Saturday, September 3, 2016

Popular History: Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition

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.

Despite the inherently interesting subject matter and his obvious skill in telling a story, Philbrick’s choice to frame it as a comparison of Washington and Arnold never really coheres. It begins and ends so abruptly that it seems as though it’s the middle volume of a longer trilogy on the Revolution. Furthermore, while Philbrick’s portrayal of Washington as a more hot-tempered and headstrong individual than the rational, lofty figure of national myth is welcome, it dilutes the impact of his analysis of Arnold, who is the truly fascinating figure in this story. Arnold has become the archtetypal villain in most histories of the Revolution, occupying a menacing secondary role that sets off the heroism of Washington & company. By contrast, Philbrick’s Arnold is a flawed but sympathetic figure, making tremendous sacrifices for the American cause and brilliantly fighting against overwhelming odds until, physically crippled and woefully underappreciated, he begins to find his patriotic fervor curdling into resentment and duplicity. The one benefit of Philbrick’s strategy of yoking Washington and Arnold’s stories together is that it allows him to emphasize that Arnold’s disgruntlement was by no means unique. Officers and soldiers from Washington on down to the lowliest private often felt abandoned by Congress and those who stayed home from the war, and their simmering discontent frequently threatened to boil over into outright mutiny.

Philbrick’s examination of the dark side of the Revolution is only one example of his continued propensity for myth-busting; his decidedly ambivalent portrayal of John Andre, for instance, stands in stark contrast to a historiographical tradition that has painted him as a tragic victim, sacrificed in place of the nefarious Arnold. This willingness to adopt a more balanced perspective is crucial, since most dramatizations of the Revolution, such as Mel Gibson’s dire 2000 The Patriot, peddle the celebratory narrative that’s common in both American political discourse and traditional histories of the period. As the recent movie version of his In the Heart of the Sea demonstrates, Philbrick has a talent for creating compelling narratives that preserve the complexities of his subject matter, an approach that would be welcome in any future depictions of the Revolution on stage or screen. Still, I found myself wishing that Philbrick had provided more context for both Arnold’s early life and the ugly aftermath of his betrayal. Doing so might have rounded out his depiction of the Revolution as a far uglier affair than the glorious, relatively uncomplicated story peddled by traditional historians.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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