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.

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