Kenneth Roberts in Current News: “Locke’s Mills” in The Bethel Citizen

Bethel, Maine

Bethel, Maine

Today’s “Kenneth Roberts in Current News” comes from The Bethel Citizen and a piece titled “Locke’s Mills” by Betsey Foster in which, it appears, Ms. Foster provides tidbits of news from the surrounding area.  In today’s piece, Ms. Foster makes mention of Kenneth Roberts.  What I found interesting about Ms. Foster’s piece is that Kenneth Roberts would visit a local farm of a friend to do some of his writing for the Post.

Kenneth Roberts, author of the novels “Arundel,” “Rabble in Arms,” “Northwest Passage” and more, came to an old farm in Ketchum to write his columns for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. As the story goes, Roberts’ friends, who owned the farm, would drag him up here from Kennebunk, Maine, for a “sobering” few days so he could get the article written.

I find such tidbits of information fascinating, as it gives us a glimpse into the goings on of Kenneth Roberts – stuff you won’t find in scholarly works or biographical works.


A Blast From the Past: St. Petersburg Loved Kenneth Roberts

Back in December I wrote a post highlighting an article from the St. Petersburg Times written on October 21, 1925 of Roberts’ visit to St. Petersburg on a fact gathering trip for a series of article for the Saturday Evening Post.  Though the Post was not able to get much information from Roberts, the plucky reporter gathered enough information from the hotel manager – rather mundane and inconsequential information – to write an article expressing the joy St. Petersburg felt for having Roberts visit the “Sunshine City.”

The article I want to highlight today is by the The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg) written on February 13, 1924.  The title of the article contains a rather long subheading: “Noted Writer Has Longing to Chase News Story Again: Kenneth Roberts, Well Known to Saturday Post Readers, Here for Week, Would Like to Stay Until Braves Come.”  St. Petersburg, apparently was not in 1924 what we know of it today, and seems to have considered itself to be in the wild, far off from the civilization of New England:

The man who has traveled all over the wold looking for material for his writing, the man who is foremost among the human interest writers who combine humor with human interest, feels the call of the wild in his veins and a longing in his heart to answer the call.

This quote contains a couple of interesting tidbits.  First, the reporter labels Kenneth Roberts as a human interest writer.  Roberts indeed wrote quite a bit about immigration, the development of the West, the Mormons, and much more when he was at the Post.  Roberts indeed wrote on important issues of his time, but scholarship since Roberts’ death (the little that exists) seem to place Roberts’ views as building up the the views of white, middle-class America of the early- to mid-twentieth century. A well-written article by Sylvia Whitman, “The West of a Down Easterner: Kenneth Roberts and the Saturday Evening Post, 1924-1928,” is one such article that argues to this end. [I find Whitman’s article thought-provoking, but I am not sure I fully agree with her conclusion.  More on this to come in a future post.]

Secondly, what exactly is this “call of the wild” mentioned in the article? While Roberts indeed traveled extensively, particularly during his Post years, I am not sure he did so because of the “call of the wild.”  What Roberts wanted more than anything was to get away from the busyness of the city to a quiet place so he could write.  In his I Wanted to Write, Roberts discusses how often he sought to leave the Post to pursue his passion for writing.  Well, as one reads further into the article, the “call of the wild” Roberts experienced was the spring training site for the Boston Braves: “…and when he saw the Boston Braves training field, he heard the call of the wild, and it got him strong.” The reporter then segues into a brief bio of Roberts’ earlier days in Boston as a reporter – days that prepared him as a preeminent human interest writer for the Post.

Unlike today where one can find pictures, Tweets, articles, and much more on any celebrity or prominent figure, the reading public in 1924 had virtually no access to well-known figures of their day other than what they read.    So, when a well-known figure visits the outer skirts of civilization like St. Petersburg, newspapers apparently took the time to describe the features of said well-known figure. I quote in length The Independent’s description of Roberts:

Kenneth Roberts is a husky, wholesome, handsome man.  You can call him handsome without spoiling him, because he will convince you that you are joking.  The attentions which his admirers among his readers shower upon him, has not turned his head. He is real. He is a type of a fine splendid American who has accomplished something worth while.

