Another Vowell-ian romp through history, politics, and pop culture, this time revisiting the story of Lafayette, the French contributions to victory in the American Revolution, and his farewell tour through the United States in 1824.
Readers of Vowell’s previous books (Unfamiliar Fishes, 2011, etc.) will recognize yet another pleasantly snarky work that belongs on any shelf of first-rate satire. Her peripatetic research techniques remain: visit the sites, walk the ground, read the books, talk with relevant folks (here, she recounts her chat with a Lafayette impersonator at Williamsburg). Vowell also continually yanks us back to the present, commenting sharply on such things as our current political polarization. The “sweet-natured republic Lafayette foretold,” she writes, hasn’t exactly occurred. Vowell also uses slang and cliché as light artillery, deploying them so that shells explode expectedly. When she writes that Lafayette was trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube, we laugh as well as learn. Vowell takes some bayonet thrusts at religious fanatics, at the current American right, and at the brainless hatred of all things French during the Gulf War (despite the fact that the French saved us at Yorktown). Although she focuses principally on the war years, she does cover, lightly, Lafayette’s 1824 return—and (rare for her) misses an opportunity to mention that young Edgar Allan Poe, at 15 a member of the Morgan Riflemen, participated in the celebrations in Richmond. Several times, the author mentions the British spy Maj. John André but neglects to note his spectral appearances in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But she doesn’t miss much else. Vowell reminds us of George Washington’s early failures in the war (and of those in the government who wanted to replace him) and that there used to be an “Evacuation Day” in New York City to celebrate the departure of the British.
An enlightening and entertaining blend of history and edged attitude.