Rabble in Arms

by Kenneth Roberts
[Doubleday, Doran, $2.50]
Arundel and The Lively Lady led one to expect further good fare from Mr. Roberts; but Rabble in Arms is better than good. Like its predecessors, it has a romantic device overlaying the structure of the story; but fortunately the romantic flavor is submerged by the magnitude, the sweep, and the extraordinary vividness of the whole picture.
In brief, this is a panorama of American arms in the North, from the time Arnold failed to capture Quebec, through Sullivan’s Canadian expedition, the heartrending retreat with the army rotting on its feet with smallpox, through the building of Arnold’s half-armed fleet, and its engagement with the British, to the advance of Burgoyne’s army and the final surrender at Saratoga.
This Mr. Roberts makes real to the present-day reader with a simplicity of writing that provides a genuine experience. He indulges in no ‘themes,’ he tells it wholly through the eyes of the men who fought. And that is his triumph, for in these men he has created a gallery of characters that to me, for one, is astonishing for its variety and virility. Their voices become familiar, whether shooting craps or discussing politics, stealing rum and legs of lamb from superior officers, or wading into the British on land or water. They are ignorant, prejudiced, bigoted, generous, friendly, and wonderfully contemptuous. They curse, sweat, laugh, work, fight, like people you have known yourself. When one dies, the reader suffers a personal loss.
It is the person of Benedict Arnold who carries the story of the book. Mr. Roberts draws a vivid portrait, the picture the men whom he led must have formed of him, and therefore valid for the purposes of the book. But I find it difficult to agree with Mr. Roberts’s ultimate conclusion (delivered through the thoughts of Peter Merrill) that Arnold’s treason at West Point was his considered way of furthering the cause of his country.
If that were true, it Would be hard to credit his accepting British money, still harder a British command. And, going back to the sources, it is evident that there had been suspicions of Arnold even before Quebec. Not all the skunks Mr. Roberts paints for us were skunks — as there are documents to show. For instance, Colonel Brown, who lost his command through Arnold’s instigation, was no skunk, but a valiant and badly used officer.
But, just or unjust, suspicions ruined Arnold. And chiefly because they threatened his heroic egoism. Therein lies his tragedy. Had he been intelligently handled, he would have continued one of our most valuable officers, but even in those days there was a Congress to bungle matters.
Arnold is beyond generalities, Mr. Roberts has shown him as he undoubtedly was through the great two years preceding Saratoga. Better than that, he has shown us the stuff of our ancestors, and has described the Revolution as it has not yet been described. There is the making of a civilization encompassed in his book. Finally, this is a story stuffed gum-full of Americanbrand humor.