Kenneth Roberts on Immigration: An Unflattering Opinion Reflected in Today’s Political Landscape

The cover of "Europe's Morning After", 1921 1st ed. Courtesy of Townsend Books.

The cover of “Europe’s Morning After”, 1921 1st ed. Courtesy of Townsend Books.

One thing I enjoy about running this site is coming across current websites and blogs that interact with Kenneth Roberts. Though Roberts is no longer in the mainstream, there still exists a loyal following of Roberts and his works. For the most part, any mention of Kenneth Roberts is favorable, particularly toward his more well-known novels. (I’ve tried to share any favorable mentions of Kenneth Roberts. I’ve recently begun a Twitter feed that posts to the Kenneth Roberts Website Facebook page where I share recent findings. I find this easier than posting them as a blog post.) However, not all mentions of Roberts are favorable. In fact, one area in which Roberts is frequently discusses is that of immigration.

Before Roberts began his work as a novelist, he worked for for The Saturday Evening Post (primarily) as a correspondent. Though Roberts penned many essays for The Post, what he is primarily remembered for is his work on immigration reform. The Post‘s audience consisted primarily of white, middle-class, conservative readers, and one area of concern among this group was the influx of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Roberts viewed these immigrants as “worthless” and a bane to society. For Roberts and those of like-mind, it was those of the Nordic race who had contributed the most to populating young America.  In an effort to influence public opinion and government policy about immigration reform, Roberts devoted several essays to the call for tighter restrictions for immigration. We can still read Roberts’ Post work on immigration in Europe’s Morning After and Why Europe Leaves Home, two collections of his Post essays.

Facsimile of the dust jacket for "Why Europe Leaves Home". Courtesy of Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC.

Facsimile of the dust jacket for “Why Europe Leaves Home”. Courtesy of Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC.

For those today who study the history of immigration to America, and those who study current attitudes toward and policy for immigration, Kenneth Roberts is viewed as the spokesperson of past and present fears of conservative Americans toward a more open immigration policy. In fact, Ronald Bailey in “Silly panic: The fuss over a ‘minority white’ nation” (2012) claims that Roberts’ Europe’s Morning After influenced Congress, in part, the 1924 Immigration Act “to change the national origins formula, limiting the annual number of immigrants to two percent of the number of people from any country who were already resident here based on their numbers in the 1890 Census” (Bailey, 2012). Bailey is not alone is making this claim; indeed, Roberts’ influence in writing predated his work as a novelist; it began long before as a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post (I hope to write another post or two on other works written about Roberts and his work on immigration).

Roberts’ opinions regarding immigrants reflect a growing trend among some Americans, particularly those among Trump’s supporters. With the recent tragedies at the hands of ISIS, and President Obama’s recent attempts to address illegal immigration in America, the attitudes of the early twentieth century (as illustrated in Roberts) are alive and well nearly one hundred years later.

This image is the cover of the Post edition containing Roberts' article titled "Scraps from a Wanderer's Notebook" - a collection of thoughts from his travels in Eastern Europe. Courtesy of The Fiction Mags Index.

This image is the cover of the Post edition containing Roberts’ article titled “Scraps from a Wanderer’s Notebook” – a collection of thoughts from his travels in Eastern Europe. Courtesy of The Fiction Mags Index.

What is the purpose of this post? Why bring up this unflattering picture of Kenneth Roberts? For this post in particular, I want to open the discussion on the one area of Roberts’ work with which I do not agree. I admire Roberts’ ability to write, his wit and sarcasm, and his love and loyalty for his home state and country. However, I find his views on race objectionable. Though there are those today who hold to similar views as Roberts, the tone and tenor of our society for the most part has significantly changed such that there is greater sensitivity and understanding toward issues of race.

