Art Beat: Does the French anthem dis an American hero?

Mike Dunham
British officers surrender to French and American leaders at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 19, 1781. France fielded the bulk of the military forces in the siege that marked the end of the Revolutionary War.

Happy Bastille Day to our French friends who today celebrate the storming of a royal prison in 1789 as the start of their revolution and the beginning of the end of dictatorship. Far away in Alaska, I like to dust off a recording of their rousing national anthem "La Marseillaise" and take a stab at translating the French lyrics as I sing along.

One line puzzled me until I looked into it recently. It comes in the fifth verse when, for the only time in the very, very long song, someone is mentioned by name: "Bouillé," whose accomplices are said to include bloodthirsty despots and tigers who do unspeakable things to mothers.

Who was this monster?

François Claude Amour, Marquis de Bouillé, attained opprobrium during the French Revolution for his part in the attempt by King Louis and Marie-Antoinette to escape from house arrest to the relative safety of territory that Bouillé controlled. The royals were caught and, soon enough, killed. Bouillé then worked with powers seeking to bring down the chaotic republic, earning him immortal contempt as France's Benedict Arnold in the lyrics that Frenchmen will sing -- or at least hear sung -- today.

Before the French Revolution, however, Bouillé played a notable role in the American Revolution. He was serving as governor of assorted islands in the West Indies when King Louis directed him to assist the embattled American colonists struggling for their freedom. An accomplished strategist, he led the planning and execution of a series of victories in which the French fleet based in the Caribbean inflicted a series of losses on the English.

The most notable loss came in September of 1781 when the French beat back the British Navy in the Battle of the Chesapeake, then formed the blockade that, on Oct. 19, forced Britain's Earl Cornwallis to capitulate to General Washington at Yorktown.

That's right, fellow Americans. WE are -- or were -- among Bouillé's bloodthirsty despot tiger accomplices.

Certainly Louis and Bouillé had their own agendas, and les citoyens have reason to be piqued at both of them. But without their assistance the American colonies likely would not have gained independence, certainly not at the time or in the way that it happened.

French fighting men appear to have outnumbered the forces of the colonial army at Yorktown.

Had Lord Cornwallis been resupplied, who knows how the tables might have turned, how history might have changed?

Think of the horrors. We could, a few years from now, be subjects of King Charles! There would be no federal government, no Washington, D.C.! Americans would have to learn English! (That's a joke, Yanks.)

Bouillé's career slumped after Yorktown. He attempted an invasion of Jamaica that was thwarted when a freak wind led the British to capture Comte de Grasse, the same naval commander who had successfully blockaded Yorktown the previous year.

Then peace broke out. Bouillé returned to France by way of Britain where he was warmly welcomed by his former foes for his compassionate treatment of civilian captives and prisoners of war.

It may seem odd to us that a leader could be considered a hero by both sides of a bitter conflict, but those were times when a man's deliberate deeds were held to be more important than his accidental nationality.

As the First Republic inexorably collapsed back into dictatorship Bouillé went into exile and settled in England, where he wrote his memoirs and died in 1800.

This benefactor of America is buried at St. Pancras Old Church in London.

Today let us toast Marquis de Bouillé with a glass of French wine and sing "La Marseillaise" with gusto -- but sans the verse that smears him.

It's not like anyone will miss it; there are seven official verses to the "Marseillaise" most of which get skipped most of the time. And there are about seven others that for one reason or another are already excised from the official version and could be pressed back into service.

I suggest substituting the unused stanza that starts "La France que l'Europe admire ..." and sings about liberty, equality and the extension of all good French things throughout the universe.


Good words for 'Snow Words'

Osman Akan's large glass and steel "Fragmenta" is the best-known piece of percent for art work at the new Alaska State Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage, but another work in the building just received a major award as one of the 50 best public art projects in 2013.

The selection of "Snow Words" by Cecil Balmond of England was made by the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for the Arts. The awards have been given annually since 2000, but this is the first time that a commission from the Alaska State Council on the Arts has been chosen.

The large, lit work features bars said to symbolize "forensic research, investigative tracts, relentless pursuit." The lights, controlled by a computer, change dimension and speed. It can be viewed in the lobby of the building, which is open to the public 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, except for state holidays.


What is plural for snowgo?

Seth Kantner's column presented a challenge for us this week when he referred to more than one snowgo, bushspeak for snowmobile. The style manuals oblige reporters to use "snowmobile" or "snowmachine" and avoid "snowgo" except in quotes. In an Around Alaska column, however, we expect a certain deferral to the usage of the region and Kantner has always gone with vernacular.

But turning one snowgo into two or more presented a problem. Should it be "snowgos" or "snowgo's" or "snowgoes"? General linguistic rules suggest the latter, but it's problematic in that "goes" is a verb and spliced into a noun makes me want to ask, "And where does the snow go to?"

We couldn't find a certain answer; the above forms have all popped up in the paper at different times.

For that matter, what's the right spelling for the singular: "snowgo," "snow go" or "snow-go"?

I like the usage of the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic; these are real Alaskans who really know their snowmachines. But the w-less spelling is also used for a range of commercial products from boots to ice cream shops to winter road-clearing equipment.

I'd appreciate hearing about this matter from fans of philology. Who knows? Maybe we'll get into the official AP Stylebook for Alaska.


Photographer ID'ed

The most fun story I got to write last week had to do with Anchorage septuagenarian Tom Choate becoming the oldest person ever to reach the summit of Mount McKinley. It ran in the paper on Wednesday with a photo attributed to the National Park Service. I have since learned that it was taken by ranger John Brueck and want to make sure he gets credit for it. And again, congratulations to Choate, who has proved that 78 is the new 40.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.