Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio is the third biography of Lafayette that I have read. This is a really good history book that is well written and researched. It contains much insightful analysis of its subject. Though the book falls a little short due to its brevity, I would recommend this as a first read over other the other works that I have read on the Marquis.

Auricchio’s book is less biased in favor its subject than Unger’s work. Though perhaps unfair to compare with Gaines’s work, not pairing Lafayette’s life with the more famous Washington has obvious advantages in a biography.

Having played an important role in the American Revolution and a key role in the French Revolution, Lafayette is a unique figure in history. He is a fascinating character for me. I summarized his life as part of my commentary on Unger’s book here.

One thing that distinguishes this as a very good history book is a combination of astute analysis and really good writing of the type not always found in works like this. This book could have been  longer. While certain aspects of Lafayette’s life are closely examined, other parts are presented in a way that seem a little rushed. Fortunately, as the book begins to describe the early days of the French Revolution, the pace slows down and the narrative begins to focus more tightly upon specific details. This is the period of the Marquis’s life that the author spends the greatest number of words exploring. Auricchio is at her best when describing and analyzing this period of Lafayette’s life.  In fact, the explanation of the early French Revolution’s events may be presented here in a clearer way than in any other history book that I have read.

Lafayette fascinates me, and I could talk about many points that are addressed in this book.  One of Auricchio’s main themes is an issue that is particularly interesting to me. It is based on a stereotype, but I think that this is a stereotype that is somewhat true. The issue centers on the opinion that Lafayette has remained so popular in the United States, both in the eyes of the public and by historians, yet at best, the French are lukewarm to him.

 The author writes,

In America, we remember his triumphs; in France, few outside of his native Auvergne see him as a hero. So little does France love Lafayette that the monumental Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, published by a leading team of French historians in 1988, states flatly that “the man has drawn few eulogies.”  

Auricchio tries to answer why this is so. She writes,

Part of the answer is that Lafayette succeeded so completely in cultivating an American identity that, even in France, he remains a distinctly American hero. 

Elsewhere the author comments,

Although Lafayette was an indefatigable champion of righteous causes, he did not always meet with success. During the French Revolution, he failed spectacularly.

Lafayette’s popularity in America dates back to his lifetime. When he returned to America in 1820 for a Grand Tour he was met by enormous and adoring crowds. Based on other readings that I have done, it might be argued that at that moment, he may have been the most popular person in an America.

Auricchio writes,

Why did the celebrations in honor of Lafayette loom so large in people’s minds? In part, the phenomenon reflected a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation for a man who had come to our nation’s aid at a moment of need and whose dramatic life story had unfolded in the pages of American newspapers, books, magazines, and prints for the better part of fifty years. Words of gratitude and admiration for the French hero of the American Revolution filled the songs and poems written in his honor.

I can attest to Lafayette’s popularity with Americans, at least those who are interested in the American and French Revolutions. I have been reading and discussing the American Revolutionary era since I was a teenager. We Americans tend to gush over Lafayette. Personally, though I recognize his flaws, I admire him more than I do most historical figures. The reasons for such esteem are numerous. He relentlessly strived, despite severe obstacles, for liberty in both America and France, he was an unwavering moderate, he was a never-say-die optimist, even under terribly adverse conditions, by all accounts he had a sunny, optimistic personality and, contrary to many of his cotemporaries, he was anti-slavery, to name some of his virtues.

There is a lot more on the subject of Lafayette’s dichotomy of popularity in America and France contained in this work. It is one of many reasons that this book is well worth reading.

Despite its relative brevity, this is a very good biography of an intriguing historical figure. The writing is well crafted and the book is engaging. Auricchio has a knack for explaining complex historical occurrences in an understandable way while not straying into the simplistic. This book will work for those who initially know little of Lafayette and his era as well as those who are already well versed on the subject and are looking for more.

I previously posted about Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger here, and For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines here .


JacquiWine said...

I don't tend to read many biographies, but I enjoyed your review of this one. Once again, I feel I've learnt one or two things just from your post. It's interesting to hear of the different perceptions of Lafayette in France and America and how he is viewed as a distinctly American hero.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks. The different perceptions are indeed interesting and help illustrate how history can be viewed in such different ways.

James said...

I love biographies of interesting men and Lafayette surely fits the bill. Your interest is understandable give his formative role in American history. This sounds like a fine short biography.
Given the unrest and divisions in France during his lifetime this also seems like a great way to gain perspective on their history.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - It is true that looking at the French Revolution from the perspective of Lafayette opens up new vistas.

He was indeed an interesting man.

Guy Savage said...

I think it's a good idea (if you're so inclined) to read multiple biographies for comparison. That said, I just finished an almost 1000 page book on Goebbels and I think the author has the final word on the subject.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - The multiple biography thing does work really well in terms of comprehensive understanding. It is of course time consuming.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on that Goebbels biography.

Lindsay said...

Great review of this one Brian, and I am another who doesn't read many biographies, though I would like to once my fiction pile is a bit smaller!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - I read a fair amount of history and as of late I seem to be focusing my history reading through these historical biographies.

If you are like me your fiction pile will never really get smaller :)

@parridhlantern said...