As such, how are we to understand Kenneth Roberts – the man and the author? Does his view on race dictate how we view his novels? Are we to respect him less as a person? These questions – among others – are ones that I’ve had to struggle with as a fan of Kenneth Roberts. For a time, I just sat on the issue, unsure of what to do. However, as we inch closer to the 2016 presidential election, the hot topic of immigration will continue to garner more and more attention. As such, more will be written on the issue or immigration (and race), with more references to Kenneth Roberts’ and his influence on early twentieth century immigration policy. I feel, then, that it’s time for us to wrestle with Roberts’ stance on race and immigration, and how it plays into his overall body of work.

I should say now that I do believe it is possible to appreciate Kenneth Roberts as a man and author in spite of his views on race and immigration. While there are various reasons for this, I think one key factor is that Roberts was a product of his time and culture. Though his views on race and immigration are (to me) objectionable, it is anachronistic to condemn him in light of today’s sensibilities and standards. This is not to justify Roberts’ views; rather, it’s saying that we can accept a person despite their flaws. For instance, I strongly disagree with Sam Harris on a number of issues; however, I appreciate his honesty, his clarity, and his desire to pursue truth. I respect Harris as a person while simultaneously object to a number of his views. In this light, I believe we can approach Roberts in the same way. (I think it is fair to say that we approach nearly everyone we know in this manner. It’s rare to agree with someone in every single area. There are those with whom you agree with more than others, but on some level we respect others for who they are in spite of certain areas of disagreement. There is a question, though: at what point do you disassociate from someone due to their views? This question, I believe, goes well beyond the scope of this website for it is philosophical and theological in nature. But, in light of the topic of this post, it is one we must all reflect upon and come to a conclusion consistent with one’s worldview.)

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In Honor of Memorial Day

Today we remember those who have sacrificed their lives for the freedom of our country; further, we honor all who have served in our armed forces. In light of Memorial Day, today’s post is in honor of Kenneth Roberts and his service to the United States.  During WWI, Roberts served in the Siberian Expeditionary Force in 1918-1919 as Captain in the Intelligence Service. The picture below (obtained from here) is of Roberts’ headstone. Interestingly, though Roberts was a diehard Maine native, he chose not to be buried in his beloved state, but as a soldier in Arlington Cemetery (West, 1962, p. 99).

Kenneth Roberts' Headstone at Arlington Cemetery.

Kenneth Roberts’ Headstone at Arlington Cemetery. Courtesy Ron Williams.

Kenneth Roberts the Man: On So-Called Experts

(This post is similar to a  post from 3 years ago, though here I hope to point out something I didn’t then.  The quote below also appears in that post in a much shorter form.)

As one reads through Kenneth Roberts’ essays, she will notice his disgust with the so-called experts of his day on issues such as planting, fishing, and diets.  The way in which he directs his disgust towards them, though, is quite humorous as he makes himself the ignorant, hapless soul (regarding whatever topic he is discussing) while mentioning the experts and their views in rather glowing, hyperbolic language.    The result is akin to the philosopher’s tool of reductio ad absurdum: the picture Roberts’ paints in reality makes the “expert” look rather silly and ignorant while Roberts emerges from the essay unscathed by the fad of the day.

Perhaps the best illustration of Roberts’ method is presented in a quote from his essay “An Inquiry Into Diets” found in his For Authors Only and The Kenneth Roberts Reader:

One of the foremost diet books says that if a person follows the proper diet, he becomes tranquil, thoughtful, and philosophic; overwork is impossible; business worries are unknown; irritation vanishes.  It was all too clear to me that I was in a bad way; for whenever my eye struck a newspaper report of the activities of the House of Representatives, I became irritated.  Almost everything that was done in the House of Representatives seemed irritating…

When I read about such things, I not only become irritated: I become profane – so profane that my language sometimes shocks even myself.

This, of course, is another sure indication of acidosis.  If I were on a proper diet, nothing could imitate me.  I would remain tranquil and philosophic while reading about the House of Representatives.  I would continue  to be tranquil and philosophic, event though the House of Representatives should be successful in its efforts to bring the nation to insolvency and ruin.

