of Sarah Vowell, a talented and opinionated writer in love with America’s weird, messy backstory.
This time around, Vowell writes about the American Revolution through the eyes of the Marquis De Lafayette, a teenage French aristocrat who volunteers to help the American cause against the British, leaving behind a wife expecting their first child. Like Vowell, he loves America’s plucky spirit and dedication to liberty; unlike Vowell, his romanticized vision of the country is naive and starry-eyed. Vowell deftly uses Lafayette—who pals up with George Washington and becomes a surprisingly adept major general with the Continental Army—as an audience surrogate. With Lafayette, we get a tour of battles at White Plains and Brandywine (where our hero suffers a gunshot wound to the leg) and an account of Yorktown, the final battle in the war.
Vowell’s account is typically acerbic and enthusiastic. “I see [American history] as a history of argument,” she writes, “a daily docket of estrangement and tiffs—big and grand like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, big and stupid like the impeachment of President Clinton, or small and civil like what is happening at this moment with these strangers in these pews.” The strangers are Quakers who have shown up to protest a reenactment of Brandywine, a battle that took place on Quaker land in Pennsylvania. (“Unleashing a killing spree on Quaker property is a bit of a faux pas,” notes Vowell, “a little like moseying into a Hindu temple with a wad of raw hamburger.”) This is the most affecting scene in the book, as it calls into question not only the role of war in American culture but also the role of war books, of which one of the Quakers says there are far too many. Vowell, unsurprisingly, comes down on the side of books, writing that there can never be too many (“and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates”), but the fact that the argument is given a fair shake, and a hefty bit of real estate, is admirable.
In fact, Lafayette In The Somewhat United States could use more of these tangents. Vowell is especially skilled at making detours seem natural and relevant, including in this case a swing by the boyhood home of Bruce Springsteen, which was in the neighborhood of a battle site and, hey, a historical landmark in its own right (plus, she adds, one of the Boss’s relatives was a Revolutionary soldier). The book is a little short on Vowell’s singular voice, and the lovably childish Lafayette could likewise use more appearances. Vowell clearly loves her subject, despite his faults (at one point, she describes his American sojourn as “disobeying orders from the king and abandoning a pregnant girl for an entirely optional adventure”), and he often seems like more of a Zelig than a main character.
These faults, however, are minor compared to the book’s intoxicating blend of humor and emotional weight. Vowell closes Lafayette with a stirring montage of scenes from Lafayette Park, a patch of grass that has seen protests by anti-war demonstrators, white supremacists, Students For A Free Tibet, Tea Party members, and homelessness awareness advocates. She gives the book’s last words to Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright, a member of the National Women’s Party, an organization that used the space to picket Woodrow Wilson for women’s suffrage. Her group had been mocked, beaten, and jailed in inhumane conditions, and it’s to Lafayette’s statue that Wainwright spoke, one day in 1918, seeking inspiration from his ragtag underdogs. It’s a supremely moving moment, and one that is typical of a writer equally attuned to history and its implications for all of us.