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.

Kenneth Roberts First-Edition Books

For many book collectors, first-edition books are sought after with the passion and energy of a pirate searching for buried treasure. Almost any first-edition will do (particularly for those books that are extremely rare), but if the book’s binding is still tight, the hinges intact, and the original dust jacket (and slipcase if applicable) is present, then the find is just that much better. For the novice book collectors (like me), though, being able to know what particular first-editions look like (especially the true first-editions) can be difficult.

I’ve sought after Kenneth Roberts’ first-edition books for the longest time, but have only recently been able to actually purchase some of them. As I posted back in July, I was able to find a first-edition of March to Quebec as well as the limited, 2 volume edition of Oliver Wiswell (without slipcase). For my anniversary, I was able to find (and purchase!) three more first-edition Kenneth Roberts books that I’ve been unable to find up to this point. Now that my Kenneth Roberts collection has improved with the recent first-edition purchases, I figured that a new series on this website is in order. Hence, the first post on Kenneth Roberts First-Edition Books.

This series will be devoted to providing pictures of what particular first-editions look like (particularly the dust jacket) and what the copyright page looks like as well (not all “first-editions” are true first-editions). Jack Bales has provided two helpful articles written in the 1990s that are devoted to Roberts’ first-edition books; I will be referencing these articles to help supplement anything that I am able to find.

Lastly, I have also purchased Mark York‘s Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775. Mark is a frequent visitor and commenter on this site, and I look forward to reading this work.  I’ll be providing a review of this book in an upcoming post as well.

Kenneth Roberts in Current News: Rick Salutin’s “Simcoe Day”

Today’s installment of “Kenneth Roberts in Current News” comes to you from http://www.rabble.ca in an article by Rick Salutin titled “Simcoe Day: How Should We Celebrate a Myopic Vision of Canada,” published on 8/4/2014. The subject of the article is John Graves Simcoe who, according to wikipedia.org, was a British army officer and, from 1791-1796, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was also instrumental in helping establish what is now Toronto and in “introducing institutions such as the courts, trial by jury, English common law, freehold land tenure, and the abolition of slavery” (wikipedia.org/wiki/john_graves_simcoe).

Salutin’s article provides a brief summary of Simcoe’s contributions to Canada, as well as his tribulations. In addition to the accomplishments listed above, Simcoe was “accused of atrocities, always hard to sort out in wartime, like massacring prisoners and trying to assassinate Washington” (Salutin, para. 4). After being captured in the British defeat at Yorktown, he was shipped back to England where he married an heiress and began his political career. He would eventually seek to make Canada a recreation of “genteel English society,” which would serve as a “beacon for the U.S., who’d forsake their own revolution and rejoin the Empire” (Salutin, para. 4).

Earlier this year, AMC aired Turn: Washington’s Spies, which tells of”‘America’s first spy network'” during the Revolutionary War. In the show, Simcoe is depicted as a “magnificent British villain…he sneers, he taunts, he tortures, he kills” (Salutin, para. 2). Salutin confesses that, despite being an “Ontario history buff,” he was not aware that Simcoe was a player in the American Revolutionary War (Salutin, para. 2). Yet, he was aware of the United Empire Loyalists – those Americans who settled in British colonies (in particular Canada) during or after the Revolutionary War (wikipedia.org/wiki/united_empire_loyalists).

Salutin recounts that he first heard of the United Empire Loyalists and their creating “Anglo Canada after the revolution” from Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell which he read when in high school. He also notes that he read Rabble in Arms as well. An interesting connection between Simcoe and Kenneth Roberts that Salutin brings out is that Simcoe “took over a renowned/infamous unit called Roger’s Rangers (Roberts also wrote a novel on them) and renamed them the Queen’s Rangers. Their colours sit in Fort York today” (Salutin, para. 3).

Salutin’s description of Roberts does little justice to Roberts’ contribution to American history and historical fiction writing. Salutin says of Roberts: “Roberts was a cranky conservative in the heyday of American liberalism” (Salutin, para. 2). While Roberts’ cantankerousness and his strong conservative views are well-documented, Salutin’s description really accomplishes nothing in his brief discussion of Roberts works; I fail to see what connection he tries to make here.[1] Nevertheless, I believe that Salutin highlights a point about Kenneth Roberts’ works – despite their having been written over a half-century ago, they are still of historical value even today. While Roberts’ conservative views may be outdated, the historical contribution he made to American history stands the test of time.

Though Salutin laments how Canadians sometimes have to learn from Americans about Canadian history, I appreciate his article, for its Canadian author has taught this American something he did not know about American history.

 

[1] Rick Salutin’s bio on rabble.ca states that “he is a strong advocate of left wing causes” (http://rabble.ca/category/bios/contributor/columnist/rick-salutin). It’s common when one writes on someone of opposing views to make some remark that distances himself from his subject. Perhaps Salutin’s comment is such an attempt. Still, his remark does not serve the point he seeks to make, particularly in the paragraph in which his remark occurs. It is true that one cannot separate the subject’s personal beliefs and views from their works, there are instances such as this where can focus on the subject’s work apart from their overarching worldview. If the article touched on issues of race and immigration (issues on which I strongly disagree with Roberts), for instance, then it would be fair for Salutin to make the remark he does in “Simcoe Day.”

