Kenneth Roberts On American College Football

If you are new to Kenneth Roberts, or are primarily familiar with his novels, then I suggest that you pick up a copy of The Kenneth Roberts Reader (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945; also reprinted Down East Books, 2002). The reader is a collection of essays Roberts published in The Saturday Evening Post and excerpts from his novels. The essays from SEP help the reader to get a better picture of Kenneth Roberts the man – his humor, his wit, his quirks, and his pet peeves. He was very observant…and opinionated.

Oxford Rugby 1901

Roberts’ reader contains an essay titled “Oxford Oddities” (originally published in For Authors Only and Other Gloomy Essays [Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1935]) in which Roberts elaborates on his observations of Oxford and its students. True to form, Roberts finds much of the British and their ways odd (relative to American ways), and comments on how Oxford students approach studies, social life, and extracurricular activities. Underlying most of his observations is his pro-American view of American ways. That is everything except American football.

One feature of “Oxford Oddities” is Roberts’ account of his attendance at a rugby match in London (see this post where I highlight Skip Grimm’s post on this account). I’ve read Roberts’ account before, but when I read it again the other day, I noticed something that was hidden last time – his snarky view of American football.

British Fans vs. American Fans

A large percentage of the sixty thousand patronized those snack bars before the game; yet, incredible as it may seem, there were no drunks, no fights in the stands, no beating of strangers over the head by overstimulated enthusiasts (160).

There were sixty thousand people at the game, which was played on neutral grounds near London…Apparently the sixty thousand spectators had come with no ulterior motive, as is so often the case in America, and were actually eager, not to say determined, to let nothing, not even alcohol, interfere with their enjoyment of the game. This may or may not be an indication that the English understand nothing about pleasure (160-61).

If I’m reading Roberts correctly, it appears that he is making a stab at American football fans who, in his (unstated) opinion, attend games with ulterior motives other than the enjoyment of the game. If the British don’t let alcohol get in the way of enjoying the game, then do Americans see the football game as an opportunity to drink? Whatever the case, it appears Roberts saw British rugby fans as more tame than American football fans.

Fan Attendance

At most games, even at important ones, there are not many more spectators than players. This is due to the fact that those who, in America, would be spectators are off somewhere playing a game of something against somebody else (159).

Prior to this excerpt, Roberts noted the sheer number of extracurricular sports teams and participants among Oxford students (and other Brits?). In his opening of this section on rugby, Roberts says:

The method in vogue at Oxford for selecting the members of a varsity team is interesting and not without merit, even when compared with the American system of keeping eighty or a hundred men working all season without an opportunity to play in a game (159).

We see, first, a knock against how American colleges form their football teams: 80-100 team members for a sport where a little more than a ¼ will play. At Oxford, teams are smaller because (in part) so many are playing. This further impacts the patronage of the games, for when one game is going on, other games are in action as well.

Game Day

The game was played on a Wednesday, that being the day after the universities had closed for the Christmas vac. Apparently it never occurs to the English to wait for Saturday in order to play big games. They play when it’s convenient, and if their dates don’t quite suit the convenience of the public, nobody – not even the public – seems annoyed (161).

As all American college football fans know, gameday is Saturday. It’s not until recent years (with the advent of cable TV and ESPN) that we see college football played on weekdays. Apparently, Roberts found it annoying that Americans expected college football to be played on Saturdays, for his tone regarding the English seems to be one of pleasant surprised. Games are played “when it’s convenient,” and if the game day is inconvenient for some, they are not annoyed.

Cost of Tickets

My seats were on what would correspond to the 50-yard line, and cost 7/6 apiece, or $1.87 – and to the best of my knowledge and belief, no football game in the history of the world was ever worth more than $1.87 (161).

Cornell-Penn Fan Guide, 1922

The first thing I noted was the price of a ticket. Today, tickets at the 50-yard line of a college football game are premium tickets (outside of the box seats). Honestly, I’ve never tried to buy such a ticket, but it’s common knowledge that the more premium a seat is, the more you have to pay. Further, if the game pits two powerhouses or rivals against each other, then you’ll be paying even more.