Haven't read a biography for a while, although recently have seen that John Lydon has a new one out & that has some appeal.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary- I have heard good things about the Lydon biography. That would very much appeal to me too.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Sounds like this is a good all-rounder in that it will work well for those with a little knowledge of the man'/the era whilst at the same time being a good introduction.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

I really should read some biographies. I can't remember when was the last time I did that. That's probably what I said about Shakespeare too. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy- This really is a great all purpose history of Lafeyette. I definitely recamend it for anyone who wants to know more about him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia- I think that there are many areas that we curious readers need to read more of. There really is too much to read and not enough time to do it in. We cannot get to everything!

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I almost missed your new post. (My blog roll is slow to update some of the Blogger blogs.) I have not yet read any biographies of Lafayette, "The Marquis". This biography does sound excellent, even though it is perhaps short. Wonderful review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for the good word.

I find that sometimes the blog readers miss things.

I would say that not too many people have read biographies of Lafayette. In terms of the American Founders he did have less of an impact as compared with the better known people.

Harvee said...

Sounds like a fascinating historical biography!


Book Dilettante

Sharon Wilfong said...

I had forgotten about Lafayette and the last review you had written of him. A good reminder that I need to read about him, although it sounds like perhaps this biography is not as thorough as the last one you wrote.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- if one is into this period, it is a fascinating book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- though this is less detailed then Unger's book, it is a better history as it is less biased.

JaneGS said...

Excellent book review, Brian. I am fascinated by Lafayette too, though I have yet to read a bio of him. This seems like a good place to start.

I find it so interesting that in France he is considered an American hero, but not in his own country.

Definitely going on the list--thanks for a thoughtful, though-provoking review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thanks for the good word. The entire American - French dichotomy of views is indeed fascinating. Of course his actions and their results were different in both nations.

I have heard it suggested that Lafayette's personality, extremely outgoing, emotional, and optimistic, appeals to the American psyche more.

Caroline said...

You make this sound really good. I like to start with a shorter biography and when I'm really interested I can always read more. I do tend to prefer biographies of artists though. Writers, painters and musicians and I'd really love to read a Freud biography but Lafayette - due to the French angle - would interest me.

Deb Atwood said...

What a thorough and thoughtful discussion of this biography! I can definitely see the value of reading scholarly biographies after the Selma film controversy. One wants to know the truth (or as close as anyone can come to it).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though nit the longest I do think that this is the best biography of Lafayette that is readily available in English. I would think that there may be some good ones in French out there.

I am fascinated by the American and French connection that Lafayette embodied. I would love to know what your thoughts are if you read this or any other Lafayette biography.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Deb - Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your kind words.

I really do read a lot of historical biographies. I find that it is a great way to absorb history.

So many books, so little time said...

Is it bad that I haven't heard of this? I do enjoy a biography now and again although it isn't my first choice of read. Sounds very interesting and one I may have to look out for. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and reviewing.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I would say that it is not bad at all that you have not heard of it.

I am really into The American Revolution so for me it is an important book. For the general reader I think that Lafeyette is of interest mostly because he provides a connection between the American and French Revolutions.

Heidi’sbooks said...

You're right--we Americans do tend to gush over Lafayette. My daughter does after reading all of her young adult nonfiction books about him. Plus, we saw the key to the Bastille that Lafayette sent to George Washington during the French Revolution. My daughter thought he was a hero. Indeed, I don't think I've ever read anything negative about him. This book sounds great.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I think that Lafayette's actions during the French Revolution were mostly noble too. They were however in the end, mostly ineffective.

The Key to the Bastille being in Mount Vernon is such an interesting historical tidbit.

Maria Behar said...

Excellent review as always, Brian! I love your objective, detailed analysis of a book, which always includes those nuances that are so important.

For instance, I had no idea that Lafayette was (and isn't) held in high esteem in France, in contrast to his popularity with Americans. Very interesting!

Alas, I am not exactly a history buff, as you are, so I don't know much about this great hero of the American and French Revolutions. Therefore, based on your enthusiastic endorsement of this short biography, especially for beginners, I will most likely begin my further acquaintance with Lafayette by delving into Auricchio's work.

Thanks for your interesting thoughts!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Ooooh, a typo! I meant to write, "....I had no idea that Lafayette WASN'T...."

(It was really my mischievous little BOT who typed in my comment, believe it or )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

As you know I make alot of typos :)

One of the reasons that Lafayette is such an interesting character to me is this contrasting way that we look at him.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

The Bookworm said...

Lafayette is not one I know much about, but this biography sounds interesting. You've got to love those 'never-say-die optimists' and how they altered history for the better. I always appreciate when the author does their research too. Glad you enjoyed it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Indeed Lafayette's optimism is one of the things that makes him so appealing. I find think some figures in history who exhibit such optimism do so because they never really encounter truly harrowing times, Lafayette maintained his attitude through some very dark days.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,

I'm not good at history and the French Revolution is a particularly complex period.

I can only confirm that to me, Lafayette is the one who went to America to help with their revolution.
That's what he's known for. I have absolutely no idea of how he behaved during the French Revolution and I don't recall hearing anything about him in history class.


PS: To other visitors who might read this: I'm French.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Your comment is so interesting and it fits with the points made.

I think that Lafeyette will likely always be mostly remembered for his actions in America.