Accepting the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction, author Steve Sheinkin delivered this speech on September 30, 2011.
I’m extremely honored to accept this award, but there’s another reason this book is incredibly important to me. Writing it saved me from a twelve-year obsession. I’ll give you the abridged version.
I visit schools a lot these days, and I always ask students what they know about Benedict Arnold. Invariably, one kid shouts out: “Traitor!”
In the late 1990s, that’s all I knew about Arnold, too—the traitor part. Then I picked up an old Arnold biography and suddenly found myself reading this amazing rise-and-fall epic. It’s an action-adventure story, a romance, a spy thriller. I was hooked, and I did two things that I think are very much in my nature. First, I tracked down and read everything ever written about Arnold. And second, instead of just enjoying the great story, I began telling myself: “I’ve got to do something with this.”
At the time I fancied myself a novelist, and at first I thought I would try some kind of comic novel, possibly comparing the lives of Arnold and Lancelot, the Arthurian knight. I’ll read you the very beginning:
Lancelot, the famous knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, grew up beneath the waters of an enchanted lake. Benedict Arnold grew up in Connecticut.
That’s as far as I got. (Actually, there are some very interesting parallels between Arnold and Lancelot, but that’s another lecture.)
The thing is, I was so intimidated by the quality of the raw material that I couldn’t write anything. I remember telling the idea to my friend George and moaning something like, “If I can’t write something great with this, I’m just gonna give up writing.” And he completely disagreed with my approach. He shook his head and said, “Man, it’s gotta be your bliss.”
I ignored that wise advice and spent years—literally years—reading, taking notes, outlining, sketching scenes that never got written. And all the while I was becoming more miserable, and the book was turning stranger, less funny, more pretentious.
Meanwhile, I was living in New York City, working as a history textbook writer. Our company was beginning work on a new fifth-grade U.S. history, and we told one another, “This won’t be the typical boring textbook. This time we’re going to make history come alive!” Part of my job was to come up with grabbers—quick, exciting stories that would draw kids into the action of each lesson. So I thought: here’s my big chance to use some of my Arnold material! I’ll work him in early, during the raucous, pre-Revolution tax protest days.
In the conference room at our office, I met with two very experienced editors and pitched a story that I have in my notes like this:
It is a cold, drizzly night in New Haven, Connecticut, in January 1766. Five young sailors hurry down a quiet street. They come to a dark house and begin banging on the front door. A twenty-five-year-old merchant named Benedict Arnold opens the door. The men start talking, all at once. Arnold appears to be growing angry. “What!” he cries. “He’s still in town?”
Moments later, Arnold is striding down the street, the young sailors falling in behind him. Arnold comes to Beecher’s Tavern, kicks in the door, enters, and takes a quick look around. There, sitting alone at a table, is the man he is looking for. The man jumps up and stumbles toward the back door, but Arnold pounces on him, drags him outside, ties him to a post, rips off his shirt, and begins whipping him. The sailors shout “Huzzah!” as each stroke cracks across the man’s back, wet now with blood and rain.
Who is Benedict Arnold? And why is he whipping this man? You will read that story next.
There was a long silence at the table. A very long silence. I explained that the man being whipped was a sailor who’d informed on Arnold for not paying British import duties. It was a perfect lead-in to the Stamp Act, Sam Adams, tax protests, the whole thing.
The editors were not convinced. Actually, they seemed to be in a small amount of physical pain.
“Benedict Arnold makes me…nervous,” one told me.
“Me, too,” said the other.
I thought, That’s the whole point! He made Congress nervous. He made George Washington nervous. He was America’s original loose-cannon action hero, a sort of brooding, cursing Bruce Willis character, two centuries before Hollywood. What I didn’t realize at the time was that for textbooks, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Later that day I went to the little library in our office and looked through all the U.S. history textbooks for Arnold coverage. I counted the number of Arnold-related lines in each book and calculated the average—it’s nine.
You can’t do anything with that, I thought. So I went back to thinking about my epic Arnold novel. Or possibly screenplay, I wasn’t sure. But I still wasn’t getting anywhere, and I decided that if I was really serious what I needed to do was make a major commitment to my writing—by becoming a hermit. In the Catskills. I would be a hermit in the Catskills who wrote textbooks. (I still needed the income.)
So I started taking weekend trips upstate, looking at beautiful crumbling farms, tilted fishing shacks beside trout streams. My mother has always been very supportive, and one day she came along, thinking it would be fun. And maybe, looking back, she was slightly concerned about me.
We were driving in the real estate agent’s SUV, and he was telling us all about the great local history. My mom said, “Oh, Stephen is very interested in history.” She turned to me and said, “Who’s that guy you like to read about?”
I said, “Benedict Arnold.”
Again, that long silence. The editors were right: he makes people nervous.