Not quite the description you’ll find of a prominent figure today!

Roberts’ visit to the Boston Braves’ field in St. Petersburg in 1924 must have had an impact on him, for the reporter quotes Roberts:

‘How I would love to stay here until the boys come down from Boston…I would give anything this minute if I could fan (sic) with Paul Shannon, see Charlie Young again, sit on the bleachers out there with Clif Carberry and Johnny Moahoney, how is he?  I must not even think of those fellows or I would just stick around St. Petersburg and run around with the fellows from the Boston papers and have one glorious time again.’

I wonder if the reporter was using the phrase “call of the wild” ambiguously here on purpose, first alluding to the Boston Braves (the call of wild Indians?) and second, to the call of St. Petersburg. The former makes some sense, but the latter seems to misunderstand Roberts (if the latter is indeed intended by the reporter).  Roberts did not necessary long for the wild of St. Petersburg, but instead expressed a feature of Roberts that helped define the man – a strong loyalty to his roots.

Boston 1775 on Major Robert Rogers

Major Robert Rogers

With some sadness, I am going to place this site on a quasi-hibernation as I prepare for my Ph. D. comprehensive exams in March.  I’ll occasionally write a post, but I will save any serious posts for after my comps.  In the meantime, take a look at Boston 1775‘s post titled: “A Negro servant Man, belonging to Major Robert Rogers.” While the post does not mention or discuss Kenneth Roberts, it highlights an aspect of a character in one of Kenneth Roberts’ more famous novels, Northwest Passage.  It’s information like this that helps to bring alive the historical figures in Roberts’ novels.

In addition to reading this post, I encourage you to look through the entire Boston 1775 site; it’s a joy to read for all lovers of early American history, primarily in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary time period.

Kenneth Roberts on the Film “Northwest Passage” (1940)

I have yet to write a book, and if I do have the opportunity to author something worth publishing, I highly doubt that Hollywood will come knocking down my doors asking to do a film based upon my book.  I am quite fine with that.  If one considers the sheer number of books published each year compared to the number of movies produced based upon a book, the number of these kinds of movies is quite small.  With that in mind, it would seem the author of the book would be quite honored to have a film produced on his own work.  But that is not the case with Kenneth Roberts and the 1940 Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracey.

My correspondence with Tracey Levasseur (see recent post on the envelope addressed to Roberts) reminded me of Roberts’ disdain for Hollywood – a disdain that comes through in Chapter 1 of his I Wanted To Write.

With the publication of Northwest Passage, I had my first direct – a profoundly depressing – contact with cinema circles.

When MGM began to produce the screen production of Northwest Passage, Roberts sarcastically notes that they were lacking “in technical knowledge concerning the uniforms and behavior of Rogers’ Rangers.”  Instead of contacting Roberts, the studio employed the help of a “Miss Dorothy Vaughan, librarian of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Public Library,” who in turn sought out Kenneth Roberts’ answers to the studios questions!  She would relay Roberts’ answers to the studio, who would then, according to Roberts, end up using “their own conceptions, which were nauseatingly incorrect.”

In regards to the screenplay writing of Northwest Passage, Roberts states that the screenplay went through four different writers.  And when all was said and done, the silver screen version differed greatly from the novel:

…the dauntless and hard-boiled leader of the original Rangers had horribly turned into the sort of person who bursts into tears at a crucial moment of an arduous expedition; a woman character, shrewish and a harridan, had become a sweet and mealy-mouthed nonentity; all motivation had been discarded; the book’s thesis had ceased to exist; its essential portion, on which the name of the book and the film were based, was ignored; and a Hollywood flavor was added by introducing a sequence stolen from Arundel.

