A Blast From the Past: Kirkus Review of “Oliver Wiswell”

Book reviews are not one of the most popular forms of reading in today’s abundance of literature. Usually (at least in my circles) they are read by scholars or graduate students as they do research for papers or projects. I must admit, before I began my Ph.D., I had no interest in book reviews; I for sure did not see any value in them other than learning about another person’s opinion about a book.

As I progressed through my Ph.D. studies, I began to develop an appreciation for book reviews. True, they primarily provide one scholar’s view of another’s work; but, they also give a glimpse into the life and time of the author and the subject of the review – they are snippets of history. Here, you also observe the attitudes toward a particular book and its author – attitudes that are generally lost among the innumerable details of the past. It brings to life a particular author, and it sets a book in its context.

YesterdayI came across a book review on Oliver Wiswell written by Kirkus in 1940. According to Kirkusreviews.com, Kirkus was:

Founded in 1933, Kirkus has been an authoritative voice in book discovery for 80 years. Kirkus Reviewsmagazine gives industry professionals a sneak peek at the most notable books being published weeks before they’re released. When the books become available for purchase, Kirkus serves the book reviews to consumers in a weekly email newsletter and on Kirkus.com, giving readers unbiased, critical recommendations they can trust.

The reviewer of Oliver Wiswell gave the book four stars – the highest rating given to a book by the reviewer from Kirkus since three starts was given to Grapes of Wrath (1939). The reviewer says of Oliver Wiswell: “A superb love story — an extraordinary piece of characterization — and a unique background, handled with Roberts’ masterful technique.”  The question is raised, however, if America was ready for such a book – one of the American Revolution told from the perspective of a Loyalist.

Up to the time of Roberts’ writing of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts had no recollection of any book on the American Revolution told from the Loyalist perspective. For Roberts, such a lack betrayed an incomplete view of the Revolution. Roberts was criticized by some for writing from the Loyalist perspective, claiming that Roberts himself was favorable toward England and her cause in the war with the colonies. Nevertheless, Oliver Wiswell quickly became one of Roberts’ more well-known works.

After providing a brieve summary of the novel, the reviewer from Kirkus closes their review with high praise for Roberts’ 1940 novel:

I could quote,endlessly, passages that give the book an incredible timeliness. But I’ll leave it to you — and you — and you. Don’t miss it. This is THE book of the year — the book that gives us a symbol of the ideals which were forged in the crucible and came out a great nation. Roberts has told great stories; he has contributed as much as any and more than most, to our American background. This is his best book.

The reviewer does not shy from providing a glowing endorsement of Roberts’ controversial novel. Particularly noteworthy is that a higher rating was given to Roberts’ work than that given to Grapes of Wrath – a work that eventually outlasted Roberts’ work in the public eye. Steinbeck’s work is still widely read and published relative to Oliver Wiswell, which has all but faded from the memory of American readers.

Perhaps there will be a day when Kenneth Roberts and his works are once again making waves in American culture as was the case in the early- to mid-twentieth century.


Jan. 19, 1945: NY Times Reports K.R.’s Hospital Stay

As technology has improved and become more accessible to the mass, how one receives their news has expanded from the newspaper only to the internet (computer and phone), TV (cable and network), newspaper (online or print; independent or conglomerate), Twitter, and Facebook (I include the last two apart from the internet as they seem to be “news reporters” in their own right; ABC’s “Good Morning, America” even has a segment in which they report news from Twitter and/or other social media).  With the glut of news sources, the media resorts to pandering to their audience by “reporting” on issues their audience find important.  Issues that, in the grand scheme of things, are unimportant and superfluous. For instance, does it really matter what someone wore to the Grammy Awards?  And when a “news item” hits a nerve with the audience, the news outlet harps on that issue, regardless of the fact that there may be no real news to report.  Such is the world we live in today – a world in which the news we receive is mundane and over-hyped.

While it is easy to view today’s news as over-hyping the mundane, it appears that the same can be said of the news outlets of the past.  On January 19, 1945 the NY Times reported Kenneth Roberts’ stay at the New England Baptist Hospital in Boston.  According to the very brief article (p. 26, 1/19/45 edition, NY Times), Roberts was admitted to the hospital to undergo treatments for a neck infection.  As of the time the article was written, Roberts’ condition “was described as satisfactory.”  He had been ill for ten days prior to being admitted to the hospital.

Apparently, the news of yesterday included the mundane as well, which leads me to think that perhaps the mundane has its place in the news.  If the NY Times had not reported on Kenneth Roberts’ stay at a Boston hospital in January of 1945, we would not be able to know more of Kenneth Roberts’ life.  So, despite my complaints, I guess the tendency of today’s media serves a purpose, at least to provide fodder for the historians of tomorrow.