A few weeks later I found what I thought was the perfect property and made up my mind to buy it. Then later that night, back in the city, I went to a party—I thought of it as my farewell to New York. And that’s when I met my future wife, Rachel. I almost ruined it by talking about Arnold a lot, but it turned out she was a self-professed “history nerd.”
So we got married, and I didn’t become a hermit. Very lucky. But still, the Arnold obsession persisted, and in my free time I kept working on my novel, or graphic novel, or whatever it was that day.
About a year after Rachel and I got married, we were talking over ideas for vacations, and I said, “You know what we should do? Let’s take a two-week road trip to all the places Arnold lived and fought!”
I was half-joking, maybe fifty-one percent. But she surprised me by saying, “Sounds awesome.”
So we did it, and it was fascinating to see how Arnold is remembered, or not, in the places he lived. In his hometown, Norwich, Connecticut, there’s almost nothing. A local jeweler put up a sign near the spot of his long-gone boyhood house. But that’s it. There’s nothing in New Haven, where he spent his entire adult life up until the Revolution.
Then we followed the route of Arnold’s march to Quebec. In the fall of 1775, as a colonel in the Continental Army, Arnold led a one-thousand-man march through the Maine wilderness and into British-held Canada, for a surprise attack on Quebec. This is one of the great adventure stories of American history—it would be one of our most famous and celebrated stories, if not for the whole treason thing that came later.
Along the route in Maine, there are a few rusted road signs marked “Arnold Trail Highway.” And there’s the Arnold Expedition Historical Society, an amazing group of local historians and weekend archaeologists who keep the story alive by clearing trails, marking the route, even reenacting sections of the journey in period boats and clothes. Meeting these guys made me realize: I’m not the only one!
So that was nice. But the end result of this fantastic trip was that I collected still more Arnold material that I didn’t know what to do with.
Meanwhile, I was trying to make the transition from textbooks to the kinds of history books for kids I actually wanted to write, filled with all the stories textbooks never tell you. And I was unbelievably lucky that Simon Boughton of Roaring Brook took a liking to what I was doing and published a couple of books.
This takes us all the way up to 2008. I was in the Roaring Brook offices, talking with Deirdre Langeland, the great editor I’ve been working with from the start, and we were batting around ideas for the next book project. Suddenly, unprompted by me, she said: “Didn’t you want to do something about Benedict Arnold?”
I was stunned. That simple question broke the spell. I was being offered a chance to write a book about Arnold—as a job! All the crazy gimmicks in my notebooks vanished from my mind. I knew instantly that my Arnold book for young readers should be a no-nonsense, nonfiction page-turner; a straight-ahead action-thriller. And that’s what I tried to do with The Notorious Benedict Arnold.
Now, with a little perspective, I can look back on the obsession and ask: Why? What was it about Arnold?
The obvious part is the story. You start with this angry boy, watching his alcoholic father ruin the family business and reputation. Arnold becomes an apprentice, then strikes out on his own as a merchant and sea captain. He becomes a local Patriot leader, jumps into the war the moment it starts, leads the march to Quebec, then, the next year, builds a little fleet on Lake Champlain and stops the British navy.
Next he’s badly wounded as he helps win the Battle of Saratoga, which convinces the French to join the war on our side. All the while he’s making enemies in Congress, but Washington sticks by him, makes him military governor of Philadelphia. And here he falls in love with the beautiful Peggy Shippen, who just happens to know John André, a young British intelligence officer looking to make a big score. And it all speeds to a climax at West Point, with George Washington sitting in the trap.
A country only gets a few shots at a story this good. If the goal is proving to kids that history is actually cool, we can’t afford to waste Benedict Arnold.
But I realized there was more to Arnold’s appeal than the story, and it goes back to Arnold making people nervous. Why does he make people nervous? It’s not that Arnold is a bad guy—it’s that he’s a good guy and a bad guy. A hero and a traitor.
As a country, I don’t think we handle contradiction very well. When it comes to talking about the American Revolution and our Founders—essentially, our creation story—we seem most comfortable sticking to two-dimensional portraits. It’s hard for us to think of the United States as a nation built on grand and beautiful ideals but with deep moral flaws woven in from the start. I think we’re afraid that if we try to explain this complex mixture to young readers, they’ll be confused, and maybe less patriotic. I’m convinced it’s one of the main reasons kids think history is boring.
And that’s why I’m fascinated by Arnold—because he’s such an in-your-face, over-the-top symbol of contradiction. He leaves no doubt that a person, like a country, can do both great and terrible things.
But in the end, with Benedict Arnold it’s less about philosophy and more about story. I can honestly say I’m glad I became obsessed with the story, and very glad to be cured.
Robin Brenner, Reference and Teen Librarian from the Brookline Public Library, introduces Steve Sheinkin, who accepts a 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction for The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, at the September 30th BGHB award ceremony at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.