First Edition Books: Battle of Cowpens

The first book that I want to highlight in the series titled “Kenneth Roberts First Edition Books” is Battle of Cowpens: The Story of 900 Men Who Shook an Empire. This is the only book that was not published by Kenneth Roberts as it was published posthumously after Roberts’ death on July 21, 1957.

Boon Island and Battle of Cowpens were Roberts’ last two novels, but his first two novels following his venture with water dowsing. After publishing Lydia Bailey, Roberts shifted his focus to promoting the validity and value of water dowsing and wrote Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod (1951), The Seventh Sense (1953), and Water Unlimited (1957).

According to Jack Bales in Kenneth Roberts, Collier’s magazine approached Roberts’ representatives at Doubleday to see if he would be interested in writing a 4,000- to 5,000- word article on the Battle of Cowpens (Bales, 115). Roberts agreed and published his article in 1956. His work for the Collier’s article motivated Roberts to write a novel on General Daniel Morgan (who commanded the 900-man American army against the British at the Battle of Cowpens). Unfortunately, Roberts died while his work was in its research stage. Bales quotes Roberts’ secretary as stating that “‘Any plans for such a book were in Mr. Roberts’ head at the time of his death'” (Bales, 115).

Before Roberts’ died, however, an old friend, Herbert Faulkner West, approached Roberts about publishing his Collier’s article in a limited edition book form (Bales, 116). Roberts would not live, however, to see this book.

West wrote the forward for Battle of Cowpens, and in the spirit of Kenneth Roberts, Marjorie Mosser Ellis (Roberts’ niece and secretary) complained to Doubleday for allowing West’s “negative” forward to be included with the book (he had negative comments about Northwest Passage, Boon Island, and his three water dowsing books [Bales, 116]). Further, Moser corrects West in that Roberts did not rewrite Battle of Cowpens for West; rather, Collier’s “hacked” Roberts’ article to pieces and the book form represents Roberts’ work in its true form (Bales, 116).

Lastly, Bales notes that while Battle of Cowpens exhibits Roberts’ attention to detail and illustrates his in-depth historical research, it does not flow smoothly. One reviewer also points out various errors in Roberts’ work – errors that Bales assumes (correctly, in my opinion) that Roberts “would have corrected these if he had lived to complete his project” (Bales, 116). No doubt had Roberts lived, Battle of Cowpens would have fit Roberts’ mold of a historical fiction novel (Bales, 116, quoting from Howard H. Peckham, review, William and Mary Quarterly 3:15 [1958]: 530).

Earlier in my collecting days, I was unsure about the status of Battle of Cowpens; that is, I didn’t know if it was published alone or if it was published in a set. About 10 years ago or so, I found a four-volume set of Kenneth Roberts books, and the title of the set was Kenneth Roberts Reader of the American Revolution published in 1976. The set included Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell, and Battle of Cowpens.

Kenneth Roberts Reader of the American RevolutionSince then, I thought that Battle of Cowpens was available only this four-volume set. Later I became aware of the fact that Battle of Cowpens was published by itself shortly after Roberts’ passing. Below are some pictures of the dust jacket, the maps on the end papers, and the copyright page. Note that the copy I bought is the first trade edition; Roberts had a limited number of copies published and each one was signed – I hope to get one of these copies eventually.

Battle of Cowpens Dust Jacket

Endpaper maps

End paper maps

Notice that the copyright is to Kenneth Roberts' estate. To my knowledge, the bank that managed his estate is no longer in existence. I am currently trying to track down who holds the rights to Kenneth Roberts' estate.

Notice that the copyright is to Kenneth Roberts’ estate. To my knowledge, the bank that managed his estate is no longer in existence. I am currently trying to track down who holds the rights to Kenneth Roberts’ estate.

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’ Genealogy

Characters bearing the surname of Towne or Nason serve as either the main protagonist or play a central role in most of Kenneth Roberts’ novels.  For instance, Langdon Towne was the central character in Oliver Wiswell and Steven Nason was the central character in Arundel. Roberts use of these surnames exhibit not only his attention to historical detail, but his desire to link his works to his New England ancestors.

