Thursday, May 30, 2013

An Hour with Benedict Arnold

About a week ago, in Williamsburg, Virginia, I the great pleasure of spending an hour with Benedict Arnold. Allow me to explain.

I was sitting outside the bookstore in the Colonial Williamsburg visitor’s center. This isn’t the ye olde part of Colonial Williamsburg, this is more like a little shopping mall, with gift stores, a theater, ticket counters, etc. So I’m sitting there at a table surrounded by tall stacks of my Benedict Arnold book, and sweaty tourists keep walking by without stopping, and I’m starting to feel that unique book signing version of lonely desperation.

And then Benedict Arnold strides up. I mean, he was seriously striding.

I’d heard a rumor that the actor who plays Arnold on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg might stop by, and here he was. He had the tricorn hat, the white wig, the heavy red coat of a British officer (this was the post-treason Arnold). He even walked with a cane and limp, as Arnold did after being wounded in battle at Saratoga.

“How do you do, sir?” he boomed.

I said something like, “Good. I mean, very well, general.” I gestured to the piles of books. “I wrote a book about, well… about you.”

“Yes, I’ve read it,” he said, picking up a copy.

I worried he might be offended by the title, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, but it didn’t seem to bother him. To my surprise, he sat down next to me. I smiled, but didn’t know what to say. My first thought was to tell I was a big fan of his. But do I mention my disapproval of the whole betraying your country for money thing?

A family walked by, slowing to look at us. A writer and a Redcoat at a folding table.

“Good day to you all!” Arnold called.

The dad stepped to the table. He looked back and forth from the cover of my Arnold book to Arnold. Then he said, “Could we get a picture with you?” He meant Arnold. Arnold stood and the kids posed with him and the dad took a picture on his phone.

Then Arnold sat back down, shook my hand, and introduced himself as Scott.

That’s when things got really fun. Turns out this guy is perhaps more obsessed with Benedict Arnold than I am, and knows even more. And he loves his job, says it’s the best gig in Williamsburg, because he’s such a controversial figure, and because he gets to ride around on a horse and harangue Americans.

Think of the dedication. I mean, we nonfiction writers spend a year or two trying to get into the heads of historical figures. But then we move on. He never does. He stays inside Arnold. Sometimes, when he’s in a hurry, he drives home dressed as Arnold. He’s even gotten gas as Arnold (yes, there were strange looks given).

For about an hour, we swapped theories on obscure points in Arnold’s story. I forgot all about trying to sell books, and was actually annoyed when people stopped by to talk (usually with him) or take pictures (always with him). When this happened, he snapped back into character and traded greetings, and sometimes witty insults, with the visitors. I just sat there, impressed and inspired. Here’s someone as skilled as any writer at making history engaging and memorable. And there’s no technology in sight—just the good old fashioned building blocks of story and character.

Some people enjoyed taunting Arnold, asking if he had any regrets, if he wished he hadn’t betrayed his country, stuff like that. But he had quick comebacks at the ready. The only thing that seemed to bother him was when a group of kids came up, giggling, waving plastic muskets, and asked, “Are you supposed to be George Washington?”

“No,” he said, frowning, recalling a painful scene. “I was once… an associate of his.”

The kids stopped laughing. They wanted to hear the story.


Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Very cool. I loved talking to good re-enactors when I was writing certain books. They really know their characters in depth, and the ones around Colonial Williamsburg are so into their roles that they read the journals and letters from every single day and re-enact the very calendar day you happen to be watching them.

Maybe we should all take a hint from your friend and wear costumes at our book signings???

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I saw Nathan Hale, graphic novelist, dressed as his namesake last year at ALA!

Cheryl Harness said...

A VERY cool post - and rather warm, I imagine, for Gen. Arnold, in that fine red coat. It is indeed fun dressing out in period costume for presentations, signings & such. Seeing the looks of fellow customers when I & my hoop skirt boinged & blossomed out of my Ford Escort to pump a bit o' gas into it.