I’m not sure if Roberts was complaining about the price, but what we see here is not an economic complaint per se, but a complaint about the worth of American college football. Roberts never says how many games he had attended in his lifetime, but he must have attended enough to know their worth (in his eyes). It’s worth noting that Roberts attended Cornell University [1908], so he more than likely attended games against Ivy Schools like Yale, Dartmouth, and Harvard. Back in his day, the big games were played by the Ivy Schools.

Coaches’ Salaries

There are no long intermissions, nor do the players leave the field to receive the mental stimulus of a pep talk from a $10,000 coach (160).

This is perhaps my favorite quote from Roberts in “Oxford Oddities.” Complaints about how much college football coaches today abound. Just last month Jimbo Fisher was given the highest paid contract with Texas A&M at $75 million for 10 years. Though college football is an “amateur” sport, the amount of money raked in by football programs leave many skeptical about the “amateur” nature of the sport. Complaints about coach salaries, then, are the norm today.

Complaints about money and college football, however, is not a new phenomenon. The quote just given is in the context of Roberts’ discussion of intermission at rugby games. Where American college football games have lengthy intermissions (too long for Roberts’ liking, apparently), rugby has a very short intermission where teams don’t even leave the field. In the midst of discussing rugby intermission, Roberts slides in a comment about the state of American college football.

The coach, who is seen worthy of a $10,000 contract, does little more than give students a “mental stimulus of a pep talk” at half time. Obviously, in Roberts’ opinion, college football coaches are grossly overpaid.  [$10,000 is nothing today. However, if Google can be trusted, the average salary in 1935 was $1,600/year. Some college coaches, then, were paid almost 10 times more than the average American.]

On American Football

It was as fast and exciting a contest as I ever saw, and more exciting than 90 percent of the big American football games I have seen (161).

If Roberts’ attitude toward American college football was not apparent enough, he makes himself crystal clear by claiming the rugby game was more exciting than practically every American college football games he’d witnessed before. Such an assertion is anathema today, and even then.

Though I’m a Roberts fan, this is one thing I just don’t get. I grew up in Louisiana, where LSU football was (and is) king. SEC football reigns in the South, just as college football reigns in many parts of America. To put non-major sports – like rugby – above college football is…well…it’s just unheard of. But, for Roberts, rugby was more watchable than college football, and he could careless about the national sentiment about college football.

And so we have a look into Roberts’ view of American college football. Quite an interesting peak into the man Kenneth Roberts on a topic we normally do not see him address.

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First Edition Books: For Authors Only

D/J Front – For Authors Only 1st Ed

For Authors Only and Other Gloomy Essays is one of my favorite books by Kenneth Roberts. The reader gets a clear picture of Roberts’ sense of humor and quick wit, and his views on a variety of matters (like British mystery novels). For any fan of Roberts, his For Authors Only is a must-read to get a full picture of Roberts the man and his writing style. (The first edition was published in 1935 (MCMXXXV).)

As is normally the case, I tend to find Kenneth Roberts books in the least likely places. Today, while in Half Price Books, I found a 1st Edition copy of For Authors Only. I already have a copy of this book, but the book I found today is in pristine condition. More so, the dust jacket is in near perfect condition with no visible tears and only one small area of slight fading. The gold and blue colors are vibrant and beautiful, protected by a dust jacket cover.

The cover boards and spine are also in near perfect condition. Typically, I find Roberts books that are showing considerable wear; however, today’s find is as if it has not seen the light of day. The cover has no wear or tear (with only a small area of bubbling), and the embossing is nearly intact.

Considering the condition of this book, I am quite impressed with my find. I only paid $7, and after some brief research, the book is worth well more than that (on abebooks.com, I found a book of in a condition less than what I have, and unsigned, at $185). So, moral of the story – search your bargain book stores!

Below is a collection of photos I’ve taken of the dust jacket (primarily) and the front/back boards.

