Kenneth Roberts in Scholarly Work: John Frederick on Roberts as a Novelist and Historian

One of the joys of studying Kenneth Roberts’ works is coming across what others have written about one of America’s best historical novelists. While it is easier to find more recent assessments of Roberts’ work, I’ve found it a little more challenging to find contemporary assessments of his novels. With that said, I recently tweeted  a link to an article from June 1941 in The English Journal 30.6 by John T. Frederick. The article was written on the heels of the release of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts’ novel written from the perspective of a Tory during the American Revolution.

By the time Frederick wrote his article, Roberts’ was established as one of America’s foremost novelist, having already published ArundelRabble in Arms, and Northwest Passage. Frederick praises Roberts in his article, noting Roberts’ unique ability to “give us pictures of the American past which are honest, rich, and intellectually stimulating,” making Roberts “one of the major American writers” of their day (p. 435). For Frederick, a key factor in Roberts’ success as a novelist was his attention to historical detail.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts’ novels are typically classified as ‘historical fiction.’ Generally, according to Frederick, works of historical fiction share common components: “exciting action on every page; a beautiful and vivacious – but not necessarily, in modern fiction, virtuous – heroine; period costumes and stage settings” (p. 435). Indeed, Roberts’ novels fit the bill of historical fiction; however, as Frederick notes, Roberts would probably be “reluctant” to classify his works as historical fiction. For,

beneath these aspects of superficial relationship  to the conventional work of historical romance there lies bedrock historical fact and purpose which makes the work of Kenneth Roberts essentially and significantly different from the historical fiction that is written merely to entertain (p. 436).

Roberts did not write to merely entertain readers; rather, he wrote to teach history and to correct misconceptions of historical fact (see my post on why Roberts wrote historical fiction). Frederick observes:

He has written his historical novels as a matter of the considered choice of a mature and successful man; not primarily for money or for fame but because he wanted to write them, because he had something to say in them which he wanted profoundly to say, believed profoundly to be worth saying (p. 436).

Frederick’s observation is based upon the “extraordinary thoroughness of Kenneth Roberts’ historical research” (p. 437). Roberts’ writing of each novel was preceded by “prolonged and patient digging after facts” such that Roberts’ research nearly equaled that “of the best professional historians” (p. 437).

March to QuebecFor example, prior to writing Arundel, Roberts traveled the path Benedict Arnold took when leading his expedition to Quebec in 1775. He sought out all possible source material, including the journals and letters of those involved in the expedition. Such was the depth of Roberts’ research that he was able to publish his original research in March to Quebec (1938) – “itself a major contribution to the history of the American Revolution” (p. 437).

The best evidence supporting the idea that Roberts was a historian as well as a novelist is found, according to Frederick, in Roberts’ research for Northwest Passage. Though the main character of Northwest Passage is Langdon Towne, the most dominant and dynamic character is Major Robert Rogers – the leader of Roberts’ Rangers. In what is perhaps Roberts’ most famous novel, Kenneth Roberts “rescued from the comparative oblivion of specialized scholarship one of the most interesting figures of all American colonial history” in Robert Rogers (p. 438). More significantly, Roberts’ penchant for extensive and thorough research led him to locate the record of Roberts’ court-martial, something which “historians had agreed was lost” (p. 437). As with Arundel, Roberts published his research for Northwest Passage in a volume that accompanied the limited first edition.

I believe that Frederick provides a sound case for Roberts as a historian. I believe, however, that many have – and still do – fail to consider Roberts as a historian because of: 1) he wrote novels, and 2) he was a controversialist. It was well-known in Roberts’ day – and today among Roberts fans – that Kenneth Roberts was very opinionated and did not hold back on letting others know what he thought. His opinionated nature shown through all of his novels as he sought to shatter common notions about events and historical figures (note his favorable depiction of Benedict Arnold in Arundel and, especially, Rabble in Arms; and his depiction of the Revolution from the eyes of a Tory in Oliver Wiswell). It’s as if Roberts’ novels were a vehicle for his opinions and views to which he doggedly held and argued.

