|Author Nathaniel Philbrick.|
The American Revolution never really goes out of style as a subject for works of both fiction and popular nonfiction, but its popularity does move in cycles, based on either external events or the emergence of especially popular dramatizations of particular episodes from its history. One example of the former came with the rise of the Tea Party early in President Obama’s administration, which sparked an ongoing debate over what the legacy of the Founding Fathers (and the slaves, women, and members of the lower classes whom their prominence tends to obscure) means for the United States today. More recently, the smash Broadway hit Hamilton has offered a new perspective on those same individuals, adding some nuance in its depiction of their sometimes petty infighting and frequent hypocrisy on matters of race.
Nathaniel Philbrick has been one of the best chroniclers of colonial and early American history, including the Revolution. His Bunker Hill (Penguin, 2013) was a thrilling exploration of a series of episodes from the Revolution’s early days that had formerly seemed overfamiliar to anyone with even a passing interesting in the birth of the republic. Philbrick combines a talent for developing a strong narrative drive and well-defined sense of character with respect for the meticulous work of historiographical research. The end result was a book that was both a compelling read and a sharp reappraisal of some of the founding myths to which Americans cling. For instance, his account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord revealed that, far from a glorious victory that showcased the natural skill of plain American militiamen, it was a much more confused and ugly affair in which the Minutemen as often as not came off as inexperienced and woefully inadequate. Philbrick hardly needed to make clear that such an unpalatable truth stood as a contradiction to a certain political orientation’s tendency to see the gun-toting common (white) man as the origin, backbone, and last sure defense of American liberties. Philbrick’s new book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Penguin, 2016) tries to do some similar myth-busting, but it’s marred by odd narrative choices and a rushed, truncated conclusion. As the title suggests, Philbrick frames the book as a sort of double biography of Washington and Arnold during a particular period of the war, starting in the summer of 1776 and ending soon after Arnold’s spectacular betrayal of the Patriot cause in 1780. It’s often a thrilling read: one of the late chapters features a detailed account of the attempts made by John Andre, the British officer who was one of Arnold’s contacts, to escape Patriot territory and make it to British-occupied New York City. A last-minute error led to the revelation of Arnold’s treachery and hairsbreadth escape to British lines, while Andre was ultimately executed.