Kenneth Roberts Books: John Pierce’s Journal, Moreau de St. Mery, and Nordwest Passage

Today my family and I spent some time in Frankfort, Kentucky, to visit the state capitol and visit the quaint downtown area. The day would have been a win with just the visit to the capitol; however, our visit to Frankfort’s downtown made the day even better. Why, you may ask? Because of the treasure in Poor Richard’s Books – one of those now-rare local book stores that lack the corporate feel of the box stores and the virtually impersonal feel of e-books. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the middle of the store was filled with more bookcases. Then, you go upstairs to find another floor full of older, dustier books. Books lined the walls and filled bookcases in the aisles, while overflow books…well…flowed onto the floor. It was magical. A book store where you could literally spend an afternoon looking through the books for anything and everything.

Our trip to Poor Richard’s led me to two Kenneth Roberts’ books. I stress “two” because it’s rare to find more than one book of Roberts’ in a book store outside of New England.  The first book I found was a first edition of Moreau de St. Mery’s Amerian Journey. Roberts consulted the journals of de St. Mery when he was writing Lydia Bailey. The journals gave him insight into “the French refugees who fled from San Domingo and France at the end of the eighteenth century” (front flap). De St. Mery’s approach to writing is similar to that of Alexis de Tocqueville, but is a better read than Tocqueville.

Another find from Poor Richard’s was a copy of Kenneth Roberts’ Nordwest Passage. No, I did not misspell anything there. It’s a German copy of Roberts’ book Northwest Passage. I’ve seen online before a copy or two of Roberts’ books in another language, but have never come across a copy here in the states. Most books translated into another language are not worth much, but for a Kenneth Roberts fan, this is a neat collector’s item. Note in the pictures below the artwork on the dust jacket (I’ll need to get a protective cover for the dj); it reminds me of Eric Carle’s artwork in his children’s books. As for the book, it’s a good thing I already know what the book is about so I don’t have to brush up on my German. 😉

 

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I also found several copies of Lydia Bailey, but I already have so many copies of this book that I passed on buying one (though I did consider it!). I highly recommend you visit Poor Richard’s Books if you ever find yourself in Frankfort, Kentucky. You can also visit them on the web (www.poorrichardsbooks.com) or on Facebook.

Finally, one of my bigger finds was earlier this summer when I found a copy of John Pierce: Journal by the Advanced Surveyor With Col. Arnold on the March to Quebec. Roberts did not publish this book (more like a booklet) by itself; rather,  if my memory serves me correctly, this booklet was included with a copy of either March to Quebec or Arundel (fellow K.R. fans, help out my memory on this one). I’ve been looking for a copy of John Pierce for quite some time and stubmled across my copy while on Amazon.com. The book ran for about $50 or so, but I found my copy for $15. Not too shabby.

 
And, to conclude an already lengthy post, I found another first edition copy of I Wanted to Write at a great book store in New Orleans called Crescent City Books (www.crescentcitybooks.com).

It can be frustrating being a Roberts fan on a shoestring budget. Kenneth Roberts collectibles are to be had, but you have to be willing to pay a pretty penny. However, there are those wonderful days when you stumble across a first edition that fits your budget. And this summer, I’ve had several of those days!

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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.

Edith Faulstich-Fisher on the Siberian Expedition

Long before Kenneth Roberts found fame for his historical fiction novels, he spent time in Siberia with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I as a Military Intelligence Officer.  To my knowledge, little is known about Roberts’ time in Siberia other than what he wrote of it (for instance, he mentions his time there in his autobiography I Wanted to Write). 

Today I came across a blog devoted to Edith Faulstich-Fisher who spent the later part of her life to chronicling the AEF from the viewpoint of the soldiers.  Kenneth Roberts played a small role in this work as the late Ms. Faulstich-Fisher corresponded with him as she researched for this work.  According to the preface of her book (available on the blog here), Roberts provided her a list of the men who served in the AEF between 1918-20.

This seems like it would be a fascinating read for any Kenneth Roberts fan as one can learn about the Siberian Expedition through the mouths of those who served there.  Another great glimpse (indirectly)  into the life of Kenneth Roberts the man.

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: K.R. and his use of journals

Mary O’Gara at www.examiner.com/albuquerque  writes a neat post on how to use a journal for a writing project.  Before sharing her tips on using a project journal,  she gives accounts of how past well-known authors used their journals.  In doing so, she mentions Kenneth Roberts:

For other authors, the journal is a record of creative work, book by book and day by day. Kenneth Roberts, whose journal was published as I Wanted to Write, ranted against inaccurate historians and loud neighborhood children. The most touching entries in Roberts’ journal are his relief when his friend Booth Tarkington complimented him on a particularly difficult piece of writing.

It’s great to see that Kenneth Roberts is still recognized today!

Welcome to the Kenneth L. Roberts Unofficial Site

Kenneth Roberts, probably known more for his works such as: Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell, Northwest Passage, and Lively Lady, was a prolific writer, having written numerous articles on various topics and books on tourism, antiques, cooking, and water dousing.  While probably not as well-known today as in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, Mr. Roberts is still worthy to read.  Unfortunately, as I have surfed the web (which is chock-full of fan sites for anyone and anything), I have not found any one site devoted solely to Kenneth Lewis Roberts and his works.  I hope to change this (as much as I can on limited resources and time)  with this site.

I first became acquainted with Kenneth Roberts when I was in my junior year of highschool, roughtly 1992/1993.  I had a book report to do on any book of my choice, and I happened to come across Rabble in Arms in my school library.  I had never heard of the novel, nor had I heard of Kenneth Roberts; instead, I grabbed the book because it was set in the Revolutionary War era.  Little did I know then that I would begin a fascination with the works of Kenneth Roberts and a desire to collect anything I can of his writings (with a small budget, of course).

While many students decry American History (and history in general) as dull, useless and a near-death experience, Roberts writes about history in such a way as to make it come alive (which, I believe, is his intention as mentioned in his book I Wanted to Write).  Further, Roberts writes about aspects of American history ignored, misunderstood, or neglected by the general public.  For instance, the primary subject of Rabble in Armsis Benedict Arnold.  Many know Arnold as the most infamous traitor in American history; yet, many probably know very little of the great good he did for our country before his defection.  I, for one, was not aware of this; all I remember is his traitorous act as taught in middle school and high school history classes.  Roberts attention to historical detail, colorful and vivid language, and his ability to string together seemingly isolated, rather dry historical facts into an invigorating storyline helped me to see that there was more to Arnold, so much so that it makes his traitorous act even more devastating.  Roberts applies this technique (for lack of a better term at the moment of writing this post) in all of his historical fiction novels, exposing the reader to little-known historical events and/or people along with an interpretation of the events that more than likely bucks the trend of contemporary understanding.

I intend this site to eventually become a sort of depository for anything Kenneth Roberts.  As alluded to above, I have little to no resources to do any extensive research, nor do I have the ability to access many of his original documents or correspondences; rather, others have already done that (see this short bio on Jack Bales, who has written two books on Kenneth Roberts.  These are definitely on my want list now!).  Instead, I hope to serve as a Grand Central Station of information, links, etc. for those who are fans of Kenneth Roberts or for those who are just stopping by for curiosity’s sake.

So, with this said, I hope this develops into a useful site!  If you have any resources or ideas, please let me know. 

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