Sarah Vowell has written that her life’s work is “to talk to my country about what my country is like.” This is not the same as telling her country its history, although the two often overlap. As an essayist, author, and frequent contributor to This American Life, Vowell has mined American history for surprising and amusing insights into the heart of the nation. Her latest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, centers on the Marquis de Lafayette and the American Revolution he (and his country) made possible.
I was really curious about the scene in the Quaker meetinghouse. You stop by on your way to the re-enactment of the Battle of Brandywine and you find a group of Quakers waiting for people like you. One of them says, “It’s an opportunity to say that war is not the only solution.”
They were hanging around waiting to make people feel bad. Which is rude, but useful. They say they condemn me and my book because they think there are too many war books, that the whole history section of the bookstore is all war books, and Americans see their history as war. I didn’t necessarily agree with them, but they changed the way I was looking at my story a little bit.
I think it’s always worth questioning the glorification of violence. Especially in a war book, and especially about that war, because I think it’s the war that Americans think about the least critically and the most as a kind of hero worship and almost national religion.
Sometimes people think that veneration of the Founding Fathers and the American past is what patriotism is. As if to be patriotic is to celebrate and to worship.
But our founders were really crabby people who were angry a lot of the time. I find it weirdly reassuring to think about these founders not as this wise generation that went extinct. They had their moments, and they certainly could do a lot worse, but they weren’t perfect. Jefferson, who was probably the most brilliant one of them, was a terrible governor of Virginia. Like, he can’t figure out how to have Virginia get it together to supply the army that’s defending Virginia.
I think it’s good to think about these overachievers’ failures—their failures and their failings as men. That’s when I identify with them. I remember being in grade school and building Lincoln’s cabin out of toothpicks and drawing Washington with the cherry tree and all that, and it seemed no different than Sunday school. They were just as far away as Isaac and Jacob and Moses.
When there isn’t room for faults, in politics or honoring American history, the idea of feeling or being patriotic starts to seem naive, or it gets conflated with jingoism. Do you think of your work as patriotic? Is that a word that you identify with?
Maybe. I used to. There are certain things about this country that I’m pretty unapologetically gung-ho about, just because of my personal experience. My sister and my cousins and I, on our mom’s side, we’re the first generation who didn’t have to pick cotton. And I’m sitting here talking about my seventh book. It’s an amazing story that has to do with really simple things like public schools and land grand universities and Pell grants and student loans. There are certain things about this country that I do not take for granted. So in that sense I’m very patriotic, but I’m constantly going back and forth on it.
There are people who would think that a critical look at our history is anti-American or anti-patriotic. I think it connects back to the question of American exceptionalism, and not just whether we do good stuff but whether we’re special.
How could you not think you were special if you, with the help of the king of France, beat the British army? You’re just these little nothing colonists and you triumph over one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world. How could you not get a big head about that?
Do you think it’s justified for that big head to have lasted?
In some ways. There is something about that generation that is exceptional. Right now there’s a musical tearing up Broadway about Alexander Hamilton, who is maybe the least interesting of all of them, and it’s still the most captivating story on the Great White Way. This was the guy who became treasury secretary! There are a lot of incredibly brilliant, singular people all together, united, sort of, in kind of common cause. Of course that’s going to lead to pride. These are pretty remarkable, Earth-shaking events.
Have you seen Hamilton?
I loved it.
Your work and Hamilton both invite new audiences into history, whether it’s people who have felt excluded or disenfranchised or just not interested. Both also make room for nuance in a way that a lot of talk about American history and a lot of celebration doesn’t.
Well we’re talking near Union Square, and in the square there’s a statue of George Washington. It looks like the George Washington of yore, like the George Washington you drew pictures of in second grade. But it’s a statue of Washington on a particular day in New York City, which is the day that he rode into New York City at the end of the war, after the last of the British left, after the treaty was signed. And you think, Great! Good for Washington! But it kind of commemorates his failure to hold onto New York in the first place in 1776. His leadership of the New York campaign was a debacle that left New York City in the hands of the British for the next seven years. The whole war, Washington is obsessed with taking back New York because it is the greatest failure of his life. He’s obsessed with it in a kind of Captain Ahab way that is not healthy and not useful.
He only comes back to New York City after the French decide, No, George, we’re going down to Virginia to capture Cornwallis, and that’s what ends the war. What gets the British to surrender is the French denying Washington his dream. And he just has to suck it up and go along.
I don’t know that I would have focused on that if I was writing this 20 years ago, but as a middle-aged person, that is a very realistic situation. Where basically your greatest accomplishment is not the accomplishment you wanted. That dream never comes true. Ever. And there’s a statue of it.
The fact that our greatest national hero had to deal with that, and there’s no real closure, just him riding his horse silently into town after the diplomats have hammered out a deal in Paris? I love that story.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. Riverhead.