‘Somewhat United’ Brings Lafayette Down From His Pedestal

Be careful about calling Sarah Vowell’s latest a history book. The term fits in the broadest sense, sure — but for many, that phrase may also drum up visions of appendices and ponderous chapter titles, obscure maps and pop quizzes. Knee-deep as it may be in the history of the American Revolution, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States doesn’t look or act much like its textbook brethren.

Gilded with snark, buoyant on charm, Vowell’s brand of history categorically refuses to take itself — or any of its subjects — too seriously.

That’s not to say her subjects aren’t serious. Here she dives into the tale of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who, as a glory-hungry teen, crossed an ocean to join a revolution in a land he’d never before visited. Braving danger, befriending George Washington and taking bullet wounds on behalf of the rebellious colonists, Lafayette earned more than a generalship in the newborn Continental Army. He became America’s “best friend” — and, little did he know, fodder for street names and city parks across the U.S.

Given how painfully august Lafayette and the American founders have gotten centuries later — cast as they are in marble and framed on our currency — it’s awfully refreshing to see Vowell bring our founders down from their lofty pedestals. In her telling, they’re just men again, not the gods we’ve long since made of them.


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