Mr. Philbrick made his name as the author of maritime titles, and his fans will relish his convincing account of Arnold’s brief stint as commodore. His retelling of the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain is a finely balanced blend of narrative, description and analysis that highlights Arnold’s flair for combat on land or water.
Philbrick brings vivid you-are-there writing to this volume, a balm for the many readers who resist battle accounts, which comprise most of this volume ... Philbrick’s historical argument is convincing: that Arnold’s treachery had as much, or more, power over American sentiment than Washington’s heroism, and that Arnold’s treason steeled Americans once and for all to fight for their freedom. It is very possible that, as Philbrick argues, a nation created in disloyalty required an act of loyalty to find unity — and victory.
The title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition says everything about it, because it says nothing...from the book’s outset, it’s clear that Mr. Philbrick did not approach this project with a clear thesis. He approached it with a mandate, a methodology, a book contract and a couple of big names to connect. At least that’s how Valiant Ambition reads.
Philbrick skillfully depicts the sheer banality of Arnold’s greed and self-interest, revealing the roots of his downfall: one part psychology and one part sensibility to at least three parts circumstance ... In Valiant Ambition, Philbrick debunks certain treasured notions even while discerning their virtues. The resulting ambiguities may be best captured by the book’s sotto voce ending, with another general, Nathanael Greene, about to leave for the Southern campaign that we know will be won. At this point, I couldn’t help recalling Philbrick’s brief mention of Arnold’s plan, soon after his arrival in Philadelphia, to lead a naval attack on Bermuda and Barbados, which would have freed their slaves and enlisted them as privateers — a plan that, Philbrick argues, might have made him 'one of the immortal heroes of the Revolution.' But that would have been a rather different Revolution.
The author’s own sailing experience — he wrote In the Heart of the Sea, a popular book about a disastrous whaling voyage — shines in his vivid and clear accounts of these naval actions that led to Arnold’s victory over British troops at Saratoga in 1777 ... Other historians share Philbrick’s conclusion, but it’s one that needs more development to lend it significance in the face of larger events that effectively brought our country its freedom. Credit Philbrick with reacquainting us with the early history of the Revolutionary War, but we need more convincing to lay its success at the clay feet of Benedict Arnold.
Philbrick has the ability to take seemingly dry facts of history and turn them into exciting prose. The players come alive and their motivations are clear. The people he chronicles are legends, so revealing to the reader what makes them human, foibles and all, helps make sense of the events that transpired and why they acted the way they did.
Philbrick’s impeccable research and solemn style aim for an atmospheric immersion, swaddling the reader in period specifics (did you know that pettiaugers were 'two-sailed workboats equipped with leeboards instead of a keel'?). But the book’s engine revs nicely with the appearance of Arnold, a Connecticut Yankee who prospered as a New Haven merchant, patriot, and builder of 'one of the finest homes in town'...Philbrick’s thick-textured chronicle echoes David McCullough’s breezier history, 1776, but as a cautionary tale of character corrupted in pursuit of power, Valiant Ambition casts its scholarly spell.
This is history at its most compelling: political machinations, military jostling and outright treachery. And Philbrick’s vivid writing brings the whistling cannon balls and half-frozen soldiers to life (and death) in vivid detail.