I may as well be frank.  The diet books had me, to put it crudely, scared (In The Kenneth Roberts Reader, 88-89).

And such is Roberts’ attitude toward dieticians in this particular example, and to so-called experts on the whole.    In a day when it seems we’re inundated with a cacophony of voices telling us what to do, it is somewhat refreshing to know that this is nothing new, but has gone on for quite some time.  And in the midst of the noise of self-proclaimed experts, Kenneth Roberts added his voice among those voices calling people back to common sense and reason.

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: Fishermen’s Voice

While searching for tidbits on Kenneth Roberts and his love nature/hunting/fishing, I came across an article written by Tom Seymour of the Fishermen’s Voice, whose subtitle on the webpage states: “News and Comment for and by the Fishermen of Maine.”  What’s of interest to this website is Tom’s article on Kenneth Roberts and the value of his works to American history and to the history of Maine (titled “Kenneth Roberts – Maine’s Contribution to American History”).

In this article, Seymour provides a general survey of Roberts’ writing career, particularly of the novels Roberts’ is most known for.  However, in this article, Seymour provides some tidbits of Roberts that I found intriguing and humorous:

Kenneth Roberts had a habit, according to his friend Ben Ames Williams, another great, Maine author, of believing what people told him. That innocence nearly cost him his life when, going on the word of acquaintances that skunk cabbage was edible, he put the thing to the test. Skunk cabbage only presents itself as edible when in a 100-percent dry state, something that requires not only tedious processing, but also takes one year or more to achieve. Otherwise, the plant excites such a fiery sensation in the mouth and further down the esophagus, that it can, indeed, prove deadly.

This annecdote is a great glimpse at Kenneth Roberts the man, whose intensity is matched only by few (in my opinion).

Seymour speaks highly of Roberts and his ability (rightly so).  He says of Roberts’ works:

Young people, from the 1930s to the present time, have cut their “history teeth” on the thought provoking, intense and suspenseful novels written by Kenneth Roberts, of Kennebunkport, Maine.

While I think it is true that students in the past cut their teeth on Roberts’ novels, I tend to think that it’s not so much the case any more these days as it’s rare to find someone who has at least heard of him, much less have read his novels.  Nevertheless, Seymour rightly points out that Roberts’ works is still of value today in that:

Roberts’ contribution to educating the youth (and older people as well) of America lies in his unerring historical accuracy and an innate ability to make interesting and immensely entertaining reading of what otherwise might remain dry, historical side notes.

This is a great read, even if you already know of Roberts’ and his contribution.  Thanks, Tom, for helping to keep alive the works of a great author!

Kenneth Roberts the Man: Why He Wrote Historical Fiction

If you’ve been reading this blog the past few days, there’s been a lively discussion regarding the nature of Roberts’ research, of which I am not an expert to determine the truthfulness or falsity of what he presents.  As such, while I appreciate the comments from Stephen Sniegoski and Mark York, I remain in my belief that Roberts sought to portray information accurately, and will do so until I can read York’s book and weigh the evidence myself.  I do acknowledge, though, that no historian was 100% objective, completely unfettered by his own worldview and biases. Roberts, I am sure, and practically all historians (more some than others, though), struggle with this.  And, to be fair, this is not unusual – we must all, when given facts, interpret them.  At times, we can be spot on, and other times miss the mark.  When it comes to Roberts, the subject of this blog and a writer I am rather familiar with, I believe he did strive to do history well and accurately. 

Thus, in light of the recent discussion, my tendency is to first give Roberts the benefit of the doubt.  In his autobiography I Wanted to Write (particularly pages 166-169), Roberts discusses what brought him to begin writing historical fiction, and not just history.  This journey began when his curiosity was piqued regarding his family’s role in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812.  When he sought answers from his family, he came up empty of answers and overrunning with more questions.  He then turned to histories for answers.

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (167).

