Reviewer John J. Hohn:
John is a frequent contributor to web sites dedicated to writing and
publishing. Raised in Yankton, SD, he graduated with a degree in
English from St. John’s University (MN) in 1961. He is the father
of four sons and a daughter and a stepfather to a son. He and his
wife divide their time each year between Southport and West
Jefferson, NC. To learn more about John FOLLOW HERE
Author: Donald Miller
Readers can be forgiven for thinking that the book, Lafayette: His Extraordinary Life and Legacy by Donald Miller, is essentially a biography of a man who was a force in the American and French revolutions. It isn’t. Author Donald Miller takes a much broader approach. He has written a history. In fact, the book may fail because the focus is only incidentally on Lafayette.
Miller makes it clear that Lafayette seeks glory in battle in the colonies and in his efforts to bring equality to the French peasantry. Unlike most of his political adversaries, however, the young Frenchman does not seek power. Americans have honored the Lafayette for his contribution to the Revolutionary War. He figured prominently in bringing the French help to Washington. He was a young man of only twenty at the time and independently wealthy. He comes to regard Washington as surrogate father. Miller’s account of Lafayette’s accomplishments in colonial America meanders, so much so that the praise Lafayette enjoys for his battlefield leadership hardly seems deserved. The young nobleman’s achievements get lost in all the detail. Lafayette’s involvement comes to an early end in the book as the battle of Yorktown is reported early – before the book really gets under way.
When Lafayette returns to his native country of France, he takes his zeal for equality and democracy with him. The monarchy under Louis XVI is tottering. The story of the French revolution is easily among the most exciting chapters in European history, one full of drama. Lafayette had a major role to play. Jefferson is France during the earlier stages of the discontent. Lafayette corresponds with Washington. The correspondence quoted frequently in the book is one of its strongest features. Lafayette was very active in seeking to prevent violence in the streets, working for compromise in the creation of a new order, and providing for a smooth transition from an autocratic, if self-indulgent, monarchy into a democratic regime with a king as head of state. The king, if anything, is far more compliant than despotic. The political cross-currents are dizzying during this time, but author Miller does little to assist the reader in understanding the scope and depth of the upheaval. A thoughtful summary at points here and there to highlight what is important and downplay the incidentals would be very helpful. Miller provides never any orientation or overviews.
The author’s description of prerevolutionary Versailles is memorable. The description of the hardships of Valley Forge is also moving. His reporting on the hall of The Bastille is myth shattering. But beyond that, Miller’s composition turns into a chronological presentation of encyclopedic proportions. Biography is the art of telling a life story. The facts of Lafayette’s life are imbedded, sometimes almost as an afterthought, in the text. Readers certainly know what Lafayette does. What is missing, however, is the presentation of the man as a multi-dimensional human being with doubts, fears, passion and commitment. Lafayette is given barely more attention than several other political and military figures of the era. Miller reduces a crisis of epic proportion into a smothering litany of facts. Drama, so much a part of all that takes place, is utterly lacking. There is no suspense. No tension.
Up for show, however, is unbelievably detailed research, right down to the names of minor characters in the streets of Paris, how they are dressed, who is related to whom, who holds what position, etc. Details do not make a story, however. They do not engage. The near breathless pace at which the historical trivia is presented is exhausting. No theme emerges in the middle of all the verbiage that goes deeper and enlightens the reader about the character of the age and the soul of a man who was born into it. Miller never ventures beyond the facts. He knows what happened. The trouble is he never demonstrates that he understands why events unfold as they do.
The book may be very valuable to serious historians as a reference work. Otherwise, it is a chore to read.