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Rocky Patures: The Necessity of Dogs for a “Well-Conducted Home”

Kenneth Roberts posing with his dogs by the fountain in the walled garden of Rocky Pastures. Courtesy “Vintage Maine Images” and the Maine Historical Society
http://www.vintagemaineimages.com/bin/Detail?ln=1381

Kenneth Roberts on dogs (such a great quote!): 

Dogs have always seemed to me an essential part of every well-conducted home….I had visions of leading  an ideal life in a rambling farmhouse  of great simplicity but extreme comfort…Those visions were rosy and indefinite, except for the dogs.  I had clear ideas on the dogs that would surround and inhabit the farm.  I would have several utilitarian dogs: a few setters to assist me in gunning for partridges; two springer spaniels to precede me through swamps and alder thickets during the woodcock season; a dachshund to make things uncomfortable for foxes and woodchucks that have retired to their holes; and above all I wished a lot of wire-haired terriers, for no particular reason except that they pleased me, even in their obtuse and imbecilic moments.  In all, I figured, I would need about forty dogs (“Dogs In a Big Way” in For Authors Only).

Be sure to visit Rocky Pastures, the fulfillment of Kenneth Roberts’ “ideal life in a rambling farmhouse of great simplicity but extreme comfort,” from June 23 – July 14 during the Kennebunkport Historical Society Designer Show House.

Here are Paula Robinson Rossouw’s dogs in the spot where Kenneth Roberts posed with his dogs 73 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Paula Robinson-Rossouw)

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.

Rocky Pastures: Before There Was the Walled Garden, Part I

Walled Garden with the water feature (missing the statue). One can only imagine the greenery and flowers that filled this garden. Photo courtesy of Paula Robinson Rossouw.

***The following is part of a series to promote Rocky Pastures and the Design Show House the Kennebunkport Historical Society is sponsoring at the estate on June 23 – July 14. You can visit the KHS site here. One of the designers, a friend of this blog, can be visited here.***

In his biography, I Wanted to Write, Kenneth Roberts tells of his search for a quiet place in which to do his research and writing undisturbed.  The genesis of this long search for solitude is difficult for me to pin down (in I Wanted to Write, page 143, in the midst of retelling his travels in Europe as a foreign correspondent on immigration [I believe this is correct], which is roughly around 1919 if my reading is correct), but what can be said is that Robert searched high and low in both Europe and America for his ideal spot in which to write in peace. 

Roberts’ first attempt was an old stable he converted into a home and named Stall Hall (the subject of Part II of this post).  Though he spent several years at this place, his wish for complete solitude was not fully realized due to the nearby golf course and the encroaching neighbors.  In his essay “The Little Home in the Country,” Roberts says of Stall Hall: 

No subtle premonition warned me that the local golf club might build a practice tee beneath my workroom windows: no ominous portent indicated that neighbors would feel an urge to place garages in my front and rear.

One method Roberts pursued to gain privacy from his neighbors and the seasonal golfers utilized his love of nature.  In “The Little Home in the Country,” Roberts provides a humorous account of his trials and errors when trying to plant bushes and vines that were to serve as a barrier to the outside world.

The focus of Roberts’ wit and sarcasm are those “persons who write whimsical pieces for the papers, giving readers the idea that a farmhouse can be remodeled as cheaply and as easily as one can buy a second-hand automobile.”  The implicit target of his humor and sarcasm, though, is himself and his sometimes futile attempts at growing greenery with the ease promised by the experts in the nurserymen’s annuals.  Roberts tells of his battle with unruly hedges (the Laurel-leaf Willow), stout snout beetles that were to ants as cows are to humans, and fruitless fruit trees.  Roberts most trying battle was with the bittersweet vines. 

In the case of my vines…the tip of each bittersweet tendril acts as a summer resort for innumerable aphids; and when these tips rest against a painted surface, the aphids leave unsightly smudges on it – smudges that can be obliterated only with two coats of paint.