He goes on to mention other historians of ability (Francis Parkman and William Hickling Prescott, both of whom I am unfamiliar), but pointed out their deficiencies when it came to the American Revolution.  At some point, he came to a turning point in his career:

Before the summer ended I was disgusted beyond words by the incredible dullness and scantiness of so-called histories.  I realized that I could never find out what I wanted to know…unless I assembled all the necessary information from every obtainable source; then put all that information together in a book in which characters acted and talked.

That, it dawned on me, was what I must do.  Even though nobody read what I wrote, it ought to be done, because nobody had every done it before–and there ought to be at least one book that would give the good people of Maine an honest, detailed and easily understood account of how their forebears got along.  I hadn’t the slightest desire then to write what is known as an historical novel, not have I ever had any intention of doing so.  In fact, I have always had a profound aversion to most historical novels, because the people in them aren’t real people, and neither act nor talk like anyone I’ve ever known (168).

Based upon this, and other statements Roberts made elsewhere, I don’t think he sought to write a novel that happened to deal with history; I believe he sought to write history that was readable to the general public, and that means was through the novel.  Later in I Wanted to Write, Roberts discusses the time when Oliver Wiswell was being considered for a Pulitzer, giving us a glimpse into how he viewed his own works. 

Roberts had received news that Oliver Wiswell had not received the Pulitzer, having been ruled out “on the ground that it wasn’t really a novel, but history disguised as fiction” (356).  He would later write in one of his journals: “‘Apparently the Pulitzer Committee considers itself privileged to change the rules on literature as well as Pulitzer’s prize rules; but no matter what the Pulitzer Committee things or says, Oliver Wiswell will continue to be a novel as well as history” (356-57, emphasis mine).  I believe what we see here is that Roberts did not see his work as fiction, nor did he see his work as primarily a novel and secondarily a history.  I believe that Roberts truly believed he was writing a novel AND history; perhaps, based upon his earlier comments mentioned above, Roberts saw himself as writing a history through the vehicle of a novel.

Thus, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Roberts embellished things for the sake of his novel.  Did he get facts wrong?  I’m sure he did.  But to argue that it was due to personal bias or any other reason is to judge Roberts’ intent, which cannot be argued with 100% certainty, but rather to argue plausibly – the likeliness of Roberts embellishing fact for the sake of his novel or the factual error existing for other reasons.  To argue Roberts embellished fact for the sake of the novel, then,  is to place the burden of proof on the one making the claim, and this is a rather difficult claim to back, in my opinion.  

I Wanted to Write is an excellent glimpse into Roberts’ reasons for and motivation behind his writings.  It is also a glimpse into the numerous hours (more like months, even years) he put into research before and during his work on a particular book. If what he relays in his autobiography is honest and of unselfish motivation, then I think we should read his works in light of what he tells us, and handle possible factual errors accordingly.

With this said, I would like to reiterate how exciting it is to see Roberts’ work playing a role in today’s scholarship.  Let’s hope that more follow York by taking Roberts’ works seriously and critically.

K.R. in the News: Writer and Lover of Good Maine Food

I came across a neat article by Susan Lovell at The Forecaster that discusses Marjorie Moser (Roberts’ niece) and her recipe for fish chowder.  It seems that a new edition of Good Maine Food has been published recently with a new forward by Sandra Oliver, who, according to the article, is a food historian from Maine.  Ms. Lovell provides a kind word for Good Maine Food towards the end of the article:

But “Good Maine Food” is truly an excellent cookbook. I just happened to be amused by the recipes for cooking liver. Many of the recipes were sent to Roberts by people who read his “Trending into Maine,” published in 1930, in which he reminisced about dishes served to him during his youth. Mosser used those recipes and added new favorites as times and tastes changed.

Ms. Lovell also provides a brief bio of Roberts and his recipe for his grandmother’s ketchup, one of Roberts’ favorite recipes if I’m not mistaken.

Here is a link to the new edition of Good Maine Food.

Kenneth Roberts – a man known for his exceptional writing … and his love for good Maine food.

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.

 

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