What should be noted is that while Roberts’ opinions are not bedrock fact, we are able to distinguish between historical fact and opinion in his novels. The point I seek to make here is a philosophical one – that we all encounter fact (in this case, historical fact), and we all interpret that fact. Fact is something that does not change (e.g. Robert Rogers was court-martialed; Benedict Arnold led the expedition to Quebec in 1775, etc.). What we must do, though, is to make sense of the facts – what do they mean? How do they fit in with other known facts? Etc. Further, when it comes to a particular work – such as Roberts’ novels – why did the author include these facts and not others? Is the way in which the facts depicted accurate? Etc. That is, interpretation necessarily accompanies fact – we cannot avoid it. Though we like to think that scientists are unbiased and objective, even they necessarily interpret the facts presented them in their experiments. Detectives interpret the facts of a particular case. And, in particular to this post, historians interpret fact in order to understand the past. We all interpret fact -it’s unavoidable. Thus, where we differ is not in fact, but in the interpretation of the facts.

Thus, when it comes to Kenneth Roberts, it goes without saying that Kenneth Roberts held to some unpopular opinions (interpretations) of historical fact. This point is well-illustrated in Mark York’s Patriot on the Kennebec (2012). In his work, York seeks to depict Major Reuben Colburn’s contribution to Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. According to York in the “Acknowledgements”, Kenneth Roberts’ barely mentioned Major Colburn in Arundel while elevating the role of the Nasons (Roberts’ descendants) “at the expense of real heroes whose contributions were documented in the primary texts” (York, p. 9). York notes that Roberts was prejudiced toward Colburn, something that is noted in Arundel when Roberts wrote: “I was prepared to mislike Colburn…for being responsible for Washington’s and Aronold’s fondness for bateaux; but I had wronged him” (quoted by York, p. 10). Here, we see that there is a different of interpretation of Coburn’s contribution to the expedition. The question of who is right is beyond the scope of this post (and my ability to research the primary sources); the point is, both Roberts and York have the facts – they differ in their interpretation.[1]

Despite Kenneth Roberts’ tendency of contrarianism and his interpretation of historical fact, I believe that Frederick makes a good case for Roberts as a historian. Unfortunately, Roberts’ choice of genre has limited public perception of him to that of just a novelist. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand Roberts’ approach to writing and the purpose that drove him. What made Roberts a great novelist was his even greater skill as a historian.

[1] Why do people differ on interpretation? In short, it’s due in part to the various presumptions and beliefs one brings into the act of interpretation. We do not interpret in a vacuum, nor do we interpret from a completely neutral stance. Rather, we all bring to the table a framework from which we interpret facts presented to us (our worldview). This isn’t to say that we can’t judge between who is right and wrong; rather, it is to explain why there are differences in interpretation. Thus, to judge between differing interpretations is a more complex endeavor than we tend to view it today.

Kenneth Roberts Books: “Boon Island” Advanced Review Copy

It appears that every year around my birthday, I find a unique Roberts collectible. This year did not disappoint. Today I received an Advanced Review Copy of Boon Island.  Below are some photos:

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I must admit that, at first, I was unsure whether this was the real thing. But Ken Lopez, at his website, has a helpful post that discusses uncorrected proofs and advanced review copies. According to Lopez:

While most collectors don’t often have a chance to acquire the manuscripts of their favorite authors’ books, they do have ready access to a preliminary state of the book that precedes the first published edition— that of the “uncorrected proof” or “advance reading copy.” Publishers have long issued advance copies of forthcoming books, prior to the book’s publication date, for a number of reasons: they want reviewers and periodicals to have a chance to read them and schedule reviews to coincide with publication, even given the long lead times many magazines require for production; they want to get the opinions of important buyers who are likely to purchase large quantities of the book if they believe in it — buyers for the major wholesalers, the chain bookstores, and the large independent stores around the country; they want to get early copies to the author’s friends and peers — preferably well-known ones — who can give comments about the book that the publisher can use for promotion, on the dust jacket as “blurbs,” in ads, and in the promotional literature sent out to the news media as press releases.

