Sarah Vowell has been a favorite of mine for a few years, ever since I read The Wordy Shipmates. If I could stomach NPR, I probably would have known of her sooner. Sarah Vowell does for American history what I aspire to do when I write about literature on this blog, which is to say that she irreverently reveres it. I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s an honest statement of what she does – and I can’t get enough of it.
This book begins with the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1824 tour of the United States, about 45 years after he helped the colonies win their independence. Vowell reports that Lafayette was in the country for 13 months and attended a formal celebration in his honor every single night of his trip. Her point is that a general affection of Lafayette is one of the few things this ornery country of ours has ever managed to agree on. Vowell’s narrative quickly moves back in time to the early days of the American Revolution, when Lafayette was a nineteen year-old orphaned French aristocrat looking for something to do, and Benjamin Franklin was in Paris, desperate to drum up support among the French for the pending Revolution. The reason Franklin thought this strategy would work – and the reason that it did work – is that France had recently lost the Seven Years’ War to England and was happy to join forces against England in another war. Vowell traces a hilarious-if-tangential subplot involving a French playwright named Beaumarchais who came up with a scheme to launder money through a fake corporation called Rodrigue Hortalez & Company, financed by the kings of both France and Spain (Vowell makes a great to-do in this book – probably correctly – about the fact that both King Louis XVI and Lafayette were extremely young when they were making decisions about their roles in the American Revolution; she cites the currently-trendy research that says the brain doesn’t achieve adult cognition until around age 25 – a theory that explains much of world history).
Anyway, there was corruption and deception and taxation without representation, and the next thing we know Lafayette is in North America – against the direct orders of his king – and is at work ingratiating himself into the good favor of George Washington. Vowell is fairly hilarious on this subject, emphasizing Washington’s famously stoic demeanor and calling Lafayette “puppyish” in his affections toward the commander in chief. She also quotes from Lafayette’s effusive letters; for example, after waking up in South Carolina the morning after his ship arrived in North America: “The next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me, the room, the bed draped in mosquito curtains, the black servants who came to me quietly to ask my commands, the strange new beauty of the landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant vegetation – all combined to produce a magical effect” (73). Vowell’s commentary: “In other words, it was a buggy swamp chock-full of slaves.”
This is what Sarah Vowell does so well. The very attention to detail she pays to history indicates her respect for the people and places of the past, yet her willingness to puncture holes in history’s perception of itself reminds us that history is deeply flawed and should be viewed (and revered) with skepticism.
Another of Vowell’s signature moves is to visit tourist sites related to the historical events or persons she is writing about. In this book she visits an emphatically anti-war Quaker-run reenactment of the Battle of Brandywine Creek, which includes a puppet show about Lafayette, and elsewhere she reports that the actors who play historical figures at Colonial Williamsburg were not the “cheerful butter churners” she dreaded but actual angry, abrasive pretend-Revolutionaries – a fact I wish I had known when I lived on the east coast (I never went to see any reenactments; I was worried about the butter churners too). While nothing in this book lives up to the weird tourist attractions of Assassination Vacation – like the William McKinley-themed totem pole in Alaska – Vowell is up to her usual tricks in pointing out not just the absurdities of history but also – or especially – our own absurdities as we commemorate and reshape history. And she finds these absurdities not only at tourist traps but in primary-source documents as well. In her discussion of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, she quotes General Knox’s letter home, in which he told his wife that Washington intended to deprive the British of the usual dignities associated with surrender. The rules of European warfare in the 18th century included the practice of “allowing” a surrendering army to play an anthem or song associated with the victorious army as a “tribute” to the victor after a well-fought campaign. “They will have the same honors [i.e. no honors] as the garrison of Charleston,” Knox wrote. “That is, they will not be permitted to unfurl their colors, or to play Yankee Doodle” (252). Vowell writes, “It’s hard to believe that the redcoats not being allowed to play a song with the word ‘macaroni’ in it was, in the context of eighteenth-century European military culture, a bone-deep snub. But from what I can tell, it was met with the same combination of revulsion and indignation I once saw on the face of a Japanese tour guide when I accidentally walked on a tatami mat without taking off my shoes” (252).
There is something very “Panglossian” about Lafayette – presumably because he was of exactly the right demographic to have read Candide and taken it at least somewhat seriously. I’m assuming that Candide is the chicken and Lafayette the egg (confusing metaphor intended), but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Voltaire wrote Candide partially as a commentary of what young European aristocrats were like when they traipsed around the world ignorant of just how much long-term damage they were doing to the world. In this book as well as in her other works, Vowell’s humor always has a dark side. She’s always aware that for every aristocrat sashaying around looking for glory, hundreds of ordinary people (slaves very much included) were schlepping around their majesties’ wardrobes and gnawing at their leftovers.
I enjoyed this book and recommend it, but I don’t think it’s Vowell’s best. If you are new to Vowell, I suggest that you start with The Wordy Shipmates or Assassination Vacation. These kept me laughing aloud more than Lafayette did, though this most recent book has its moments. Assassination Vacation has the advantage of sidestepping Vowell’s usual allergy to chapters by being divided into three sections: one on Lincoln, one on Garfield (whom she calls “Loner McBookworm”; I’m still laughing three or so years after I read it), and one on McKinley. Her other books are set up as long rambles, with sections set aside with occasional page breaks, but no chapters. This is my least favorite thing about Vowell’s work.
If you enjoy history – or if you think you might enjoy it more than you usually do in pre-digested, comic form – I recommend Vowell’s work highly. Vowell’s slant is egalitarian and liberal, and she always has at least as much to say about the present as about the past. She’s the David Sedaris of American history, and I recommend her work highly.