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'Our Evil Genius' : BENEDICT ARNOLD; Patriot and Traitor By Willard Sterne Randall (William Morrow: $25; 706 pp.; 1-577-10034-9)

September 09, 1990|Anthony Bailey | Many of Bailey's books are on Anglo-American subjects, including the recent novel "Major Andre" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). and

For readers who keep up with Revolutionary War studies, two questions are immediately posed by this book. At 706 pages plus index, what does it tell us about the nascent republic's most infamous renegade that we do not know from "Traitorous Hero," Willard M. Wallace's skillful 1954 biography of Benedict Arnold, which was little more than half as long? What fresh insights does it provide into the events of the summer and early autumn of 1780, when, despite the French alliance, the fortunes of the discordantly united new nation once again hung in the balance (moments acutely examined in Carl van Doren's "Secret History of the American Revolution" and James T. Flexner's "The Traitor and the Spy")? The answers--for this reader--are, to the first question, not a lot, and, to the second, not many. Yet the subject remains compelling. Read on!

Arnold was a brilliant opportunist whose energy, judgment and luck in the heat of crisis carried him far but finally failed to hold. A Connecticut boy, son of a well-to-do Norwich merchant who became an impoverished drunk, and a religious mother with strict notions about how young Benedict should grow up, he seems to have been a pushy, irascible fellow from early on.

Volunteering for military jaunts was preferable to apprenticeship in an apothecary shop. Trading to the West Indies served his ambitions better than staying behind a New Haven counter. The upsurge of dissidence against the mother country handed him a vehicle for his belligerent ardor and for what was quickly evident as innate military ability.

It was a time when all sorts of patriotic amateur soldiers and wheeler-dealers on the make found themselves serving together, and the chances of damaging dispute were often as strong among the rebels as between the rebels and the king's forces. Even so, particularly massive quarrels attended Arnold, even on his greatest exploits: the taking of Ticonderoga; the march through Maine to Quebec; the naval check given to Carleton on Lake Champlain, and the battles of Saratoga.

By the time he was military governor of Philadelphia, he had been twice wounded in the leg by the British and possibly more wounded in pride by American questioning of his ethics and accounts. His enthusiasm for success as a revolutionary major general was matched by his fierce disgruntlement with Congress and the Pennsylvania authorities.

And then he met Peggy Shippen, young enough to be his daughter, a pretty belle who, during the British occupation of the city, had charmed many young British officers, including John Andre, now aide to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton in New York. It continues to be a moment when one feels almost sorry for Arnold. Knowing as we do how the story turns out, delicious Peggy seems to represent his doom.

Randall clearly has done an immense amount of research. Every byway of Arnold's saga is diligently examined. Some of this detail becomes irksome, as in his discussion of the Old Light versus New Light religious rivalries in New England, or the three pages devoted to Andre's pageant, given when the British pulled out of Philadelphia. On the arduous march to Quebec, Randall's trees often obscure his woods and the reader feels as lost as Arnold's hungry troops, lugging their heavy bateaux .

A writer with panache might not provoke these criticisms, but the pace of Randall's writing rarely rises above a steady trudge, with occasional stumbles. A bullet which wounds Arnold is confusingly described as "flattened and sharp." At one point, Randall tells us that Gen. Gates approved a plan of Arnold's on Oct. 3; eight pages later he says that Gates hadn't yet sent his approval four weeks after Sept. 18, which I reckon to be Oct. 16.

He writes of "a highway from Canada north toward Albany," leading us more than somewhat astray. He attributes the nautical invention of the drop keel or centerboard to the year 1776, although it usually is granted to the Chinese, centuries before, if not to early Colonial boat builders on the Chesapeake. The impression of a writer at an insufficient distance from his mountainous notes is enhanced by the introduction of characters we have already met a few lines before, and Arnold on several occasions being assigned the wrong age.

As for the pivotal figure of John Andre, he does not captivate Randall as he has done other authors. Fair enough. But on matters of age, Randall is mistaken in regarding Andre at 21 years of age, before he joined the army, as "a fixture in England's literary society." It is questionble whether Andre was a culprit rather than simply an agent for Gen. Grey in the filchings of Benjamin Franklin's possessions. Randall calls Andre by turns wealthy and penurious. It is hard to take seriously his hints at a "homosexual affair" between Andre and Clinton, for which there is in fact no evidence (or even suggestion in the so-called gossip Randall prints as apparent testimony). Andre was re-buried in Westminster Abbey, but not in Poets' Corner.

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