Kenneth Roberts in the News: “The wreck of the Wandby near Walker’s Point”

I’m quickly becoming a fan of Sharon Cummins‘ work – her brief glimpses into neglected or forgotten events of America’s past (particularly Maine, if I’m not mistaken).  The most recent article I’ve found – “The wreck of the Wandby near Walker’s Point”  (www.seacoastonline.com) – discusses the shipwreck of the Wandby in 1921 in which she briefly mentions Kenneth Roberts, which affords us a glimpse at Kenneth Roberts interacting with the events of his time.

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Kenneth Roberts the Man: “Curmudgeonly Kenneth Roberts helped generations know their past”

Here’s a great article – “Curmudgeonly Kenneth Roberts helped generations know their past” – on The Working Waterfront on Kenneth Roberts the man (written by Harry Gratwick in the Dec. 07 – Jan. 08).  While most of the info mentioned in the article is familiar to me, he provides to quotes that shed further light on Kenneth Roberts the man.

Kenneth Roberts and American Education:

He had no use for American education: “A mind loaded with little scraps of information on Egyptian history, zoology, oriental art, the poets of the Renaissance and similar intellectual detritus is not trained,” he wrote. “It might be called a human New England attic: A repository of useless and forgotten things.”

Kenneth Roberts on his wife, Anna, whom he apparently loved dearly.  He speaks so fondly of her, I wish I could have met her; she seems to have been a significant key to his success.

In 1911 Roberts married Anna Mosser from Boston, and she must have been a saint. She typed and re-typed his manuscripts, often in unheated apartments during the winter. Until the success of Northwest Passage in 1936, they had very little money. He called her “patient and long suffering'” and he completely depended on her. “Anna says we can’t spend a penny until we get a check from the Post. All writers should learn to live on spaghetti for months on end. It’s delicious”.

At least Kenneth Roberts had a sense of humor.

“Anna says I ought to have a theme song, so I wrote one for her:
I wonder what’s eating him now:
At what he is raging-and how!
I wonder what’s making him squawk and yell,
Beef and howl and roar like hell.
I wonder what next he’ll rewrite?
All day and through most of the night
I wonder what tripe I will next have

Take some time to read this nice article.

Jeff Riggenbach on Kenneth Roberts and History

Jeff Riggenbach kindly responded to my recent post regarding his book and his mention of Kenneth Roberts.  Here’s what he said:

Danny, just for the record:

I do not regard KR as an opportunist.  I think he wrote his novels in perfect sincerity, to reflect the view his historical research had convinced him was the truth.  I think the change in American popular opinion toward England that took place at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s helped make him a bestselling author, but not because he made any sort of cynical effort to take advantage of it.  On the contrary, KR went right on writing what he’d always written.  When public opinion changed, he was in the right place at the right time.

JR

Thank you, Jeff, for your clarification and insight!

Kenneth Roberts on Mexicans – An Unflattering View of K.R. the Man

I came across a blog today (Making History Podcast: The Blog) that referenced Kenneth Roberts and his Post days in a post that seeks to show that “xenophobic and racist tirade[s]” against Mexicans is not a new issue (the reason for this post is Jay Severin – a shockjock – (never heard of him) and his recent dismissal from a radio show for his comments on Mexicans.  The author(s) of this post reference a quote made by Roberts in one of his articles for the Post:

And here is what Saturday Evening Post columnist Kenneth Roberts said, not last week but in 1931: “They are the criminal Mexicans, worthless in labor and always a social problem. They are also chronic beggars and sizzling with disease. This class should never pass the immigration officers on the border.”

They conclude their reference to K.R. with: “We are now, just as then, in the throes of an economic crisis where anxieties become attacks and the targets prove to be the nation’s most vulnerable populations.”

Roberts’ comment aside, I don’t think the analogy between Severin’s comment and Roberts’ comment is that relevant of an analogy.  The link the authors see is that Severin made his comment in a time of dire economic straits, a growing Hispanic population in America and during the middle of an outbreak of a Mexico-born virus.   The authors seem to pick Roberts’ comments in part because of the time he wrote it – 1931, the year the Great Depression began (but was the quote written before or after Black Friday?  They do not say, nor do they reference what edition of the Post in which the quote appears).  The authors do not, however, make any other connection to Severins’ comment and context.  Despite similar vitriol in the two quotes, Roberts’ comment is not necessarily a result of the economic crisis of his time, for it could be just a prejudiced comment made by a very opinionated man – a comment that would have been made no matter what state the economy was in.  Roberts just happens to express a similar view to that of Severin, which is more than likely just coincidental.

Nonetheless, this quote gives a rather unflattering glimpse of Kenneth Roberts – a man known for his being very opinionated.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: Kenneth Roberts a Revisionist?

Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism Last week or so I linked a post on Lew Rockwell‘s site that contains a chapter from Jeff Riggenbach’s latest book “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.”  In a nut shell, Riggenbach seeks to look at the change in the way historians understand American history since the mid-nineteenth century.  America’s history, once held in high esteem, is now viewed as being “series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores” (Riggenbach, ch. 1).  In the chapter provided on Rockwell’s site, Riggenbach deals with objectivity (or lack thereof) of the historian and the seemingly oxymoron “historical fiction.”

Riggenbach spends some time highlighting Kenneth Roberts and his works to illustrate his previous section on historical fiction.  While briefing the reader on Roberts’ bio, Riggenbach mentions Roberts’ desire for writing historical fiction: “to help insure preservation of ‘the speech, the events, the customs and the appearance’ of his native state” (ch. 1).  Riggenbach, however, seems to imply that Roberts’ intentions were not so pure.

Riggenbach notes that Roberts’ first works (Arundel, The Lively Lady, Rabble in Arms, and  Captain Caution) received very little attention until his publication of Northwest Passagein 1937, which received much acclaim that resulted in a Hollywood movie based on the novel.  Roberts’ subsequent novels were best sellers.  So, why the sudden attention and acclaim?  Riggenbach seems to suggest that Roberts’ success resulted from his ability to to adapt his writing in a way that matched American sentiments, thus allowing him to gain noteriety and fame.

To support this, Riggenbach compares two of Roberts’ novels – Rabble in Arms(pre-fame) and Oliver Wiswell (during the height of his fame) – in which Roberts’ highlights unfavorable characters in a positive light (Rabble in Arms – Benedict Arnold; Oliver Wiswell– title character is a Tory).  Riggenbach quotes Linda Orlando as the voice of American sentiment toward Roberts’ Rabble in Arms:

Linda Orlando may be overstating the case when she writes that Roberts “explained and defended the treason of General Benedict Arnold” and that Roberts considered Arnold “misunderstood,” and “not the villain history had depicted him to be.”  But there can be little doubt that Roberts’s novels were taken in just this way by many of his contemporaries.

Americans, then, did not take to Roberts’ novel because of his  positive portrayal of the epitome of betrayal and evil (at least to Americans) – Benedict Arnold.  No American, then, would dare to read Roberts’ pro-Arnold books!

When Roberts wrote Oliver Wiswell, he was still riding the wave of success resulting from Northwest Passage.  Around the same time of Northwest Passage’s publication, Riggenbach notes that American sentiment towards Britain had begun to change as well.  Though as late as 1941  most Americans did not view Britain in a too-positive light (just two years before, American ships were harassed by the Royal Navy), Ameircan sentiment towards Britain began to change as a result of the work of “the ‘liberal’ wing of the Democratic Party, who in the late 1930s sought to change  American foreign policy.  Coincidentally (?), when Roberts published Oliver Wiswell (a book in which the title character is a Tory during the later part of the American Revolution)  in 1940, his works continued to sell well based upon his recognition from Northwest Passage and the rising pro-British sentiment in the U.S.

Riggenbach concedes that what he argues as cause for Roberts’ sustained popularity is not completely certain:

Perhaps it was this same ‘underlying favorable pre-disposition’ that led the reading public to suddenly embrace the pro-British novels of Kenneth Roberts, after years of ignoring them.  Or perhaps, as the efforts of the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia to reshape public opinion on the crisis in Europe began to succeed, the pro-British stance of Roberts’s novels began to seem more palatable – even appealing.  Or did a confused American public, still only partially weaned from its suspicion of England and its distrust of what George Washington had called “foreign entanglements,” reach out for Kenneth Roberts’s novels out of a felt need to find a way to justify the friendlier attitude toward the English that already seemed well on its way to becoming the new conventional wisdom?

While Riggenbach leaves the question open for the reader to decide, he leaves no doubt as to his answer:

History is the witness both of the times it describes and of the times in which it is written … Roberts’ meticulously researched depictions of the American Revolution tell us much about the times the depict, but they have much to reveal as well about the times in which they were published and first found a mass audience.  For the writers who gain the widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its own major preoccupations – the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of a person’s attention and concern (emphasis mine).

So, without having read the entire book, it seems that Riggenbach is including Roberts as a revisionist, interpreting historical fact and information in light of current ideals, sentiments, philosophies, etc.  Roberts, virtually unknown before Northwest Passage, happened to hit the perfect storm with rising pro-British sentiments in the U.S. and the publication of Oliver Wiswell, enabling him to sustain his popularity.

I’m not sure what to make of this claim; as I stated, I’ve not read the entire book and I don’t want to take one chapter out of context of the entire book, but what I’ve read so far seems to make Roberts out as a mere opportunist.  What do you think?

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