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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One Response

  1. 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

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