Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Leroy Jenkins of American Liberty

In a world without Benedict Arnold, the United States as we know it would not exist.

The critical event that preserved the American Revolution was French intervention.  The French intervened as a result of the colonial army’s crucial victory at Saratoga.  And the colonial army, under the command of the overcautious general Horatio Gates, who never left his tent during the fighting, should at best have fought the battle to a draw.  But at a critical moment, General Benedict Arnold—who had been relieved of his command by Gates and who was very possibly drunk at the time—came storming out onto the field in defiance of his commander’s orders, and led an entirely unauthorized assault on the British right that broke their lines and sent them scurrying off the field, leading ultimately to the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s entire invasion force. 

Leading his troops from the front, Arnold had his left leg shattered by grapeshot and then crushed under a falling horse; subsequent medical butchery left it two inches shorter than his right leg, leaving him in agony for the rest of his life.  Had he been shot in the head instead of the leg, Arnold’s face might today adorn our currency.  Instead, to his great misfortune, he survived.

The story of Benedict Arnold has long fascinated me; it reads less like the tale of a founding father and more like that of a loose-cannon cop in a bad action movie.  He attempted to join the colonial militia at the age of fourteen, motivated by the sound of a regimental drum and an overwhelming desire to kill Frenchmen.  A successful businessman who enriched himself via Caribbean trade, he unaccountably insisted on captaining his own trading vessel and wound up fighting duels with random people he insulted on his journeys.  As a smuggler in the days of the Stamp Act, he was considered to be so headstrong and violent that the Sons of Liberty were forced to throw up their hands and back away slowly.  His Revolutionary War service consisted essentially of a list of ill-planned attacks on heavily fortified targets, some of which, such as Fort Ticonderoga, wound up being caught with their pants down and surrendering—it simply had not occurred to them that anybody would even consider attacking them.  As often as not, Arnold's commanding officers were as surprised to learn of his victories as his enemies were; his general method seems to have been to spot a target, spend a couple of hours rounding up the most psychotic set of volunteers he could find, and race towards it screaming with bayonets fixed.

For some unaccountable reason, people in positions of authority found Benedict Arnold difficult to get along with.  Beloved by his men and subordinates, he was nonetheless passed over repeatedly for command assignments, denied credit for important accomplishments, and besieged by creditors for debts he accumulated in the army’s service.  Had he been a wiser man, a man less consumed by self-serving and manichean concepts of right and wrong, he would have sought some form of accommodation.  But had he been a wiser man, he would not have been Benedict Arnold.  So he made one last headfirst plunge, this one into outright treason, and wound up spending the remainder of his life in exile, excoriated by the nation in whose service he had crippled himself.


My young adult novel Axis of Eternity (available for free; the chapters are posted in one of the menus on the right side of the page) places Benedict Arnold in command of a community on a post-mortal planet inspired by Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld.  This version of Benedict Arnold is formal, disciplined, and consumed with shame for his earthly misdeeds.  It’s not a very historically accurate version of the character.  It doesn’t quite work, but that’s okay, because based on the 130+ rejections the book accumulated from agents and publishers, the novel doesn’t work either.

It occurred to me, as I observed the growing popularity of the New Pulp movement, that Benedict Arnold deserved a more accurate literary portrayal—one which treats him as the man of action and skilled soldier he was, and which also acknowledges the crippling lack of foresight and addiction to outrage that would up undoing him.  “Monsters in Heaven,” available in Issue Four of Broadswords and Blasters, returns to the world of Elysium as portrayed in Axis of Eternity—a world in which free-floating souls rebuild their earthly bodies, seeking a second shot at life beneath an alien sky.  It’s a world full of historical personages, both famous and unknown, to make allies and enemies of.  And for those who got it wrong the first time, it's a world that offers a shot at redemption.

I enjoyed writing "Monsters in Heaven", but in retrospect I'm not sure that it fully works as a stand-alone story—it’s too clearly a fragment of a larger narrative, one unusually dramatic snapshot in the afterlife of a man with a tendency to create drama for himself and everyone around him.  Maybe one day I’ll choose to return and tell more of Benedict Arnold's story.  If not, I take some comfort in the fact that I’m sending him off as the man he was, not as the man Axis made him out to be.

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