LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES
by Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, NY, 2015 ISBN 9761594631740
How does an author focusing on her country’s history appeal to a twenty first century American society celebrated historian David McCullough has referred as being, “historically illiterate”?
Sarah Vowell has attracted legions of followers with her previous books and does it again in her latest work LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES, concocting an appealing blend of sardonic humor, a keen understanding of the human condition which consistently transcends many American generations, all the while demonstrating an impressive fundamental grasp of history and its many characters. These elements are at the heart of Vowell’s deceptively off-handed storytelling methods. Without question Vowell has done her homework: she “digs deep,” demonstrating a thorough understanding of historically-significant characters caught up in epic events. Vowell showcases perfectly recognizable human behavior traits and their interaction—successful or not—with the unpredictably quirky forces comprising history, leading us to again ponder the fundamental question of whether individuals make history or vice versa? The personalities of Lafayette, Franklin, Washington, and others come to life in ways not found in standard histories of the Revolutionary War period. Human foibles co-mingling with pivotal events engage readers as Vowell’s story briskly charges forward.
The framework of the book is set in the opening paragraph:
How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest
crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?
He trudged from Paris to Philadelphia, hung around
the building where they signed the Declaration of
Independence, and volunteered to work for free. The
Continental Congress had its doubts about saddling
George Washington with a teenaged aristocrat. But
Ben Franklin wrote them from Paris that the kid might
be of use, and, what the hell, the price was right.
We are immediately smiling. We are hooked, wanting to know more about the rich kid from France. The author has done her job. Through Vowell’s (what can said to be) comedic interpretation of very serious subject matter, you learn things you never thought you wanted or needed to know. Then you are glad you were enlightened. Even a sophomore in high school with an aversion to social studies might well take to Sarah Vowell’s way of sharing history, leading the student to tell others about the funny book she has just read.
That said, there is a downside to Sarah Vowell’s writing. Her style can wear a reader down, especially when you read three or four or five of her history books and the style does not evolve all that much. I sometimes find myself irritated by Powell’s persistently flippant attitude. Sentence after sentence is drenched in irony and/or hilarity, and while she is knowledgeable, sometimes she comes across as a show off. Vowell would probably be impossible to listen to at a cocktail party, for any length of time. In fairness, she does show gravitas describing thousands of American prisoners of war dying of starvation aboard British warships anchored in New York harbor, ultimately reduced to eating lice to survive. We need more of that to counterbalance the excessive levity in her writing. I guess I am a traditionalist of sorts.
In the end, Sarah Vowell makes no pretensions about who she is and what she wants to talk about and how she tells her stories. She is a well-known quantity among contemporary writers of history. She has a unique voice. I’m happy to revisit her books, knowing I have more serious history elsewhere on my bookshelf.