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And when it comes to tackling the subject of Benedict Arnold, the notorious son of Norwich whose name is synonymous with treason, there’s much to forgive.
On Sunday — Arnold’s 277th birthday — an upper room of the Otis Library was filled with visitors hoping to learn a little more about the Revolutionary War general who betrayed a fledgling nation — and more importantly to Lehman — his friends and neighbors.
Lehman, who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport, spoke about the questions that led to his book, “Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London,” which chronicles the events leading to Arnold leading a force of British troops against Connecticut soldiers at Fort Griswold in Groton and the subsequent burning and destruction of New London.
“I tried to understand Arnold as both a hero and a traitor,” Lehman said. “One of the problems is the word traitor has been somewhat devalued as it’s used more and more in a political context. For me, Arnold’s greatest betrayal wasn’t to the army or the country — which was still an abstract concept then — but rather to his friends.”
Lehman, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Connecticut 20 years ago, said there can be a tendency in Norwich and surrounding areas to downplay the worst of Arnold’s acts.
“They wanted no part of that in the 1800s,” Lehman said. “In fact, when asked, people would say he was from Rhode Island.”
Many of the crowd members that gathered for the forum, collaboration between the library, the Norwich Historical Society and the Leffingwell House Museum, came with their own copies of Lehman’s 2015 book.
Mary-Ellen Gonci, of Hebron, said she began reading the biography as part of her own efforts to write a history of Hebron.
“It was wonderful and filled in a lot of blanks for me regarding the American Revolution,” she said. “I was struck when learning (Arnold) had an alcoholic father and wondered how much that had to do with how he turned out.”
Regan Miner, consultant for the Norwich Historical Society, said the fascination with Arnold is likely linked to his dual nature.
“He was a dynamic historical figure without just one side,” she said. “He was hero and traitor, husband and son.”
Lehman said many biographers finish their work with a more sympathetic leaning towards their subjects.
“I ended up not liking the guy very much,” he said. “This is a man who, while talking to the British about turning over West Point to them, was at the same time writing letters to those he was planning to betray, asking them to help him out.”