A French nobleman is a window into the American Revolution.
The future Marquis de Lafayette was born in a medieval chateau and named Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier. He came from a long line of warriors with a knack for dying young in battle. Orphaned at 12, he was so rich and connected that he joined the royal guard at Versailles and danced with Marie Antoinette.
Then, at just 19, this consummate sang bleu fled his monarchial homeland (and his pregnant wife) to gain military glory while supporting the republican revolution in America. By the age of 24, he’d become a heralded general and a superstar in a land that has always viewed the French with suspicion.
The young marquis’s excellent adventure in America is the putative subject of Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.” In reality, the marquis is a vehicle for a romp through the Revolutionary War — the sort of literary stunt that few but Vowell would attempt and come close to pulling off.
Like other Vowell works, this one blends travel, comedy and a found-object approach to history. “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 bobs I learn from looking out bus windows or chatting up people I bump into on the road.”
This passage appears during a characteristic episode: Touring a Pennsylvania battlefield, Vowell ends up at a Quaker meetinghouse being lectured about the evils of war. Visiting Valley Forge, she tells us that a lieutenant was “court-martialed for sodomy” and literally drummed out of camp. Later we learn of a dinner George Washington served his French allies, who were appalled that meat, sides and salad arrived as one course, on the same plate. “Were these Americans people or animals?” Vowell writes, channeling Gallic disdain.
Vowell’s cheeky voice and quirky eye make this book a very brisk read — no mean feat, given that the war dragged on for eight years, across multiple theaters, with dozens of major players. Her comic darts also puncture much of the patriotic bunk surrounding that
era. Among those Vowell mocks is Thomas Jefferson, whom she portrays as penning lofty sentences as the British invade. “Basically, the governor of Virginia had thoughts on everything but how to arm and feed and reinforce the soldiers risking their lives to save his state.”
Vowell’s irreverence extends to her French protagonist, a headstrong, vainglorious youth with a fondness for flattery and self-drama. “Lafayette’s most annoying qualities,” Vowell writes, were “being a single-minded suck-up prone to histrionic correspondence.”
Yet he also showed great courage (he was wounded rushing into his first battle) and an exuberance and ardor for the cause that endeared him to Americans. He quickly became one of Washington’s closest and most loyal aides, and a surrogate son. The marquis hugged and kissed the normally aloof commander, wrote him gushy letters and named his own son Georges Washington Lafayette. The marquis became beloved of the public, too; when he returned as “the nation’s guest” in 1824, 80,000 New Yorkers — almost three-quarters of the city’s population — turned out to greet his ship.
Vowell writes that she was drawn to Lafayette upon learning how renowned he once was in America and how forgotten he’s become. She’s right; this unlikely French hero of our revolution merits much more attention. Unfortunately, the marquis also deserves better than Vowell’s ostensible tribute to him.
The problem with her pastiche technique is that the bits and bobs she collects are much stronger than the whole. The portrait of Lafayette is patchy and the book’s connective tissue thin. Vowell occasionally raises overarching themes, such as the cost of Americans’ “hypersensitivity about taxes,” from the revolution onward. But each time she touches a big idea, she quickly drops it to resume her romp, which is too often laden with off-putting slang and pop-culture references.
Lafayette’s deserted wife is “preggers” and “knocked-up.” The killing at one battle leads to hamburger cooked on “a George Foreman grill.” Bruce Willis, Mr. Bean, Elvis, Ferris Bueller and others make needless walk-ons. So do a gaggle of wisecracking friends and family who travel with Vowell. This forced humor is amplified by the book’s cartoon drawings of historical figures. It’s as if Vowell doesn’t trust her research and comic talent, or the intelligence of her readers, and feels she needs to dumb down her shtick.
More’s the pity, because when she hews to her historical knitting, she shows great talent for colorful and telling quotes and anecdotes. We learn, for instance, that the French called the British “roast beefs,” that European officers flooded America because they’d been “downsized after the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763,” and that, according to Jefferson, Lafayette’s “foible is a canine appetite for popularity.”
Vowell also offers keen insights about how we remember the French and the revolutionary era. Arms, money and men poured across the Atlantic, and French soldiers and sailors outnumbered Americans by about 4 to 1 at Yorktown, where Cornwallis’s surrender effectively ended the war. Yet we continue to celebrate July 4 as our revolution, while paying much less heed to the French-aided war that sealed the Declaration of Independence. “Jefferson’s pretty phrases were incomplete without the punctuation of French gunpowder,” Vowell writes.
She also notes the ironic fate of our allies. Royal aid to America drained France’s coffers and contributed to revolutionary fervor at home. Lafayette, a nobleman and moderate, was forced into exile and prison, while his in-laws went to the guillotine. And King Louis XVI belatedly realized that “the American affair” had been a mistake. “They took advantage of my youth, and today we are paying the price for it.” That price ultimately included his head.
So when July 4 rolls around, raise a beer or a hot dog to Lafayette and his countrymen, without whom we might have remained British subjects. Vive la France!
The Marquis de Lafayette with Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge, Pa., in an 1874 engraving.
A statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, once revered in America, stands across the street from the White House.
LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES