Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Literally the Best Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States -- Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books
288 Pages

A lot of times I try to avoid history books as a means for review. I work with history all day, and sometimes I just need a break. However, when I saw this book on the “New Releases” shelves at the Lockport Library, I had to bring it home. Marquis de Lafayette plays a special part in Niagara County history. In his travels around the country 1824-1825, he visited Niagara Falls and Lockport. In fact, upon his visit, he declared, “I give you the county of Niagara -- the first in the wonders of nature, and the first in the wonders of art.”

So, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell came home with me for a visit. I was interested in learning more about the life of the French General, and if Lockport or Niagara Falls made even a brief cameo in the book. I’m always on the lookout for snippets of local glory. To my dismay, I was profoundly disappointed in this book.

Let me start off by stating that I abhor revisionist history. Attempting to put modern values and morals on people and events from things that happened over two centuries ago is dangerous and a disservice to those historical people. It robs them, and us, of an accurate understanding of why certain actions took place. This book is almost entirely taken out of context by thrusting modern civilities on the narratives.

Honestly, by page 9, I was ready to throw the book across the room, and on page 147, I actually slammed the book down on the table and uttered an invective of curse words. The amount of times that the author input herself into the story made this more of a blog and less than a book. I’m sorry to say, but your personal views on an historical subject belong in an introduction or an epilogue. There is no place for it in a supposed work of historical integrity. Like I said, this would have been a great blog. A book? Not so much.

Vowell’s various asides throughout the book, inputting her life experiences and expectations against the background of true, historical events, was not only offputting, it also took away from the life of Lafayette and his peers. Let me give you an example: On the aforesaid page 147, Vowell states that it’s easy to “roll your eyes...at Lafayette’s retro need for fame.” Of course it’s retro. It happened 240 years ago. Today’s expectation of men cannot define the men of the eighteenth century. This is only one example of the egregious revisionism rampant throughout this book.

So, after you’ve read this vitriol about this particular book, are there any redeeming qualities that can be applauded? Yes. Sarah Vowell would be an excellent blogger. There are no rules in blogging, and you can insert your own views in your blog. So, her eye-rolling, and mentioning how Lafayette had a military commission at the same age as she was first slinging pizzas would have a place. Unfortunately, as I have mentioned a couple times, it has no place in a history book. Still, beyond all the things that make me cringe as an historian, she writes well, and that would be a blog that I would subscribe to.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell disappointed me as a history book, especially since it barely qualified as a history book. I was hoping to learn more about Lafayette and less about Sarah Vowell’s personal history and political views. To be fair, she writes very well. It’s just not something I would have attempted to pass off as a history book.

Next Week: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance -- Jonathan Evison

Craig Bacon loves history. Especially local history. Occasionally he even writes a little about it.