Review: Sarah Vowell Is Great -- But a Little Goes a Long Way

This review first appeared in The National Book Review

By Ann Fabian

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

By Sarah Vowell

Riverhead Books 288 pp.

Don't get me wrong. I like Sarah Vowell. But her new book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, is something of a puzzle. Vowell's funny. She's smart, quick, and clever. If you've heard her on "This American Life," you'll know she's a sound artist--working her antic way through the great collection of words left, boxed up, in history's archives.

Some days, I think of her as the dream student for all of us who've ever tried to wake up a class of sleepy teenagers by feeding them history's eye-opening stories. Vowell knows that just off the margins of dull textbook pages are cross-dressing spies, scheming playwrights, nervous generals, battle-hungry Frenchmen, doofusy politicians, lonely pregnant wives and chatty Puritans. She's developed her own take on history--a bit like a not-too "drunk history" with long riffs that can sometimes leave a reader reeling. Wait? How did this story of American Revolution just land us in the New Jersey living room where boy Bruce Springsteen watched Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show?

That's the fun of Vowell, of course. In its semi-sobriety, her Lafayette book sits grinning near the top of Amazon's titles in "Books> History>Americas>United States>Revolution & Founding." (I think of my historian friends, our books sad faced somewhere down around the one million mark.)

Would it be better to shelve her alongside our still-missed monologist Spalding Gray? Or next to Amy Poehler and Tina Fey? Or maybe to rethink what we mean by history and set her up with Ken Burns and thank them both for bringing the past into the 21st-century -- Burns, the master of the long-form visual sentimental; Vowell of the short-form, auditory ironic.

Here's what Vowell does. She turns the dusty chronicle of American history into a lively mash up and then, playing the history nerd, delivers her stories in her flat funny voice. Bold-faced names--George Washington, Cotton Mather, Anne Hutchinson, Ben Franklin, Herman Melville--wrestled down to our size by their foibles and tumbled through Vowell's signature free associations--part popular culture (Springsteen, Ferris Bueller on his day off, Dick Van Dyke tripping in his living room), part travel narrative (she's in Paris, Honolulu, Colonial Williamsburg, at a Boston burying ground, talking to a Park Ranger, a Revolutionary re-enactor, a librarian, an historian), part contemporary politics (why a dysfunctional Congress can't find a way to fix a crumbling infrastructure) and part family story (she's from Montana; Andrew Jackson sent her Cherokee ancestors down the Trail of Tears; she travels with her nephew Owen, who is usually good for a cynical teenager quip).

In the audio version, she delivers it all in a straight-faced monotone (if a radio voice can have a straight face). Culture, history, TV, music: it's all one story. No spike of intonation to set off the important parts. That's the democratic, patriotic, good-hearted, soul Vowell brings to the stories she tells. She takes us along on her trips to Paris and into the archives. Half serious, she pokes us awake. Don't mix up the Revolution and the Civil War. You need to know this stuff, you American people, because it tells us who we are--the good and the bad of our country. Cue her mentor the grey-bearded Walt Whitman, Vowell's ear, like Whitman's, tuned to America's great "barbaric yawp."

I'm all for the six or seven minute Vowell, which seems to be the right length for a yawp. But what happens when you sit down to read 250 pages of Vowell, all at a stretch? Not a performance but sentences and paragraphs, one after another, page after page, with just an occasional bit of extra white space.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is Vowell's seventh book, and the fourth to take one story as the big hook for her intellectual adventures. She's written about the annexation of Hawaii, presidential assassinations and, in Wordy Shipmates, the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That's her best book, I think. The black-clad New Englanders are Vowell's kin; like her, they're people trying to sort the world's mess into words. And like her, they're good at it.

Lafayette is a different kind of story. Vowell says she started to write about Lafayette, the Marquis who befriended America, when the country went into its anti-French snit during our invasion of Iraq.

Vowell begins her story in 1824, when the aging Lafayette returned to the ecstatic gratitude of American crowds. The people of the United States, their country still wet behind the ears, turned out in hordes to say thanks to their aging French friend. Lafayette named a son for his adopted American father--"George Washington Lafayette"--but we Americans put Lafayette all over our map. We named cities, towns, streets, colleges, and even a tree or two for the Frenchman. Vowell wants us to pay attention to the cheering crowds. For her, they're an expression of the collective good will that is United States at its best. We once agreed that Lafayette was great.

Lafayette was a 19-year-old aristocrat (very rich) who tossed aside wife and friends to cross a rough Atlantic to help the American revolutionaries. He defied his noble father-in-law, but fell in with George Washington, who embraced him as a son. Lafayette bothered Redcoats in New York, chased them through New Jersey and finally, with the help of the French Navy, cornered General Cornwallis at Yorktown and forced a British surrender.

Lafayette kept a diary and wrote lovely letters to his wife and to George Washington--just the stuff Vowell needs to spin her yarn--but Lafayette's story sprawls out of the web of words and pulls her into imperial politics, military finance. and the 18th century's mix of revolutionary idealism and horrifying violence.

For most of the book, Vowell has her eye on the big story of the American Revolution. Every stressed out high school student, worrying about a U.S. history exam, will be happy to have Vowell's amusing reminders of what happened in the 1770s. Why we had those bare-foot soldiers shivering at Valley Forge. Why we needed Ben Franklin to charm his way around Paris. And why the American drain on the French treasury might have helped fuel revolutionary violence on Paris streets.

I like to think that Vowell and all her A-list backers are working to make books hip again--just like the Brooklynites who've brought back radio, vinyl, and board games. I'm curious to know where Vowell's restless mind will land her next (Lewis and Clarke on the Columbia River? Ulysses Grant in Japan?), but at the risk of winding up on the wrong side of the likes of Jon Stewart and Nick Hornby, I want to offer her a bit of bookish advice.

Sarah, think about readers and not just your fans. Keep going to the archives, keep reading letters and diaries, keep traveling with growing nephew Owen, keep the mash up, but go back to the art of essay. Think of your radio engineer with her eye on the stopwatch. We'll be happy to have those stories you've squeezed tight for air space retooled to fit the page. Let a page limit give a rhythm to the drumbeat of your evenly inflected facts. You can sometimes drop the performer's mask. We readers will be happy to know why you think a skateboarder without a helmet is the best way to connect us to a French marquis who wants to come fight the American Revolution. In other words, let your writer's voice inflect your stories.

Ann Fabian teaches history at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. She has written about gamblers and skull collectors and is working on a new book about American naturalists.