These ‘Somewhat United States’
Public radio commentator Sarah Vowell discusses her new book in Santa Monica on Tuesday
By Bliss Bowen
If mainstream news accounts of Congress’ tragicomic efforts to nominate a new Speaker of the House and (imagine!) actually legislate read like mislabeled issues of The Onion, rest assured it has always been thus. Or so author and public radio commentator Sarah Vowell posits in her new book, “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.” She buttresses that contention with abundant examples of political chicanery during the American Revolution.
Too bad Vowell doesn’t write classroom textbooks, because she makes history alive in the present. History is, essentially, the stories of our lives — just documented, bound together and framed with big-picture analysis. Vowell gets that, and feasts on details usually tucked into footnotes.
Take, for instance, the more than 12,000 Americans who perished of disease and malnutrition in “diabolical [British] prison ships in which skeletal POWs resorted to eating the lice off their skin once they ran out of rats.” Or the Conway cabal, an unsuccessful attempt by some 18th-century congressmen and military officers to oust General George Washington. Or the aborted attempt to open the First Continental Congress with a prayer because, according to future President John Adams, the Anabaptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Quakers in attendance were “so divided in religious sentiments” that they couldn’t even join
in “the same act of worship.” Sound familiar?
Marquis de Lafayette himself is a footnote to many, despite being a central player who rubbed shoulders with beloved icons like Washington and Ben Franklin. The French nobleman was still a teenager when he pledged his service and connections to America’s rebel cause, a fact Vowell notes with savage wit: “The newly dubbed General Lafayette was only 19 years old. Considering Independence Hall was also where the founders calculated that a slave equals three-fifths of a person and cooked up an electoral college that lets Florida and Ohio pick our presidents, making an adolescent who barely spoke English a major general at the age I got hired to run the cash register at a Portland pizza joint was not the worst decision ever made there.”
So why a book about the centuries-dead French aristocrat?
In truth, it isn’t about him — not exactly — although Vowell provides vivid descriptions of his family and travels. Lafayette is simultaneously a symbol and handy guide, a reminder of aspects of American character we often forget. His name remains ubiquitous across America, affixed to towns, roads, schools, a bridge across the Mississippi and, most significantly, Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., the site of many history-changing protests that Vowell enumerates in illuminating detail. Yet time fogs our collective memory: “One day in 1824 two-thirds of the population of New York City was lining up to wave hello to Lafayette … 19 decades go by and all that’s left of his memory is the name of a Cajun college town.”
Vowell’s myth-busting irreverence makes the book an easy read: “Thanks to Lafayette and his cohorts in Washington’s army, plus the king of France and his navy, not to mention the founding dreamers who clearly did not think through what happens every time one citizen’s pursuit of happiness infuriates his neighbors, getting on each other’s nerves is our right.”
She spares neither colonial soldiers (undisciplined “anti-monarchist punks”) nor the Founding Fathers: “While sticklers about taxation with representation in general, [they] were magnanimously open-minded about the French crown overtaxing French subjects to pay for the French navy to cross the Atlantic to lend a hand.” The Declaration of Independence was a document for the ages, but “Jefferson’s pretty phrases were incomplete without the punctuation of French gunpowder,” she writes.
One of the book’s most valuable aspects is its delineation of just how much France sacrificed for the cause of American independence — “one billion livres” and its own stability, as the subsequent drain on French coffers expedited the arrival of the bloody French Revolution in 1789.
Vowell travels to France as well as Revolutionary War sites, where she discusses principles and history with participants in battle re-enactments. She also shares a thought-provoking exchange with Quakers who believe most Americans “understand our history as war.” Vowell, instead, sees American history as a “history of argument.”
Throughout, she cross-references the Enlightenment and the myth of Molly Pitcher with Ted Cruz, Bridgegate, Bruce Springsteen and contemporary pop culture. Always she circles back to the 18th-century “world war” known as the American Revolution and why its landmarks matter now.
“It’s possible that the origin of what kept our forefathers from feeding the troops at Valley Forge is the same flaw that keeps the federal government from making sure a vet with renal failure can get a checkup, and that impedes my teacher friend’s local government from keeping her in chalk, and that causes a decrepit, 93-year-old exploding water main to spit eight million gallons of water down Sunset Boulevard during one of the worst droughts in California history. Is it just me, or does this foible hark back to the root of revolution itself?”
Sarah Vowell signs and discusses “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, at Diesel Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Info: (310) 576-9960, facebook.com/SarahJaneVowell, dieselbookstore.com.