K.R. in the Blogosphere: Jack Bales’ bio of Kenneth Roberts

Okay, so what I found wasn’t on a blog, but instead on Dartmouth’s library website.  Nevertheless, I found a brief bio on Kenneth Roberts written by his biographer, Jack Bales (of whom I’ve written on in the past).  This short bio is a great glimps into Kenneth Roberts the man.

What stuck out to me was Bales’ discussion on Kenneth Roberts’ discouragement over the lack of sales and acclaim of his first several novels during the first 6 years of his writing (which included my all-time favorite novel, Rabble in Arms).  Bales states:

After exhaustively researching Benedict Arnold’s march to capture Quebec during the first year of the American Revolution, Roberts wrote Arundel (1930), which he soon followed with The Lively Lady (1931) and Rabble in Arms (I933). By I934, none of the books had sold very well, and as Roberts recalled years later, some prominent critics had pointedly disdained his literary efforts :

I understood them to say my dialogue was inept, I was deplorably weak in delineating character, knew nothing about plot-structure, couldn’t interpret history adequately and, generally speaking, would be well advised to turn to other means of livelihood. I’d worked hard on those books for [six] years without any noticeable reward or acclaim; and their reception and sales were discouraging in the extreme so much so that I was broke and on the verge of abandoning the course I’d charted for myself [six] years before. (Bales)

While Roberts was generally known as an opinionated, curmudgeonly man, this piece by Bales reveals that popular sentiment did not paint a full picture of Roberts.  Roberts ended up receiving a letter from the president of Dartmouth (Ernest Martin Hopkins) which praised his works, thus serving as a turning point in Roberts’ career.

This, then, brings us to an interesting piece of Roberts trivia: though Roberts was a native of Maine and loved Maine with practically his whole being, Dartmouth serves as the home of his works and correspondence because of Hopkins’ letter and Roberts’ receiving an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth.



5 Responses

  1. Roberts’ research on the Arnold expedition is crucial to any study of the subject. He makes some mistakes, though, due to regionalism and the status of his ancestors, the Nasons. But then as has been pointed out to me, it was fiction. For more see my new book, which includes an extensive essay on Roberts.


    • Thanks! This is definitely a book I’d like to get! Roberts helped me to gain a better appreciation for Arnold’s service to America, which in turn made his betrayal that much more frustrating! If you don’t mind, could you provide a blurb for your book, particularly in how you relate to Roberts’ works? I can place what you write in a post as free pub for your book. If you want to, just type it out in Word, and send to dannymcdonald86 at gmail dot com. Thanks! I hope to read your book soon!

      Also, I do have a thought regarding the comment you made about his work being fiction – while it was indeed fiction, Roberts intended his works for something more – fiction was just the vehicle for his purpose. I’ll write out my thoughts more in a post.

      Again, thanks for sharing!

      • Sure thing.

        From the Back Cover

        In late 1775, a few months after the first shots of the Revolution were fired, Benedict Arnold led more than one thousand troops into Quebec to attack the British there. Departing from Massachusetts, by the time they reached Pittston, Maine, they were in desperate need of supplies and equipment to carry them the rest of the way. Many patriotic Mainers contributed, including Major Reuben Colburn, who constructed a flotilla of bateaux for the weary troops. Despite his service in the Continental army, many blamed Colburn when several of the vessels did not withstand the harsh journey. In this narrative, the roles played by Colburn and his fellow Mainers in Arnold’s march are reexamined and revealed.

        Statement sent by email.

    • Hey Mark. Quick question for clarification…when you mentioned the mistakes in Roberts’ work, you stated “But then as has been pointed out to me, it was fiction.” Could you clarify what you mean here? It seems to come across as you saying that Roberts’ sole puprose was to write fiction, hence the mistakes in his research. Or, it can be taken as saying that one should not take his “history” in his novels seriously because it is just fiction. Thanks!

      • Roberts’ research is good but he embellishes things, and people, that did not happen, while removing people and things that did happen. It’s a novel and that’s perfectly allowable, and many times necessary, but it doesn’t make for good objective history. I had a vitriolic review left on Amazon that pointed out I had no business criticizing his research and theories because Roberts wrote a novel. No kidding. Roberts goal was to tell the story of his family in the march and so they were the heroes. He could have had Reuben Colburn on the march as it happened but he didn’t. That isn’t what happened but that didn’t mean much to Roberts for the story he wanted to tell.

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