Kenneth Roberts in Scholarly Work: John Frederick on Roberts as a Novelist and Historian

One of the joys of studying Kenneth Roberts’ works is coming across what others have written about one of America’s best historical novelists. While it is easier to find more recent assessments of Roberts’ work, I’ve found it a little more challenging to find contemporary assessments of his novels. With that said, I recently tweeted  a link to an article from June 1941 in The English Journal 30.6 by John T. Frederick. The article was written on the heels of the release of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts’ novel written from the perspective of a Tory during the American Revolution.

By the time Frederick wrote his article, Roberts’ was established as one of America’s foremost novelist, having already published ArundelRabble in Arms, and Northwest Passage. Frederick praises Roberts in his article, noting Roberts’ unique ability to “give us pictures of the American past which are honest, rich, and intellectually stimulating,” making Roberts “one of the major American writers” of their day (p. 435). For Frederick, a key factor in Roberts’ success as a novelist was his attention to historical detail.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts’ novels are typically classified as ‘historical fiction.’ Generally, according to Frederick, works of historical fiction share common components: “exciting action on every page; a beautiful and vivacious – but not necessarily, in modern fiction, virtuous – heroine; period costumes and stage settings” (p. 435). Indeed, Roberts’ novels fit the bill of historical fiction; however, as Frederick notes, Roberts would probably be “reluctant” to classify his works as historical fiction. For,

beneath these aspects of superficial relationship  to the conventional work of historical romance there lies bedrock historical fact and purpose which makes the work of Kenneth Roberts essentially and significantly different from the historical fiction that is written merely to entertain (p. 436).

Roberts did not write to merely entertain readers; rather, he wrote to teach history and to correct misconceptions of historical fact (see my post on why Roberts wrote historical fiction). Frederick observes:

He has written his historical novels as a matter of the considered choice of a mature and successful man; not primarily for money or for fame but because he wanted to write them, because he had something to say in them which he wanted profoundly to say, believed profoundly to be worth saying (p. 436).

Frederick’s observation is based upon the “extraordinary thoroughness of Kenneth Roberts’ historical research” (p. 437). Roberts’ writing of each novel was preceded by “prolonged and patient digging after facts” such that Roberts’ research nearly equaled that “of the best professional historians” (p. 437).

March to QuebecFor example, prior to writing Arundel, Roberts traveled the path Benedict Arnold took when leading his expedition to Quebec in 1775. He sought out all possible source material, including the journals and letters of those involved in the expedition. Such was the depth of Roberts’ research that he was able to publish his original research in March to Quebec (1938) – “itself a major contribution to the history of the American Revolution” (p. 437).

The best evidence supporting the idea that Roberts was a historian as well as a novelist is found, according to Frederick, in Roberts’ research for Northwest Passage. Though the main character of Northwest Passage is Langdon Towne, the most dominant and dynamic character is Major Robert Rogers – the leader of Roberts’ Rangers. In what is perhaps Roberts’ most famous novel, Kenneth Roberts “rescued from the comparative oblivion of specialized scholarship one of the most interesting figures of all American colonial history” in Robert Rogers (p. 438). More significantly, Roberts’ penchant for extensive and thorough research led him to locate the record of Roberts’ court-martial, something which “historians had agreed was lost” (p. 437). As with Arundel, Roberts published his research for Northwest Passage in a volume that accompanied the limited first edition.

I believe that Frederick provides a sound case for Roberts as a historian. I believe, however, that many have – and still do – fail to consider Roberts as a historian because of: 1) he wrote novels, and 2) he was a controversialist. It was well-known in Roberts’ day – and today among Roberts fans – that Kenneth Roberts was very opinionated and did not hold back on letting others know what he thought. His opinionated nature shown through all of his novels as he sought to shatter common notions about events and historical figures (note his favorable depiction of Benedict Arnold in Arundel and, especially, Rabble in Arms; and his depiction of the Revolution from the eyes of a Tory in Oliver Wiswell). It’s as if Roberts’ novels were a vehicle for his opinions and views to which he doggedly held and argued.

