Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

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Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana in the 1980s and ’90s, civic pride did not come easy. Teachers and textbooks didn’t tell us much about our town’s namesake. He was definitely French and… a general, maybe? My generation mindlessly parroted our town’s feel-good motto, “I Believe in Lafayette,” a slogan designed to combat a sunken economy and shrinking populace with a positive attitude. Despite, or perhaps because of, the catchphrase’s ubiquity—bumper stickers, t-shirts, and a jingle-laden commercial that interrupted my afternoon cartoons—it was often parodied as I Be Leaving Laugh-at-it.

If I had made the same joke two centuries earlier, at home or most anywhere in this country, I might have been tarred and feathered for dishonoring an American icon. As Sarah Vowell argues in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, the Marquis de Lafayette—Revolutionary War hero, sometimes sidekick to George Washington, and last living general of the Continental Army—was not quite a founding father, but he should be considered, at the very least, a founding brother from another mother.

Lafayette managed to surmount what Vowell thinks is the “quintessential experience of living in the United States”: the constant fear that the nation’s polarized politics and often incompatible ideologies will cause everything to, in her words, “fall apart.” But Lafayette was a “rare object of agreement,” an outsider who could actually unite the United States.

Born in France in 1757, the future General, née Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, was born to a pastoral but privileged life. He grew up among herds of cattle in the rural Auvergne region, even though he was related to the line of King Louis XIV on his mother’s side. Following her death, he was, at the age of twelve, France’s wealthiest orphan. Schooled in military matters and the finer arts at Versailles, he danced so poorly that Marie Antoinette laughed him from her polished ballroom floors.

It’s details like these, minor moments that make up a larger-than-life life, that we’ve come to expect from Vowell’s periodic dives into American history, along with her mix of attempted humor (Versailles is “gilded nonsense and silken flimflam”), contemporary connections that devolve into feeble non sequiturs (just try to make sense out of her linking George Washington, Bruce Willis, and the role of each in French politics), and, for some odd reason, the omission of chapter breaks (Why, Sarah? Why!).

After a brief waltz across the dance floors of the Sun King’s palace, Vowell’s narrative follows Lafayette at war. At the age of nineteen, without even notifying his pregnant wife, he absconded for the nascent United States, where the Revolution had entered its second, bloodier decade. The young Frenchman was enamored with the promise of independence—“I gave my heart to the Americans,” he wrote in his memoirs—but was just as likely out for revenge. A British cannonball killed his father during the Seven Years’ War, when Lafayette was just two years old. The Marquis’s first taste of war, fighting alongside Washington at the Battle of Brandywine, would see the Brits draw blood again. “The English honoured me with a musket ball,” he wrote his wife about a leg wound that kept him from the battlefield for two months.”

Discovering Lafayette’s prose is one of the small joys of Vowell’s book. Looking back on his refusal to obey the his king’s command to return home posthaste, Lafayette wrote, “I did not hesitate to be disagreeable to preserve my independence.” Sometimes he had the precocious tinge of a teenage romantic lost in a violent world. “The sea is so melancholy,” he wrote his wife while crossing the Atlantic, “that we mutually, I believe, sadden each other.”

Unfortunately, Vowell loses her moorings in the complexities of the seemingly ceaseless Revolutionary War. Lafayette pops up at Valley Forge and Yorktown, but disappears for what feels like long swaths of the book, as the author pushes numerous American, British, and French chess pieces across continents, battlefields, and staterooms. It all comes off as quite a slog. Perhaps Vowell might have taken a closer look at Lafayette’s 1824 return to America, an event that begins this book, and, she writes, initially piqued her interest. That visit, a thirteen-month victory lap that wound through every state, united a nation in the throes of a presidential election that still ranks as one of its most divisive. When Lafayette landed on Staten Island on August 15, 80,000 admirers—two-thirds of the New York City’s population—greeted him at the harbor’s docks. The Beatles, Vowell notes, could only turn out 4,000 fans when they arrived in 1964.

The best parts of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States are the narrative junctures when Vowell does what she does best: injects herself into the confines of history to make the past her own (see: Assassination Vacation and her many contributions to This American Life). She takes in a Lafayette-themed puppet show at Brandywine. Stops at Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home in Freehold, near where Washington and Lafayette won a morale victory at the Battle of Monmouth. At Colonial Williamsburg she interviews the seasoned re-enactor Mark Schneider, a U.S. Army veteran who richly recounts the challenges of representing Lafayette throughout the anti-French “freedom fry” era.

“Nowadays, Lafayette is a place, not a person,” Vowell writes in the book’s final pages. Towns named Lafayette, Fayette, or Fayetteville dot more than half the states in the union, making for some troublesome Google mapping, especially in Wisconsin, where there are three different Lafayettes, in addition to the community of Fayette.

On a recent trip to my hometown, I couldn’t find anyone who could say much about the forgotten Frenchman. But I did take a drive around the newish Parc Lafayette, which, according to its website, “combines upscale shopping, dining, lodging, and entertainment” into a “luxury and lifestyle” center. It’s nothing more than a deluxe strip mall, reminiscent of Versailles’s “nonsense and flimflam,” except for the bronze statue of Lafayette that stands guard at the plaza’s entrance. Astride a horse and with sword drawn, the statue cuts a ludicrously anomalous picture with the boutiques in the background. Here, finally, I recognized our Lafayette. “Hero of the American Revolution and Defender of Liberty,” as the inscription on the monument’s pedestal reads, a warrior and patriot, an icon safeguarding the very heart of America itself: the shopping mall.

Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. His first book, Imagining the Creole City, a literary history of New Orleans, is out now. The One True Barbecue, a personal/historical reflection on race, labor, and foodways in the modern South, is out in the Spring of 2016 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. More from this author →