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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“Time” on Kenneth Roberts – 11/25/1940

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of Time.com

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of Time.com

As I continue to search for anything on Kenneth Roberts on the Web, I am beginning to find a little more out there than the run of the mill short bios.  This past Friday night I came across an archived article from Time.com dated 11/25/40.  The event that occasioned this article was the upcoming release of Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell.  You can access this article by clicking this link, or by clicking the link provided in the right side-bar.

Several things stuck out to me in regards to Kenneth Roberts the person. 

First, K.R. was known during that time for his attention to historical detail.  The writer of the article compares him to James Fenimore Cooper for his historical detail (in the footnote, Roberts is quoted as saying that this comparison “… irritates me almost beyond endurance”).  In addition, Roberts was recognized for “his tirelessness in tracking down historical obscurities,” causing the article’s writer to comment that “he [Roberts] is probably the world’s No. 1 literary detective.”

Second, Kenneth Roberts was known as a controversial figure in his own right.  According to Time, K.R. published his historical findings, despite any potential of upsetting any hard-held beliefs regarding American history, for instance K.R.’s positive portrayal of Benedict Arnold in Arundel and Rabble in Arms.   With Oliver Wiswell, K.R. continued to go against the status-quo by providing a “sustained and uncompromising report of the American Revolution from the Tory viewpoint.” 

To take this view of K.R. even further, Roberts was no stranger to controversy even in his earlier writings.  Roberts’ Why Europe Leaves Home, published in 1922 as a result of his time in Europe, described the new-developing immigrating patterns of people in “war-dislocated Europe” (post-WWI).  Roberts then “warned vanishing Americans that unless they tightened restrictions on immigration, the U.S. would soon be a disposal plant for most of Europe’s human waste.”  Very bold words for that time, and how much more “politically incorrect” for today’s society!  The article’s writer goes on to claim that Roberts’ book helped to hasten along the passage of the Restrictive Immigration Law. 

Lastly, the writer of this article makes a claim that I believe is forgotten (or at the very least is one the way out) today amongst the general public – the claim is that Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell is important history.  To quote:

Like all romances, Oliver Wiswell is also important history.  Novelist Roberts sees the American Revolution as a social revolution in which the colonial masses, stirred by rabble rousers like Sam Adams and John Hancock, brought the colonies to the brink from which they were later saved by the men who framed the Constitution.  This book explains why Americans became tories, why the tories, though [sic] they appear to have represented at least half of the population in the 13 colonies, were defeated, why the English were unable to quash the rabble in arms.

I believe that one can take this claim and extend to all, if not most, of Kenneth Roberts’ works.  I take it from what I’ve read so far of Kenneth Roberts that he did not write a novel for the sake of writing a novel; rather, Roberts wanted to write history – to educate America of her history – in a way that the reader is not bored with dry facts.  In doing so, Roberts mixed together the crafts of the historian and novelist in order to present American history according to the facts and date, not according to the lore developed through the passing of time which result in misconceptions of the actual events. (This is not to say that all history we learn in school is wrong; rather, that some things we may accept as true may in fact be otherwise.)

Roberts’ influence and impact upon American history was apparently widely recognized during his lifetime.  Unfortunately, the public’s knowledge of Roberts and his works has seemingly faded to almost non-existence.  Why is this so?  While I do not know the answer, I do hope that this site can help in bringing the knowledge of Kenneth Roberts and his works back to the general public.

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