How the advanced review copies (ARC) were presented has changed over time. Lopez states that “the typical advance copy was a set of typeset sheets, bound directly into the dust jacket — that is, identical to the finished book with the exception of the lack of hard covers.” Publishers began changing how ARCs were presented in the 1950s that it began to be commonplace to distribute paperback, uncorrected copies of the book for promotional purposes (Lopez, n.d.). But, “By the Sixties, the major publishers were routinely doing bound softcover volumes of ‘uncorrected proofs’ — which, for a time, were called ‘Cranes,’ after the printing company that had proposed them.”

Though, with my limited resources, I did not have much to go on regarding the Boon Island ARC, what was posted on eBay seemed legit. So, I bought it (plus, it was at an excellent price). Upon receiving the ACR today, I have no doubt that what I have is the real thing. Judging by the aging of the paper, the creases and fraying of the binder, and how the font was set on the paper, what I have is a unique piece of Kenneth Roberts memorabilia. I hope to have the story behind my particular copy, which I will share.

I must confess that Boon Island has not been my favorite Roberts novel in the past. However, as things have fallen in place, I’ve found today several articles published in the past several years regarding the true events that served as the basis of Boon Island. As I continue to read upon the fateful wreck of the Nottingham, I find the story fascinating as one side blames the captain of the ship, and another side blames certain crewman for spreading false reasons for the wreck (Roberts took the latter side). The wreck of the Nottingham is so intriguing that papers and websites in Maine (in particular) and New England (in general) still write about it. In light of this, Boon Island is quickly becoming one of my top Kenneth Roberts’ novels.

Keep your eyes open; I’ll be writing on this intriguing story soon!

Kenneth Roberts on Immigration: An Unflattering Opinion Reflected in Today’s Political Landscape

The cover of "Europe's Morning After", 1921 1st ed. Courtesy of Townsend Books.

The cover of “Europe’s Morning After”, 1921 1st ed. Courtesy of Townsend Books.

One thing I enjoy about running this site is coming across current websites and blogs that interact with Kenneth Roberts. Though Roberts is no longer in the mainstream, there still exists a loyal following of Roberts and his works. For the most part, any mention of Kenneth Roberts is favorable, particularly toward his more well-known novels. (I’ve tried to share any favorable mentions of Kenneth Roberts. I’ve recently begun a Twitter feed that posts to the Kenneth Roberts Website Facebook page where I share recent findings. I find this easier than posting them as a blog post.) However, not all mentions of Roberts are favorable. In fact, one area in which Roberts is frequently discusses is that of immigration.

Before Roberts began his work as a novelist, he worked for for The Saturday Evening Post (primarily) as a correspondent. Though Roberts penned many essays for The Post, what he is primarily remembered for is his work on immigration reform. The Post‘s audience consisted primarily of white, middle-class, conservative readers, and one area of concern among this group was the influx of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Roberts viewed these immigrants as “worthless” and a bane to society. For Roberts and those of like-mind, it was those of the Nordic race who had contributed the most to populating young America.  In an effort to influence public opinion and government policy about immigration reform, Roberts devoted several essays to the call for tighter restrictions for immigration. We can still read Roberts’ Post work on immigration in Europe’s Morning After and Why Europe Leaves Home, two collections of his Post essays.

Facsimile of the dust jacket for "Why Europe Leaves Home". Courtesy of Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC.

Facsimile of the dust jacket for “Why Europe Leaves Home”. Courtesy of Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC.

