“Oliver Wiswell”: an Authoritative Work?

As stated before, I am catching up on Kenneth Roberts news in the blogosphere.  I try to post on matters I find relevant and helpful to those interested in learning more about one of America’s least-known great authors.  However, sometimes you’ve just got to post things out of the ordinary.

Over at On, Now, to the 3rd Level, Daniel Yordy discusses what I believe to be about community, particularly Christian community (not so much a church in the traditional sense, but a community in the sense of a commune?).  In this long post, Yordy discusses the issue of freedom and the “lie” that freedom does not result from war (I hope I understand his point correctly).  Now, what I find interesting is that Yordy quotes favorably Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell seemingly as an authoritative work in this matterHere’s what Yordy states:

If you want to know for certain that the American Revolution had absolutely nothing to do with freedom, just read the first three chapters of Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The American Revolution opposed freedom in every possible way. In reality, it was nothing more than an excuse to kill one’s neighbor and to burn down his home.

While I believe that Roberts was faithful to his commitment to accurately portray historical events (which I believe is backed up by his tedious research), I’m not sure how far one is to take the fictional aspect of his work as authoritative.  The chapters Yordy refers to, if I am not mistaken, are written from the perspective of the fictional character, Oliver Wiswell, who is a Tory living in America during the Revolutionary War.  The character gives his view, as a Tory, on the war.  While chapters 1 – 3 are technically Roberts’ words, he intends to portray common Tory sentiment of the war. On the other hand, I believe Roberts himself would side with the “rabble” who fought against England.

This issue raises the question on the role of historical fiction in one’s research and support.  If historical fiction is written in the manner of Kenneth Roberts (backed by significant research and historical facts presented as faithfully as possible), can it be used authoritatively? At the very least those parts that are historical fact in nature, as opposed to fiction written with no intention of presenting any historical fact (I am sure there are numerous forms of fiction; here I use “fiction” in its most general form, as a story made up by its author, not reflecting any true person(s) or even(s))?

Personally, I believe one treads on shaky ground if he bases an argument, in part or in whole (and outside of the realm of literature and the arts), on historical fiction; however, my opinion may be a result of my doctoral studies in which any reliance upon fictional works is frowned upon.

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6 Responses

  1. i was wondering if you knew the history of the house fires at rocky pastures.

  2. When reading Roberts you get a feel for the History. It is not a substitute for the actual history. However, certain small aspects do get deserved coverage. The March through Maine by Arnold is usually dealt with in a sentence. It was an a feat that rivaled the greatest marches in history.

    The Siege of 96 is not a commonly discussed military battle even for history geeks like myself. Roberts does an excellent job preparing an enthusiastic reader to go out and read more about the actual history.

    I am now 1/3 of the way done with Northwest Passage. At a certain point I am going to discuss what is the best order to read Roberts work.

  3. Thank you for treating my ramblings with respect. Looking at my comments, I would certainly tone them down if I wrote them in a different setting. That Kenneth Roberts would “side with the rabble” may well be true. But I read his “Rabble at Arms” when I was young and have held a secret defense in my heart for Benedict Arnold ever since.

    However, even though Oliver Wiswell is historical fiction, it doesn’t mean that it does not reflect human nature. Almost everything we read about American history is written by Americans, which means it has a definite American bias to it. There is always another side and a different view. No young man who fought for England was evil or didn’t love his family and friends, or wasn’t doing what was “right.”

    My point in that article is that killing one’s neighbor, for whatever reason, is the opposite of freedom. Freedom is respect for one’s neighbor. Yes, the Americans won independence, but it is a historical fact that many thousands of Americans lost their freedom to believe and live as they wished and were driven from home and country.

    I would agree with you that historical fiction is not valid for specific accurate research. But it has great value in putting human flesh upon dry historical facts, making them personal. My point was the personal side, not the non-fiction side of those incidents.

    And yes, it concerns me very much that the idea that killing young men from other countries is how we “buy” “freedom” permeates American culture, and American Christianity. That “myth” concerns me very much.

    To further the argument concerning “historical fiction,” I have read all of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series three times now. I see it in part as a study of Lord Wellington. Now, in seeing it that way, I understand perfectly that it is fiction, and that Cornwell puts Sharpe in many places occupied by real historical figures. But for a lay man, here’s the trick. After reading Sharpe’s Waterloo twice, I then read an “accurate history” account of Waterloo. What I had learned and remembered from Sharpe was entirely accurate, plus much easier to remember both in broad extent and in the minute details of the battle. No, from a college research level, historical fiction is a no-no. But to learn and remember history as it was lived, well-written historical fiction has much value.

    Thanks, Daniel Yordy

  4. I agree very much with Beakerkin that in “reading Roberts you get a feel for the History.” I have read “Northwest Passage” (with my mother) when I was a child and recently “Arundel,” “Rabble in Arms,” and “Oliver Wiswell.” My Ph.D. happens to be in US History, though my specialty was not early American history.

    In siding with Benedict Arnold, Roberts presents a negative picture of the Continental Congress, more than a few American officers, the rabble, and most American colonials, who often seem to be “sunshine” patriots. I think this was largely accurate. But it must be also pointed out that even in “Oliver Wiswell,” Roberts does not present a flattering picture of the British, especially their class system. The British are simply not the devils that the patriot propaganda portrayed them to be. Oliver Wiswell’s position seems to be that British treatment of the American people was far from perfect, but that it was not so oppressive as to justify an armed rebellion, with all of its negative ramifications. Considering how badly subjects in other lands were treated by their rulers at that time, this would seem to be a reasonable judgment. On the other hand, at the end of the book, Oliver implies that God might bring about something great in America as a result of the evils of the war.

    Most of the political comments in Roberts’ books seem quite reasonable, though there is at least one exception: the idea that Arnold’s treason was somehow an attempt to save America from French domination seems very far-fetched.

  5. As a descendent of Connecticut Tories, it’s refreshing to see ‘the other side – ours – of the Revolution. My family were ones who left after the War to occupy King’s grants in New Brunswick – where my father was born and his mother is buried. Roberts portrays that circumstance very well – accurate or not. Ship builders, they returned to Noank, CT to work, then settled in New London. My father wanted to keep the family land, but it was taken by Eminent Domain before he died in 1946. You’ve enticed me to reread Roberts’ other books – fact or fiction, I love his writing. His characters are priceless.

    • Thank you, Gail, for your comment! I find your family history very interesting; is/was there a family member who recorded your family’s history? I love history and am interested in my own family’s history, but it seems that no one has taken the time to do the research and map out our history. I’d love to do this, but with 3 kids, work, school………may be one day!

      I’m glad that I’ve helped to stoke an insterest in you for Kenneth Roberts! Let me know what you think of his other works!

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