Sarah Vowell is to history books what the Freakonomics guys are to economics. She takes the tedious subject that bored so many in high school and enlivens it with humor, personality and enthusiasm. Her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, is equal parts travelogue, in-depth research and political ribbing. It focuses on French teenager the Marquis de Lafayette, who most of us know had a hand in the American War for Independence (even if we’re unsure of his actual contribution to the American path to victory).
Vowell’s thoughts are conveyed through laughter and levity, certainly, but there’s an intelligent passion which overrides the lightheartedness. She’s as good at giving facts as she is at making sure you’ll retain them by telling the story in the most fascinating way possible. Paste chatted with Vowell about what fuels her interest in American history, why she chose Lafayette as her star performer and how she didn’t lose her mind when she traveled to historical sites during the 2013 government shutdown.
Paste: You have a knack for writing about specialized historical topics which, unfortunately, get swept under the rug. Do you remember the first historical niche you got sucked into?
Vowell: That’s a sad story. Both my parents have ancestors on the Cherokee Trail of Tears, so I guess the first historical story I knew about was the government marching my ancestors at gunpoint to Oklahoma. That probably flavored and certainly fueled my interest in history, because it wasn’t something that happened to “other people.” We had to go to watch this pageant where the Trail of Tears was reenacted every summer when we were kids. [Laughs] It was very vivid.
I do remember, in second grade, learning about the lost colony of Roanoke. I was really upset, not about the colony, but about when the teacher said: “And we don’t know what happened to them.” I remember being livid. She tells us this story about these people and now we’ll never know what happened to them. I found that outrageous. I was a very curious kid, and usually there was a payoff. You learned what happened at the end of a story! [Laughs] That one really irked me. I still keep up with the archaeology of Roanoke to figure out what happened. So it’s a combination of family history and anger.
Paste: Why do you think so many of those stories gets forgotten when it comes to teaching history and schooling?
Vowell: “Forgotten” implies it was learned in the first place. My nephew is going to the high school I attended, and he’s not taking a history class right now, but I took history at that school. I was reasonably interested in it, but it was taught in a really bland fashion. Lots of daydreaming.
I was going with my mom to pick up my nephew from school the other day, and I remember sitting in American History. The teacher was standing at the blackboard with his back to the class, and one kid just got out from behind his desk and jumped out the window. We were on the first floor, luckily. [Laughs] The kid took off running. Some of that just comes from the way history is taught with textbooks instead of book books. Also, Americans in general are more future-oriented. There are some good things about that opposed to historically-minded cultures—like the Balkans or something. Remember those conflicts in the ‘90s where people were shooting at their neighbors based on something that’d happened 800 years earlier? There are some upsides to cultural amnesia, I guess.
Paste: How did you choose Lafayette as the subject of a whole book?
Vowell: Ignorance, I guess. [Laughs] I had written a short piece about him before about his return trip to America 50 years after the Revolution and how it was a party every night for 13 months. Two thirds of the population of New York City greeted his ship. All of America embraced him as one. That seems so exotic to write about this person Americans agreed on, be they northerners or southerners, conservatives or leftists. He was this exotic article of agreement. I thought that’d be a vacation from the rancor of current events. Then I started researching the war and all the founders doing this bickering, not getting along, holding up the progress of the war because they couldn’t get along. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much him—though he’s a charismatic, swashbuckling figure. It was more the affection the American people had for him that hooked me in the first place.
The other day, I was recording the audiobook. I have actors being the historical characters, and John Slattery is Lafayette. I was listening to Slattery recording Lafayette’s quotes. He does have a certain je ne sais quoi. As I was hearing all these quotes, I was thinking “someone should write a book about this guy.” [Layfayette] was so idealistic, effusive, affectionate and tempestuous. He was a teenager, so he has this youth to him. Jefferson called him “canine.” He was a real puppy dog figure. There’s so much panache there.
Paste: Were there any other historical figures of the period you found yourself gravitating towards? Favorites of the founders?
Vowell: It’s hard not to love Franklin. I guess Washington is the figure with second billing in the book. He and Lafayette were so close. Lafayette, being an orphan, really gravitated to Washington as a father figure. I write about that whole period where there’s a conspiracy against Washington among some of the other officers who want to fire him. Who can’t relate to worrying about getting fired? [Laughs] They were really kicking him while he was down. That was their job, to oversee the military, and he had some mishaps. But he’s going through this thing where these people who were his friends are trying to get rid of him. Meanwhile, he has a really hard job. He’s trying to lead an army that’s not wearing shoes. He’s so put upon and has so much perseverance.
Also, maybe because I’m a writer and have worked at home for two decades and really love that, Washington loved his home. He leaves Mount Vernon in 1775 and he doesn’t return until he’s passing his way through Yorktown in 1781. He doesn’t get home for six years, and he loves his home so much. Reading his letters, the way he’s dealing with the stress of leading this ragtag army is sending letters back home about what he wants done to his house. That’s what’s so great about him as a president. He took two terms instead of being president for life, because he loved being home and he loved where he lived. That’s one of the founding traditions of the American presidency. I really identified, not with his greatness, but him in the slog of war wanting to go back and paint his dining room.
Paste: Considering this book is partially dedicated to you visiting the historical sites of note, what was the planning process like for that? Were you doing all the traveling and then writing, or writing along the way?
Vowell: I usually do all the research first. Every book I write, I take on a new topic. The research is pretty intense. At some point, because I actually earn a living as a writer, I just research and research until the absolute last minute and then start writing, or else I’m not going to eat. It’s usually read, read, read, read, read and then I do the reporting and going to the sites. When I go to the sites, that sometimes sparks new queries. This one was interesting, because I was fortunate enough to plan my trips up and down the eastern seaboard to visit battlefields and whatnot associated with Lafayette during the 2013 government shutdown. That flavored the narrative. It’s hard to be totally starry eyed about Independence Hall and what was invented there when you can’t get into it for being a nonessential government service. All of that filtered into the book.
Paste: Early on in the book, you make an observation that the founders fought for a government that’d always be on the verge of collapse.
Vowell: Yes, it’s their fault. [Laughs] One of the most reassuring things that came out of this book for me is there’s so much handwringing about how divided of a country we are now, as if the word “now” puts the blame on us. Really, we were never coherent, and our government was designed to have a separation of powers. They were a separated people inventing a separated government. We are their descendants; we are them, they are us. In some ways, we should stop beating ourselves up about all this disagreement, because, ultimately, I think it’s a good thing.
It’s why I end my book at Lafayette Square across from the White House, where we get to protest. Having all these disagreements and arguments amongst our elected officials, though they can be inefficient, it’s better that we have a system where we’re are allowed to argue than one in which we don’t. Many of the people protesting in Lafayette Square are people who’d be arrested in their own countries for protesting their own governments, but they can do it here.
There’s this quote of Lafayette’s I bring up two or three times, and it comes from when he was back in France. His father-in-law wants him to get this really boring job at the French courts, and Lafayette wants to be a soldier like all his ancestors. He gets out of it by insulting the king’s brother. He says, “I did not hesitate to be disagreeable to preserve my independence.” Even though he’s just talking about getting out of a boring job, disagreeability is a hallmark of independence. Basically, I’ve decided our national inability to get our shit together is mostly, in the long run, a good thing. It’s just annoying day to day.