What should be noted is that while Roberts’ opinions are not bedrock fact, we are able to distinguish between historical fact and opinion in his novels. The point I seek to make here is a philosophical one – that we all encounter fact (in this case, historical fact), and we all interpret that fact. Fact is something that does not change (e.g. Robert Rogers was court-martialed; Benedict Arnold led the expedition to Quebec in 1775, etc.). What we must do, though, is to make sense of the facts – what do they mean? How do they fit in with other known facts? Etc. Further, when it comes to a particular work – such as Roberts’ novels – why did the author include these facts and not others? Is the way in which the facts depicted accurate? Etc. That is, interpretation necessarily accompanies fact – we cannot avoid it. Though we like to think that scientists are unbiased and objective, even they necessarily interpret the facts presented them in their experiments. Detectives interpret the facts of a particular case. And, in particular to this post, historians interpret fact in order to understand the past. We all interpret fact -it’s unavoidable. Thus, where we differ is not in fact, but in the interpretation of the facts.

Thus, when it comes to Kenneth Roberts, it goes without saying that Kenneth Roberts held to some unpopular opinions (interpretations) of historical fact. This point is well-illustrated in Mark York’s Patriot on the Kennebec (2012). In his work, York seeks to depict Major Reuben Colburn’s contribution to Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. According to York in the “Acknowledgements”, Kenneth Roberts’ barely mentioned Major Colburn in Arundel while elevating the role of the Nasons (Roberts’ descendants) “at the expense of real heroes whose contributions were documented in the primary texts” (York, p. 9). York notes that Roberts was prejudiced toward Colburn, something that is noted in Arundel when Roberts wrote: “I was prepared to mislike Colburn…for being responsible for Washington’s and Aronold’s fondness for bateaux; but I had wronged him” (quoted by York, p. 10). Here, we see that there is a different of interpretation of Coburn’s contribution to the expedition. The question of who is right is beyond the scope of this post (and my ability to research the primary sources); the point is, both Roberts and York have the facts – they differ in their interpretation.[1]

Despite Kenneth Roberts’ tendency of contrarianism and his interpretation of historical fact, I believe that Frederick makes a good case for Roberts as a historian. Unfortunately, Roberts’ choice of genre has limited public perception of him to that of just a novelist. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand Roberts’ approach to writing and the purpose that drove him. What made Roberts a great novelist was his even greater skill as a historian.


[1] Why do people differ on interpretation? In short, it’s due in part to the various presumptions and beliefs one brings into the act of interpretation. We do not interpret in a vacuum, nor do we interpret from a completely neutral stance. Rather, we all bring to the table a framework from which we interpret facts presented to us (our worldview). This isn’t to say that we can’t judge between who is right and wrong; rather, it is to explain why there are differences in interpretation. Thus, to judge between differing interpretations is a more complex endeavor than we tend to view it today.

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4 Responses

  1. It was a regional bias. Kennebunkport vs. Central Maine. The Getchell’s of Vassalboro were not drunken derelicts. They guided the expedition and helped to save it from the incompetence of the South Mainers and others from afar, thus, Roberts’ cheats beating was unfounded. Fiction is lying for a living but done right can be, as Hemingway said, “Truer than true.”

    • I completely get regional bias (Lord knows that there is regional bias regardless of where you live). What I don’t understand (because I don’t live there) is the regional bias of southern Mainers and central Mainers. Is it still like that today?

  2. Thanks for this article and analysis, Danny. I have articles critical of KR – because the (historical) FICTION did not develop characters and story well enough. I read KR because the HISTORICAL (fiction) is good history and carried through dialogue. Realizing internet biases in any author, I try to read multiple histories about people and events of interest so that I can recognize and weigh those different interpretations and (with my own biases) come to some conclusions. Benedict Arnold is certainly a prime example; Aaron Burr and Robert Rogers are others. It is exactly because of KRs extensive research that I find his books so compelling.

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