For those today who study the history of immigration to America, and those who study current attitudes toward and policy for immigration, Kenneth Roberts is viewed as the spokesperson of past and present fears of conservative Americans toward a more open immigration policy. In fact, Ronald Bailey in “Silly panic: The fuss over a ‘minority white’ nation” (2012) claims that Roberts’ Europe’s Morning After influenced Congress, in part, the 1924 Immigration Act “to change the national origins formula, limiting the annual number of immigrants to two percent of the number of people from any country who were already resident here based on their numbers in the 1890 Census” (Bailey, 2012). Bailey is not alone is making this claim; indeed, Roberts’ influence in writing predated his work as a novelist; it began long before as a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post (I hope to write another post or two on other works written about Roberts and his work on immigration).

Roberts’ opinions regarding immigrants reflect a growing trend among some Americans, particularly those among Trump’s supporters. With the recent tragedies at the hands of ISIS, and President Obama’s recent attempts to address illegal immigration in America, the attitudes of the early twentieth century (as illustrated in Roberts) are alive and well nearly one hundred years later.

This image is the cover of the Post edition containing Roberts' article titled "Scraps from a Wanderer's Notebook" - a collection of thoughts from his travels in Eastern Europe. Courtesy of The Fiction Mags Index.

This image is the cover of the Post edition containing Roberts’ article titled “Scraps from a Wanderer’s Notebook” – a collection of thoughts from his travels in Eastern Europe. Courtesy of The Fiction Mags Index.

What is the purpose of this post? Why bring up this unflattering picture of Kenneth Roberts? For this post in particular, I want to open the discussion on the one area of Roberts’ work with which I do not agree. I admire Roberts’ ability to write, his wit and sarcasm, and his love and loyalty for his home state and country. However, I find his views on race objectionable. Though there are those today who hold to similar views as Roberts, the tone and tenor of our society for the most part has significantly changed such that there is greater sensitivity and understanding toward issues of race.

As such, how are we to understand Kenneth Roberts – the man and the author? Does his view on race dictate how we view his novels? Are we to respect him less as a person? These questions – among others – are ones that I’ve had to struggle with as a fan of Kenneth Roberts. For a time, I just sat on the issue, unsure of what to do. However, as we inch closer to the 2016 presidential election, the hot topic of immigration will continue to garner more and more attention. As such, more will be written on the issue or immigration (and race), with more references to Kenneth Roberts’ and his influence on early twentieth century immigration policy. I feel, then, that it’s time for us to wrestle with Roberts’ stance on race and immigration, and how it plays into his overall body of work.

I should say now that I do believe it is possible to appreciate Kenneth Roberts as a man and author in spite of his views on race and immigration. While there are various reasons for this, I think one key factor is that Roberts was a product of his time and culture. Though his views on race and immigration are (to me) objectionable, it is anachronistic to condemn him in light of today’s sensibilities and standards. This is not to justify Roberts’ views; rather, it’s saying that we can accept a person despite their flaws. For instance, I strongly disagree with Sam Harris on a number of issues; however, I appreciate his honesty, his clarity, and his desire to pursue truth. I respect Harris as a person while simultaneously object to a number of his views. In this light, I believe we can approach Roberts in the same way. (I think it is fair to say that we approach nearly everyone we know in this manner. It’s rare to agree with someone in every single area. There are those with whom you agree with more than others, but on some level we respect others for who they are in spite of certain areas of disagreement. There is a question, though: at what point do you disassociate from someone due to their views? This question, I believe, goes well beyond the scope of this website for it is philosophical and theological in nature. But, in light of the topic of this post, it is one we must all reflect upon and come to a conclusion consistent with one’s worldview.)

Kenneth Roberts Books: Good Maine Food

Being a book collector on a budget is both a challenge and exciting. This is the case for me when it comes to Kenneth Roberts’ books. Sure, I can buy books on Amazon or eBay, but where is the fun in that? I’ve found greater joy in finding a Roberts book at an antique store or a used book store. It’s the excitement of the hunt; the hard work is paid when a Roberts book is located and purchased.