In our correspondence, Tracey pointed out that tt’s no wonder, then, that no “Part II” followed the 1940 film (recall that “Part I” was part of the 1940 film). It is probably a reason why, she surmises, why his works are still under copyright – to protect them from being mishandled by Hollywood producers.

Kenneth Roberts in Scholarly Work

To continue my excitement from last night, in addition to finding the book on dowsing in which the author spent an entire chapter on Kenneth Roberts and Henry Gross, I also came across a scholarly article written by Sylvia Whitman titled “The West of a Down Easterner: Kenneth Roberts and The Saturday Evening Post, 1924-1928” from The Journal of the West.  This find has opened up yet another vein of study of Kenneth Roberts – particularly Kenneth Roberts the man.  Though I’ll be saving my critique of Ms. Whitman’s article for a future post, I want to point out how well-written and well-researched her article is; the footnotes alone will give me plenty of material to write on in future posts.

The point of this post is to point out the fact that there is scholarly work done on Kenneth Roberts, and it’s there for the picking.  I don’t know how easy it will be to access some of these works (some works are dissertations and/or theses), but I am going to do my best to get my hands on these works!

In regards to Ms. Whitman, her article I mentioned above appeared in 1992.  She has a rather extensive CV, and has recently written a new novel.  What I find interesting about her in regards to this website is that, according to the short bio at the end of  “The West of a Down Easterner,” 1) her grandfather was Robert Choate – a good friend of Roberts, and 2) Ms. Whitman wrote her Master’s thesis on Kenneth Roberts and the Saturday Evening Post.   Most Kenneth Roberts’ fans (including myself) are mostly familiar with his historical-fiction novels; Ms. Whitma’s works, and those of others, help to provide a more complete picture of Kenneth Roberts the man.  I truly look forward to reading more from Ms. Whitman.

In the meantime, I want to provide a short bibliography of scholarly work done on Roberts – works of Ms. Whitman herself and those she references in her article (in no particular order or style; this is rather informal).  I do plan on doing a more formal bibliography soon.

Whitman, S. S. (1992). The west of a down easterner: Kenneth Roberts and The Saturday Evening Post, 1924-1928. Journal Of The West, 31(1), 88-97.

Hoffman, G. F. (1979). Ethnic prejudice and racial ideology in the immigration articles of kenneth L. roberts. Michigan State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 95-95 p. Retrieved from (302937060).

Jeffery, Benjamin Miles, “The Saturday Evening Post Short Story in the Nineteen-Twenties,” diss., University of Texas, 1966 (footnote 8 in Ms. Whitman’s article).

Kitch, John Ira, “From History to Fiction: Kenneth Roberts As an Historical Novelist,” diss., University of Illinois, Urbana, 1965 (footnote 12 in Ms. Whitman’s article).

Cary, Richard, “Roberts and Lorimer: The First Decade,” Colby Library Quarterly, 6(Sept. 1962).


Howard V. Chambers’ “Dowsing, Water Witches and Divining Rods”

Howard V. Chambers, "Dowsing, Water Witches and Divining Rod"

Howard V. Chambers, “Dowsing, Water Witches and Divining Rod”

One of my favorite things to do regardless of what town I’m in is to find a used book store (preferably the mom-and-pop book stores, but Half Price Books works fine as well) and just lose myself in the philosophy, theology, and church history sections, looking for books to go toward my dissertation and Ph. D. comps.  Though I rarely find any Kenneth Roberts books, I always do an obligatory scan through the fiction section, history section, and cookbook section (for Good Maine Food, of course!).  I must say that I unfortunately leave empty handed when it comes to Kenneth Roberts books; if there are any Roberts books in Louisville, they’re usually much later editions and worth only $1 or so.

Tonight, however, I found a pleasant surprise at Half Price Books.  Located in the “rare/out of print” section, I found a book titled Dowsing, Water Witches and Divining Rods by Howard V. Chambers.  I initially skipped over it, intent on finding that Roberts gem, but as I scanned over the titles again, my eyes stopped on the Chambers book and my curiosity was piqued.

