In “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” Sarah Vowell revisits the life of the French aristocrat determined to fight side by side with the Americans against the British. Vowell appears Oct. 28 at the Neptune Theater in Seattle.
Americans like to poke at the French. Their short workweeks, their farmers who clog cities with tractor protests, their mandatory long vacations. That “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” line from “The Simpsons” pretty much sealed the deal: Modern Americans figure that France is just a bunch of underworked doormats who wouldn’t know a real conflict if they met one on the street.
But in the darkest hours of the American Revolution, a French nobleman who was, in Sarah Vowell’s unmistakable terminology, the world’s richest teenage orphan, came to our aid.
We learn all about this in “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States,” (Riverhead, 288 pp., $27.95), Vowell’s examination of the financial and military contribution to the colonists by the then-19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette. She does so not only via a thorough history of the Revolutionary War, but by retracing the route of Lafayette’s return to America in 1824. Things have changed since then.
The author of “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” will appear at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, at the Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $35 includes book (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.com).
Vowell was prompted to write the book in part by a 2003 bill in Congress aimed at financing the exhumation of U.S. war casualties buried in France. They should be buried here, “not in a country that has turned its back on the United States,” the bill’s sponsor said.
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Not long after, in one of those great author “aha” moments, Vowell visited the Massachusetts house where Herman Melville wrote “Moby-Dick.” She was touched to see that the family carefully saved the dress Mrs. Melville was wearing when she was presented to Lafayette in 1824 — at the age of 2. The keepsake symbolizes the young country’s fixation on the French aristocrat as well as how much we had forgotten.
How did we get to this point, forgetting that a French marquis won over “the stingiest, crankiest tax protesters in the history of the world”?
Vowell’s lively chronicle is punctuated with her usual blend of history, modern culture and geek-flavored sass. Not until Theodore Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1898 to fight in Cuba, Vowell writes, “would there be a rich man as weirdly rabid to join American forces in combat as Lafayette was.”
But the infant republic was not as united as Lafayette dreamed. When he arrived in Philadelphia, ready to pay for and fight a war, a congressman brusquely told him he hadn’t been invited. That was only the start. Congress was stingy with the army. John Adams was disgusted with Washington. Sam Adams was disgusted with Washington. Then there was a plot to fire Washington. States and counties duked it out over money and goods. And on it went.
By the end of the war, all Americans really had in common with one another was independence and the undying love of Lafayette. They knew it, too. When Lafayette returned, having barely escaped the French Revolution, two-thirds of the population of New York — 80,000 people — turned out to cheer him.
Vowell traces Lafayette’s first American steps as well as this return, cracking wise and wisely along the way about the revolutionary aims of the colonists and the bitter truth of a revolution, both at home and abroad.