One of the most difficult books to locate is Marjorie Mosser’s Good Maine Food – a book in which Roberts helped his niece to compile recipes and provide notes on various recipes. Roberts is well-known for the love he had for his home state; intimately linked to this love is his adoration for his grandmother’s cooking, which is evident in his various essays. Though I prefer to purchase Roberts’ novels, I have kept an eye out for Good Maine Food to add to my collection. I’ve found, though, that this cookbook has been as difficult to locate as Roberts’ earliest publications.

Good Maine Food, 1974 edToday, however, was one of the most successful hunts I’ve had in quite some time. I randomly stopped at a local antique mall to just browse, and to my surprise, I found a 1974 edition of Good Maine Food! This is the first copy I’ve ever found since I’ve begun collecting Roberts books in 1999. Granted, it is nowhere near being a first edition, but considering how long I’ve been looking for this book, I snatched it up and held on to it for dear life.

I found the pictured copy of Good Maine Food in literally the last booth I looked through; then, to my delight, one of my daughters told me that there were more booths in the basement (my other daughters chided her for bring up this delightful news). And so, on to the basement we went. About halfway through, I went to a booth that had only a few books (the booth owner focused primarily on decorative items); lo and behold, my eyes immediately landed on another copy of Good Maine Food – this one a 1947 hardback edition. I couldn’t believe it! I could not find a copy for 17 years, and in one day – within 20 minutes – I find two copies! Further, I find a cookbook on Maine food in Louisville, Kentucky – not the hub of Maine cuisine. (Below are some images of the spine, the front cover, and the title page.)

Kenneth Roberts penned the introduction to Good Maine Food, and even here his classic wit is evident.

I like good food; and ever since I’ve known anything at all about such things, I’ve known that the best foods are the simplest. Good Maine Food ignores cookery that is namby-pamby, twiddly, cloying, fussy, messy and immature, and emphasizes foods that appeal to men and women whose tastes are sound and sturdy (xi).

Even in the introduction, Roberts provides excellent biographical information and a look into the Roberts the man. At the beginning of each chapter, Roberts provides a small blurb about the kinds of food discussed. Also included are “Maine Maxims” – nuggets of wisdom to consider when preparing your food or preparation area. In short, Mosser and Roberts provide not only a cookbook of Maine cuisine, they provide a short history of Roberts and of Maine – an interesting reading indeed.

Good Maine Food (1947) - Title Page

Good Maine Food (1947) - Front

Good Maine Food (1947) - spine

Kenneth Roberts Books: John Pierce’s Journal, Moreau de St. Mery, and Nordwest Passage

Today my family and I spent some time in Frankfort, Kentucky, to visit the state capitol and visit the quaint downtown area. The day would have been a win with just the visit to the capitol; however, our visit to Frankfort’s downtown made the day even better. Why, you may ask? Because of the treasure in Poor Richard’s Books – one of those now-rare local book stores that lack the corporate feel of the box stores and the virtually impersonal feel of e-books. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the middle of the store was filled with more bookcases. Then, you go upstairs to find another floor full of older, dustier books. Books lined the walls and filled bookcases in the aisles, while overflow books…well…flowed onto the floor. It was magical. A book store where you could literally spend an afternoon looking through the books for anything and everything.

Our trip to Poor Richard’s led me to two Kenneth Roberts’ books. I stress “two” because it’s rare to find more than one book of Roberts’ in a book store outside of New England.  The first book I found was a first edition of Moreau de St. Mery’s Amerian Journey. Roberts consulted the journals of de St. Mery when he was writing Lydia Bailey. The journals gave him insight into “the French refugees who fled from San Domingo and France at the end of the eighteenth century” (front flap). De St. Mery’s approach to writing is similar to that of Alexis de Tocqueville, but is a better read than Tocqueville.