Kenneth Roberts was known (infamously, primarily) for his interest in water dowsing toward the later part of his life.  His interest was such that he developed a relationship with a local dowser (Henry Gross), sought Gross’ help in finding water on his Rocky Pastures land, and wrote three books on dowsing.  Though Roberts was enthusiastic about what dowsing has to offer (as opposed to the more modern methods of finding water), many contemporaries derided Roberts for his interest in such a “bogus” practice.  Regardless of the noise from his critics, Roberts remained loyal to Henry Gross and convinced of the validity of dowsing to the day he died.

Chambers’ book devotes a full chapter (Chapter 9: Mr. Dowsing-Henry Gross) to Kenneth Roberts and his investment in Henry Gross’ dowsing ability.  Chambers’ entire book is a sort of history on the art of water dowsing, and in Chapter 9, he sets forth dowsing in the modern era, highlighted by Roberts, Gross, and the events surrounding the two men and their efforts to bring water dowsing to the public conscious.  The chapter is a quick read, but provides a fascinating look into a little-known (perhaps ignored) aspect of Kenneth Roberts’ life.

Unfortunately, Chambers does not provide a bibliography or a works cited page referencing his sources.  I am sure he read Roberts’ books on water dowsing, but I am very curious as to what articles he referenced(newspaper and journal alike) and if there were other sources he utilized.  Thankfully, we have the glories of Google News Archives and academic databases like JSTOR to try to locate possible sources Chambers may have utilized. ( For anyone interested, Chambers does mention a J.B. Rhine from Duke University in Chapter. 9 I, for one, am interested and hope to follow up on this.)

Kenneth Roberts was a fiercely loyal man – loyal to his work and his friends – and this was no less the case when it came to water dowsing and Henry Gross.  A study in Roberts’ involvement with water dowsing would be a study in and of itself – a study, I am sure, that would help to shed more light on this near-forgotten great American author.

Chambers, Henry V. Dowsing, Water Witches and Divining Rods: For the Millions (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, Inc., 1969), 156 pp.

Kenneth Roberts Memorabilia: A New Series

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been running this site for three and a half years now; not only has it been a joy getting to do something that Kenneth Roberts fans have found needed, but I’ve also enjoyed getting to meet new people who share in the common interest of keeping alive the appreciation for Kenneth Roberts and his works.  One benefit of meeting fellow Kenneth Roberts enthusiasts is getting to hear stories or see items that would otherwise go unnoticed, which leads me into another new series for this site – Kenneth Roberts Memorabilia.

The purpose of this series is simple: to share the pictures of artifacts that Kenneth Roberts enthusiasts have collected over the years.  Today’s artifact is an envelope addressed to Kenneth Roberts from Tracey Levasseur.  I’ll let her introduce this artifact:

Here’s a very strange story…: last year I was at a friend’s house looking over a stamp collection her father had left her before he passed away in 1967.  It was a hodge podge of stamp albums,
shoeboxes, envelopes, etc and contained everything from stamps to wedding invitations to empty envelopes addressed to other people. As I was pulling these items one by one out of a shoebox my eyes fell upon an addressed envelope that made my hair stand on end. It was addressed to Kenneth Roberts… from a London publishing company. Unfortunately the letter
inside had been lost to time but the simple fact that it was addressed to Roberts and he no doubt opened and replied to it, I had to have it. My friend gave it to me after I’d gone through and appraised the collection, which I thought was nice. What are the odds that I’m going to find this envelope in a stamp collection that had been sitting in my friends closet
for 45 years. Her father had no relationship with Roberts, had not lived in Kennebunk ever, how did he come to acquire this and why did it happen that I stumbled upon it [?]

Here are two images of the said envelope:

An envelope addressed to Kenneth Roberts ca. 1939.