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.

A Blast From the Past: Milwaukee Journal on “Lydia Bailey”

I continue to enjoy perusing Google’s news archives, and today I want to share with you a book review of Lydia Bailey by H. Russell Austin in the January 5, 1947 edition of the Milwaukee Journal.  Though Roberts is virtually unknown today, there were several decades in the early- to mid-20th century in which his works were eagerly read and anticipated.  Like any great author, not all of his works received the acclaim of reviewers, which is the case of Lydia Bailey in the Milwaukee Journal.

Austin opens up his review with a glowing compliment of Roberts’ status as a writer: “This perplexing book [Lydia Bailey] – the fruit of six years’ research and writing by one of our best historical novelists.”  Yet, despite this, Austin’s praise of Roberts, he says of Lydia Bailey: “It would be pleasant to add to this list of distinctions that ‘Lydia Bailey’ is one of Roberts’ best works and a great novel – but that would not be true.”

Austin supports his claim regarding Lydia Bailey by pointing out what he feels is the “central defect” – “in straining at the gnats of historical detail, [Roberts] has swallowed many camels, absurdities of plot and inconsistencies of character.”    He questions the believability of Albion Hamlin’s falling in love with Lydia Bailey just by seeing her portrait in someone’s home in Boston; what makes this scenario more unlikely is that Bailey is believed to be dead at the time Hamlin sees her portrait.  Austin points out other questionable aspects of Lydia Bailey: Hamlin’s bitterness toward his fiancee; Hamlin’s lobbying in Washington even though he’d previously been thrown in prison for contempt of court; and Bailey’s and Hamlin’s ability to command a brig on the Mediterranean despite their seemingly lack of experience.  He closes this section with “The list of lesser improbabilities is of wearying length.”

Despite Austin’s perceived weaknesses of Lydia Bailey, he points out the value of the novel – its detail on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the voodoo practices in Haiti and the farming techniques in Tripoli, and other historical nuggets.  Lastly, Austin closes with “You will also absorb some of Mr. Roberts’ excellent moral preaching on racial tolerance, national integrity, and the evil of consistency – a vice from which the author of this book seems marvelously free.”

[I find this last quote quite interesting considering Roberts’ quote in 1931  in the Post about Mexican immigrants. See my post on this issue.]

Unfortunately, I must agree with Austin’s assessment of Lydia Bailey; of his works, this is my least favorite of Roberts’ novels.  I feel that the romance aspect of the novel is rather far-fetched and strained, which unfortunately overshadows the otherwise excellent historical aspect of the novel.  Yet, no one ever bats .1000, even the great ones.

Kenneth Roberts: A Blast From the Past – St. Petersburg Times

Google News Archive is a treasure trove of old newspaper articles on Kenneth Roberts.  I found an interesting article from the St. Petersburg (FL) Times dated October 21, 1925.  At this time of Roberts’ career, he was a known writer for the Saturday Evening Post at this time, but had not as of yet made his name known for his historical fiction (Arundel was first published in 1929).

In an article titled “Kenneth Roberts Gathers Facts and Figures While Touring State for Post,” the Times presents a short blurb on Roberts’ stay in St. Petersburg.  Apparently, the town was excited that a Post writer would visit their town on a fact-gathering trip.  Unfortunately, Roberts provided little in terms of quotes or information for the paper.  The Times opens the article with:

A strong desire not to talk and an equally strong desire to find out as much about St. Petersburg and Florida in general as possible characterized the attitude of Kenneth L. Roberts, staff writer for the Saturday Evening Post, who left St. Petersburg Monday afternoon after a brief visit to the Sunshine City.

Roberts had little to say to the Times about his visit:

Mr. Roberts had little to say with regard to his impressions of the state and the Sunshine City.  Instead he seemed pointedly intent upon gathering as much information as possible from every source, with regard to living expenses in the state, hotel rates and prices of everything.

Apparently, Roberts had little to say to the Times.  I think these two paragraphs illustrate well the temperament of Kenneth Roberts – he was a man who, when working, did not want to be distracted with frivolities and other distractions.

One must admire the tenacity of the reporter, for the article goes on to mention the type of information Roberts was after while in St. Petersburg.  The reporter’s source? Mr. Dennis, the manager of the Princess Martha hotel.  Mr. Dennis divulges the vital information Roberts was after (information that “Mr. Roberts appeared eager to grasp”): the price of milk, eggs, beef and sugar.

Either the Times hit a slow news day, or they were eager to get anything on the visit of a well-known Post writer.  The article ends with a note of excitement:

Mr. and Mrs. Roberts left the hotel for Sarasota Monday afternoon with the expressed intention of returning to St. Petersburg within a short time during their travels through the state, and Mr. Robert’s investigation of the “Florida situation.”

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