Another find from Poor Richard’s was a copy of Kenneth Roberts’ Nordwest Passage. No, I did not misspell anything there. It’s a German copy of Roberts’ book Northwest Passage. I’ve seen online before a copy or two of Roberts’ books in another language, but have never come across a copy here in the states. Most books translated into another language are not worth much, but for a Kenneth Roberts fan, this is a neat collector’s item. Note in the pictures below the artwork on the dust jacket (I’ll need to get a protective cover for the dj); it reminds me of Eric Carle’s artwork in his children’s books. As for the book, it’s a good thing I already know what the book is about so I don’t have to brush up on my German.😉




I also found several copies of Lydia Bailey, but I already have so many copies of this book that I passed on buying one (though I did consider it!). I highly recommend you visit Poor Richard’s Books if you ever find yourself in Frankfort, Kentucky. You can also visit them on the web ( or on Facebook.

Finally, one of my bigger finds was earlier this summer when I found a copy of John Pierce: Journal by the Advanced Surveyor With Col. Arnold on the March to Quebec. Roberts did not publish this book (more like a booklet) by itself; rather,  if my memory serves me correctly, this booklet was included with a copy of either March to Quebec or Arundel (fellow K.R. fans, help out my memory on this one). I’ve been looking for a copy of John Pierce for quite some time and stubmled across my copy while on The book ran for about $50 or so, but I found my copy for $15. Not too shabby.

And, to conclude an already lengthy post, I found another first edition copy of I Wanted to Write at a great book store in New Orleans called Crescent City Books (

It can be frustrating being a Roberts fan on a shoestring budget. Kenneth Roberts collectibles are to be had, but you have to be willing to pay a pretty penny. However, there are those wonderful days when you stumble across a first edition that fits your budget. And this summer, I’ve had several of those days!

Kenneth Roberts Books: Nostalgia and Rabble in Arms


IMG_3261 Kenneth L. Roberts, “Rabble in Arms,” International Collectors Library (Garden City, NY: 1947)

I’ve picked up Rabble in Arms this week for my summer reading. In doing so, I’ve become a little nostalgic about when I collected my first Kenneth Roberts book. I read my first Roberts book in my junior year of high school. I had a reading report to do and no book to read. So, one day I was wandering around our school library and I just randomly picked up a copy of Rabble in Arms. After glancing through it, I thought I’d give it a shot. Little did I know that upon completing Rabble in Arms, I would have read one of the very few books that stand out from among the rest.

Several years passed by without my reading any other Kenneth Roberts books, but I recall considering Rabble in Arms my favorite book. Finally, in either my senior year of college or just after graduating college, I stopped at a rather large used book store in Baton Rouge (that’s unfortunately not there anymore!). And for some reason, I became intent on finding a copy of Rabble in Arms. I didn’t remember the full title, and I didn’t remember Roberts’ name; however, I was bound and determined to find the book. I was nearing the end of my search, literally in the last section of the store when I stumbled upon the copy of Rabble in Arms you see above. I was ecstatic and went home to begin reading a lost but found treasure. Little did I know what purchasing this book would begin…

My first copy of Rabble in Arms is no first edition, nor is it a special edition or a signed copy.. I had to hot glue the spine to keep it from flapping open, and scuff marks are evident on the back board. Yet, it sits on the shelf containing my best copies of Roberts’ works (except when I’m reading it!). Any time I’ve moved, I’ve made sure this book was packed carefully and placed prominently on my bookshelf. This copy may never hold any monetary value, but it will always be of greatest value among all of my books.

In Honor of Memorial Day

Today we remember those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom of our country; further, we honor all who have served in our armed forces. In light of Memorial Day, today’s post is in honor of Kenneth Roberts and his service to the United States.  During WWI, Roberts served in the Siberian Expeditionary Force in 1918-1919 as Captain in the Intelligence Service. The picture below (obtained from here) is of Roberts’ headstone. Interestingly, though Roberts was a diehard Maine native, he chose not to be buried in his beloved state, but as a soldier in Arlington Cemetery (West, 1962, p. 99).

Kenneth Roberts' Headstone at Arlington Cemetery.

Kenneth Roberts’ Headstone at Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy Ron Williams.

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