The tendrils are long and springy.  When pruned, they sway convulsively, slapping the pruner across the mouth with tips heavily populated with aphids. As a result, for every five minutes spent by the pruner on bittersweet vines, he spends five hours removing aphids from himself…

Roberts search for solitude, then, seemed elusive while at Stall Hall considering his battles with encroaching golfers and neighbors, and the endless pursuit for the perfectly behaving greenery.

Roberts' study opened into the walled garden. These two spots best encapsulate Roberts and his passions. Photo courtesy of Paula Robinson Rossouw.

When Roberts built Rocky Pastures, though, he succeeded in finding his long sought-for solitude by having his study surrounded by a walled garden.  Though the walled garden is now more of a walled courtyard, one can only imagine the greenery and flowers adording the walled garden, easily viewable from Roberts’ study.  In my opinion, these two spots – more than any other at Rocky Pastures (except the duck pond) – encapsulate Kenneth Roberts the man, especially his passions.

Roberts’ hard-earned solitude was not easily gained though, as recounted above.  In addition to his yearly battle with nature, Roberts had to fight yearly with Stall Hall itself…

Kenneth Roberts on Diets: A Satire Against “Experts” and Their Gullible Followers

It is well documented that Kenneth Roberts was a very opinionated man, whether he was railing against politics, historians, or the current culture.  Perhaps not as well know, though, was his love for food and his never-ending quest for food cooked like his grandma’s (see his essay “A Maine Kitchen” in Trending into Maine, or “Grandma’s Kitchen” in The Kenneth Roberts Reader).

In his essay titled “An Inquiry into Diets,” Roberts tells of his foray into the crowded forest of diet books (it seems that even in his time, Americans were vainly obsessed with their figure).  Roberts gives the account of an acquaintance approaching him with the request to procure for her the best diet books available at that time (I am unsure if this actually occurred or not).  What ensues is a humorous, satirical story of Roberts’ dizzying journey amongst the leading diet “experts” and their contradictory, nebulous, unfounded advice.

Roberts provides much material worthy of being quoted here; however, due to the lack of space, time and the concern of breaking copyright, here are only a few:

…every diet, in the opinion of one or more diet experts, is either based on the erroneous ideas of a faddist, or is downright dangerous.

Hitherto, in consulting references on any given subject, I have usually been able to discard the majority as inaccurate, biased, unreliable, or untruthful … Diet books are different.  Most of them are written by medical experts who have studied for years to find out exactly what happens to seven cents’ worth of liver when it meets a Welch’s bacillus in the upper colon of a sedentary worker aged forty-five.

I further discovered that although a person may consider himself in perfect health, and may feel comfortable and happy, he is – unless he is eating foods that the diet books say he ought to eat – as effectively poisoned as though nurtured for years on poison-ivy salads with bichloride of mercury dressing.

 Lastly, Roberts tells of his discovery from the dietitians that starches, sugars and proteins, if mixed in a meal, causes intestinal fermentation, which leads to acidosis, which, according to Roberts

…is too large a subject for me to handle, in these few notes, except in the sketchiest manner.  Not even the authors of the diet books are able to handle it satisfactorily.  However, all of us are suffering from acidosis; and so far as i can tell, everybody has suffered from acidosis since the beginning of the world – unless he has been so happy as to stuble upon the proper diet.

However, if one were to just follow the proper diet,

he becomes tranquil, thoughtful, and philosophic; overwork is impossible; business worries are unknown; irritation vanishes.  It was all to 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; but the most frequent and explosive irritation was caused by that body’s eagerness to wreck the finances of the nation; its delight in wasting more and more of the people’s money; its inability to balance the budget in any sensible manner…

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 irritate me.  I would remain tranquil and philosophic while reading about the House of Representatives.  I would continue to be tranquil and philosophic, even though the House of Representatives should be successful in its efforts to bring the nation to insolvency and ruin.

(Note: this last quote gives a little glimpse into his politics as well.)

Not even the dietitians – and by implication their gullible, too-accepting followers – escaped Roberts’ searing gaze upon the culture of his time.  A great glimpse into Kenneth Roberts the man, and even a timely word for us today, as we are still flooded by advice from many “experts” that conflict with each other and even themselves.

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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