An envelope addressed to Kenneth Roberts ca. 1939. Courtesy Tracey Levasseur.

K. Roberts envelope back

Photo courtesy Tracey Levasseur.

Here’s what Tracey says of the envelope:

The envelope came from Curtis Brown Ltd in London. This was and still is a literary agency which in its early days represented European authors in the US. However after WWI they started representing American authors in Europe. This envelope is postmarked 1939 which I suspect was a correspondence to Roberts regarding representing him in Europe. The address is his Kennebunkport address, which is Rocky Pastures as he would have moved into this house by 1939.

A great piece of history of one of America’s greatest authors.  Much thanks to Tracey for sharing with us!

Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood: Northwest Passage (1940) on “Reel Culture”

Lobby card for Northwest Passage. Spencer Tracy (center) and Robert Young (right).  Picture courtesy of<br />

It seems that the Hollywood rendition of Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage made the rounds in the blogosphere in 2012.  Today we meet up with‘s “Reel Culture” in which they ask: “Where are the great Revolutionary War films?”  Noting the film industry’s success in making blockbuster films of the US’s past (particularly of the Western frontier days and the Civil War), the number of great movies on America’s Revolutionary War is quite small.  “Reel Culture” provides one possible reason for the apparent lack of films honoring America’s struggle for nationhood:

Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times….Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?

Though the number of Revolutionary War films are small in number, “Reel Culture” lists various attempts by filmmakers to chronicle this crucial time in our nation’s history, such as 1776, Revolution, and The Patriot (among others).  And, more importantly to this website, the author of the blog post lists Northwest Passage among Revolutionary War films.  Though the setting does not occur during the Revolutionary War, the author justifies the inclusion of this film as such:
Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.

While films depicting Roberts’ works shared some time in the spotlight, Roberts was not a fan of his works making it to the silver screen.  And it is with this thought that I will begin what I hope to be a fun, interesting series: Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood.  In an upcoming post, we will take a look at Roberts’ attitude toward Hollywood taking on his novels.

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: Monster Mania and the Northwest Passage

HT: Monster Mania

Though I’ve been a big Kenneth Roberts fan for over twenty years, have sought to own and read all of his books, and began a website devoted to the man and his works, I must confess (ashamedly) that I have never watched the movies based upon his books.  I am not a big fan of movies made in the 1940s-1960s (probably the time period in which movies based on Roberts’ books were produced), and I am not much of a movie fan in general, so I have been reluctant to watch these movies. Perhaps the biggest reason for my reluctance is that I am afraid that I would find the movies too cheesy and/or ruining what Roberts set out to do in his books.  Nevertheless, I know I must watch these movies at some point, but I’ll wait until my Ph. D. is over.

Thankfully, there are blogs and websites that spend time reviewing these movies, and today I would like to highlight Monster Mania, who provides a brief summary of the 1940 film of Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy.  What I found interesting is that this was to be a two-part movie series (hence the “Part I” in the title).  For whatever reason, no second part was produced.  (The reason why would be hunt down and know!)  I appreciate the post as it offers a review from a cinematography aspect and numerous screenshots of the movie itself.  Take some time to read this post and enjoy!

Rocky Pastures in

The Design Show at Rocky Pastures made the Year in Review for  Here’s a short blurb from the article:

The event helped to share the historical culture of Kennebunkport — including Rocky Pastures, the 6,000-square-foot estate formerly belonging to Kenneth Roberts — while highlighting local designers who uniquely designed the estate’s 12 rooms, some with whimsy, others with decadence, and many paying homage to the author.

The Designer Show House was not just a beneficial opportunity for the Historical Society, but a special chance for enthusiasts of Roberts, history or architecture. It was the first time the public had access to the 1930s estate where the author penned his popular novels of historical fiction. Roberts received a 1957 Pulitzer Prize in the Special Awards and Citations category “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”

If you’re in Kennebunkport in the surrounding areas, be sure to visit the designers who played a part in making the show a success!

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