The Shadow Behind Our Founding Fathers

Reviewed by Jerome Charyn
Sunday, June 22, 2008


By Nicholas Delbanco

Dalkey Archive. 478 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Benjamin Thompson, American traitor, British knight, Bavarian count and minister of war, is mostly unremembered and unremarked. Yet Count Rumford, as he was called, always had his fans. Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thompson were America's three most impressive minds. But no matter what he had in common with Jefferson or Franklin, Thompson was far from a Founding Father. He spied for the British during the Revolutionary War and became a wanderer for the rest of his life, a soldier and a scientist who invented the soup kitchen and a pragmatic stove that he believed Franklin had purloined from him. He settled in Munich for a while, had two wives, 101 mistresses, a legitimate daughter and at least two permanently lost "love children." He was both "a meliorist and fool," who ended up "a mewling helpless bundle to be fed and stroked and washed," before his death in Paris in 1814.

He hardly seems to have the flesh or the cunning for the hero of a novel. Yet in The Count of Concord, Nicholas Delbanco has fashioned a wondrous story around him, having been "haunted" by Thompson's doomed persona, he says, for over 20 years. And perhaps Thompson is the perfect dream -- or nightmare -- of a novelist's mind. He seems to have existed utterly outside the crack of emotion. Despite his various affairs and activities, Count Rumford cast a very small shadow. Delbanco sculpts around him, creating an energetic panoply of characters who bump in and out of his mysterious life. The best moments of the novel involve the count's epic battles with his second wife, Marie Anne Pierrette, the extravagant and extravagantly rich widow of Antoine Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry who was beheaded during the French Revolution:

"When he locked her in her chambers, she pounded on the door; when he hid the keys from prying eyes she cursed. When she wept and moaned and wailed for help he played the violin. He did so beneath her high window and, when she shut the window, at her keyhole in the hall. . . . Drinking coffee from his field-pot, he made certain the aroma wafted in to her, its appetizing fragrance filling the passageway morning and night." Marie Anne is far more vital and complex than her new husband and breathes a bit of her own diabolic fury into him, but when the battle is over, he returns to his tortoise-like existence of "beakers and alembics."

Still, his life wasn't without adventure. He rose from a fatherless boy to a full colonel in one of the king's colonial regiments, then escaped to England, where he had to reinvent himself. But he was constantly changing his colors until he was little more than a clever chameleon. Unable to live with chaos and the stink of human existence, he buried himself in his own neat little tomb. And Delbanco's portrait of an American in exile from himself, who could find no real language other than a priapic dance from bed to bed, unmasks Thompson as a man whom nothing could ever soothe.

The one quarrel I have with the novel is its narrative frame. Thompson isn't the teller of his own tale. With the invention of Sally Ormsby Thompson Robinson, "his natural son's granddaughter's granddaughter, or the lady who styles herself as that," Delbanco hoped to provide some melody where Thompson had none. But she feels more like an intruder than a real counterpoint to Thompson. Sally is 69 years old, a modern-day author of "bodice rippers" with their "dime-store Scarlet Pimpernels," who seeks to refashion her forgotten ancestor into some kind of dashing hero. Thompson seems to resist the tale she tells with a mystery of his own that moves beyond her mannered prose.

Nonetheless, The Count of Concord remains a disturbing, essential book that reaches back into our past with this strange ghost of a man who resides deep within the nation's history. Thompson was a shadow behind our Founding Fathers, a traitor who lost his own blood for his country, whose life became a feckless experiment, a journey into a horrifying void where men and women live without a language of their own. ยท

Jerome Charyn's most recent novel is "Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution."

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