“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.

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Jeff Riggenbach on Kenneth Roberts and History

Jeff Riggenbach kindly responded to my recent post regarding his book and his mention of Kenneth Roberts.  Here’s what he said:

Danny, just for the record:

I do not regard KR as an opportunist.  I think he wrote his novels in perfect sincerity, to reflect the view his historical research had convinced him was the truth.  I think the change in American popular opinion toward England that took place at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s helped make him a bestselling author, but not because he made any sort of cynical effort to take advantage of it.  On the contrary, KR went right on writing what he’d always written.  When public opinion changed, he was in the right place at the right time.

JR

Thank you, Jeff, for your clarification and insight!

When History, Landscape, and Billboards Collide: “Roads of Remembrance”

I’ve just finished reading Roberts’ “Roads of Remembrance,” an essay originally contained in For Authors Only and also in The Kenneth Roberts Reader.  This essay is typical Roberts in regards to his vivide language and detail, painting a picture for the reader of what Roberts’ is invisioning.  It is also his typical (from what I gather) disdain for the consumerism of his day that was quickly encroaching upon what he saw as real America.

In this particular essay, Roberts contrasts various trails and roads used in major battles and/or campaigns in colonial America, Revolutionary War, and the Civil War with the new (at that time) paved highways that overlay these old trails.  Roberts recounts the struggles and difficulties, victories and losses encountered on these roads and trails in early American history – all for the cause of freedom and for the good of America.  Yet, with the passage of time, these sacred grounds became paved over with asphalt roads and vandalized with billboards – the sign of the new America.

Roberts is not so much concerned about the paved roads as he is the number of billboards lining the roads, disrupting the beauty of the countryside for the sake of commercialism.  The account below gives the reader a clear glimpse into Roberts’ disdain for this (apparently) new form of advertisement:

…The billboard industry in Maine, indeed, contends that billboards are improvements on the scenery rather than affronts to nature.

Not long since a native of Maine spoke his mind concerning the state’s policy of spending large sums in advertising Maine’s scenery; then permitting it to be splotched with billboards.

The billboard industry made reply: ‘It is not true that the billboard industry is spoiling the scenery and that boards are being erected without regard to the effect they may have in ruining bits of beauty.  The billboard industry requires that all billboards erected shall be so designed as to be things of beauty rather than eyesores and blots upon the landscape, and to maintain a high standard in every essential detail.’

If I [i.e. Roberts] correctly understand this reply, it contends that a lemon pie – provided it be an artistic lemon pie – can be splashed against a Rembrandt or a Velasquez without damaging the artistic value of the painting; but to me it would seem pure vandalism.

K. Roberts, “Roads of Remembrance” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader, New York: Doubleday, 1945, 11.

Oh, what would Roberts say today, the, with the advent of the interstates – roads that no longer wind along with the landscape as highways did in his days, but now bulldoze right through the countryside, making a straight line (practically) from point A to point B to save on gas and time.  And to the point of Roberts’ essay, billboards are still around, probably taller, more numerous, and more of a blight on our land than in his day.

An excellent read for a Kenneth Roberts fan, and I would say even for one who enjoys history.  Roberts’ humor, wit and cynicism of pop-culture is in full display in this essay.

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