Oliver Wiswell 2 vol Limited Edition, Signed

It’s always a good find when you locate an item containing the signature of your favorite author. It’s even better when that find is at an affordable price!  When I set my goal to own every Kenneth Roberts book, I realized that I would not be able to own the more rare copies (lest I spend too much money and my kids go without food). Nevertheless, I’ve searched every book store, antique store, flea market, etc. for copies of Roberts’ books. Further, I’ve taken advantage of the 21st century and searched Ebay, Amazon, Abebooks, and Alibris for those more rare copies.

Well, I’ve had an awesome week when it comes to finding affordable Roberts works. First, I found a first-edition copy of Florida (1926) on auction starting at $10. I was the only bidder and was able to purchase this hard-to-find book for a mere $12 (after shipping). Granted, the spine of the book shows spotting and fading, but it’s a great find nonetheless and a great book to add to my (slowly) growing collection.

Second, recall from a previous post that I found another hard-to-find book – a first-edition copy of March to Quebec, a book that I’ve searched for high and low for years (I enjoy books of this kind).

Lastly, however, is the greatest find of my week. One Kenneth Roberts’ work that I was sure would be out of my range was the limited edition 2 volume set of Oliver Wiswell. This set was printed before the first official printing that went on the market. Of 1050 limited edition copies made, 1000 were for sale. Each set is signed by Kenneth Roberts and is numbered. Usually Roberts’ books that are signed and numbered are at least $150 and over, but I found a copy online for only $50!  Indeed I was very excited and bought it immediately.

Oliver Wiswell 2 volOliver Wiswell 2 vol

Roberts' signature on Oliver Wiswell 2 vol Limited Edition copy, 468/1050

Roberts’ signature on Oliver Wiswell 2 vol Limited Edition copy, 468/1050

For the price, the book is in awesome condition (despite the small scratch on vol. 2 and the chipping at the top of the spine of vol. 2). There is little, if any, fading, and the binding is still tight with no cracks in the hinges. One thing that stuck out to me was the quality of the paper. The paper is heavier than that used in the regular first-edition (I know, not the proper terminology) of Oliver Wiswell. Further, the edging is rougher than that of his other books (a feature I particularly like). The front and back boards are thicker than normal and of a different color than the “regular” Oliver Wiswell copies. The only thing I believe that is missing from this set (which I don’t mind at all) is a slip cover.

It’s a great find, and now I’m motivated to persistently search for other hard-to-find copies at great prices!

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.

“Oliver Wiswell”: an Authoritative Work?

As stated before, I am catching up on Kenneth Roberts news in the blogosphere.  I try to post on matters I find relevant and helpful to those interested in learning more about one of America’s least-known great authors.  However, sometimes you’ve just got to post things out of the ordinary.

Over at On, Now, to the 3rd Level, Daniel Yordy discusses what I believe to be about community, particularly Christian community (not so much a church in the traditional sense, but a community in the sense of a commune?).  In this long post, Yordy discusses the issue of freedom and the “lie” that freedom does not result from war (I hope I understand his point correctly).  Now, what I find interesting is that Yordy quotes favorably Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell seemingly as an authoritative work in this matterHere’s what Yordy states:

If you want to know for certain that the American Revolution had absolutely nothing to do with freedom, just read the first three chapters of Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The American Revolution opposed freedom in every possible way. In reality, it was nothing more than an excuse to kill one’s neighbor and to burn down his home.

While I believe that Roberts was faithful to his commitment to accurately portray historical events (which I believe is backed up by his tedious research), I’m not sure how far one is to take the fictional aspect of his work as authoritative.  The chapters Yordy refers to, if I am not mistaken, are written from the perspective of the fictional character, Oliver Wiswell, who is a Tory living in America during the Revolutionary War.  The character gives his view, as a Tory, on the war.  While chapters 1 – 3 are technically Roberts’ words, he intends to portray common Tory sentiment of the war. On the other hand, I believe Roberts himself would side with the “rabble” who fought against England.

This issue raises the question on the role of historical fiction in one’s research and support.  If historical fiction is written in the manner of Kenneth Roberts (backed by significant research and historical facts presented as faithfully as possible), can it be used authoritatively? At the very least those parts that are historical fact in nature, as opposed to fiction written with no intention of presenting any historical fact (I am sure there are numerous forms of fiction; here I use “fiction” in its most general form, as a story made up by its author, not reflecting any true person(s) or even(s))?

Personally, I believe one treads on shaky ground if he bases an argument, in part or in whole (and outside of the realm of literature and the arts), on historical fiction; however, my opinion may be a result of my doctoral studies in which any reliance upon fictional works is frowned upon.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: The Beak Speaks

I am trying to catch up on things for this site, on of which consists of finding blogs that reference Kenneth Roberts.  So, bear with me for any redundancy, hopefully soon I’ll be caught up!

Over at The Beak Speaks, Beakerkin (?) provides a favorable review of Rabble in Arms, my favorite of Roberts’ works.  Interestingly, the Beak has read and reviewed other works of Roberts, such as Arundel and Oliver Wiswell.  Great to see that there are some who appreciate Roberts’ works today.  Though only half a century removed from the height of his career, he is largely unknown today.  Hopefully this blog will help in getting his name out there, especially to those who want to read good historical fiction.

Any thoughts on how to make this blog better?

***Update 9/2/10*** I found another The Beak Speaks review of a K.R. book, this one on The Battle of Cowpens, probably one of the lesser known books written by Roberts.

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