Some time ago, a Kenneth Roberts fan mailed me some information he received when he attended a presentation by Jack Bales at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. Among the material sent was a short genealogy of Roberts’ family.

Kenneth Lewis Roberts (1885-1957)

Parents: Frank Lewis Roberts (b. 1840) and Grace Mary Tibbetts (1840)

Grandparents: Jane Amanda Nason (b. 1800) and Ebenezer Armstrong Tibbitts (b. 1800)

Great Grandparents: Daniel Nason (b. 1785) and Lydia Towne (b. 1785)

Great-Great Grandparents: Edward Nason (1756-1847) and Sarah Merrill (b. 1758)

Great-Great-Great Grandparents: Joshua Nason (b. 1725) and Sarah Butler (b. 1728)

Interestingly, Roberts follows his family history from his mother’s side; none of the characters in Roberts’ books are based on ancestors from his father’s side. Various reasons are plausible for such an exclusion. Jack Bales in Kenneth Roberts states that little is known of Roberts’ father (and even of Roberts’ immediate family [Bales, 1]) and that he “was not at all close to his father and never mentioned him in any of his articles or books” (Bales, 2). It’s unknown why Roberts was distant from his father, but one can speculate that his father’s job as a traveling salesman played a significant role (Bales, 2).

Roberts’ relationship with his mother, on the other hand, was one that Roberts spoke of in his I Wanted to Write and in various essays (Bales, 2). The time spent with his mother’s family eventually served as the backdrop for his writings on Maine and his novels.

Though Roberts’ characters surnamed Towne or Nason are fictional, they are based upon real people in Roberts’ past and illustrate his deep appreciation for his family’s history and for his beloved state of Maine.

Kenneth Roberts’ Characters: Cap Huff

Recently, a fan of Kenneth Roberts wrote the website asking how it was that Cap Huff could appear in Northwest Passage and Arundel, two novels whose settings were roughly twenty-five years apart. His question was a great one considering that Arundel is the first of the four-novel series chronicling the history of Arundel during the Revolutionary War, while Northwest Passage recounted Robert Rodgers and his Rangers primarily during the 1750s and 1760s.  I figured that there may be others who had a similar question, so I will post an adaptation of my response to the reader’s question (with some editing to make smoother reading and to add clarity):

Roberts’ Arundel is the first book in a four-part series on his ancestors and others from Arundel, and their involvement in the Revolutionary War up to the War of 1812. The main character of Arundel, Steven Nason, is based on one of Roberts’ ancestors from the Nason family who hailed from Kittery, Maine. Even though Northwest Passage is not a chronicle of Arundel’s past, the main protagonist of the story, Langdon Towne, lives in Kittery, Maine . Further, the Towne family was related to Roberts’ ancestors from the Nason family (Bales, 68); hence, a motivating factor for including the fictional Langdon Towne and setting the character in Maine. Now, on to Cap Huff.

[In response to the email’s claim that Roberts included Huff in Northwest Passage because he liked the character] Indeed, Roberts liked Cap Huff. In Jack Bales’ biography on Roberts (1993), he mentions how Roberts wanted a character that was a “‘noisy oaf’ because in all the military troops he had ever seen there was ‘at least one noisy clown, constantly in trouble and eager to steal anything that he or his friends needed'” (Bales, p. 41 quoting from I Wanted to Write, 182).  Cap Huff’s appearance in Northwest Passage is not just because Roberts like him, but because there was a real connection between Arundel  and Northwest Passage.

If you look at the timeline of the books, Huff’s appearance in both stories makes sense. On page 6 of NP, Towne says of Cap Huff that Huff is from Kittery, Maine, and made a living carrying packages from Portsmouth to Falmouth. We actually see Cap Huff enter the story very early in the book. Mention is made in the first few pages that Towne knew Huff as a friend, not just as an acquaintance, and that Huff commented often on Towne’s art. Chapter 2 begins in the year 1759 when Towne was in his junior year of Harvard. It was also the year when Huff (along with Hunk Marriner) visited Towne at Harvard on their way to sell pelts and furs in Boston; on their return trip, they brought ingredients to make hot buttered rum. Huff made the rum in Towne’s room for Towne’s friends and others who straggled along. (There are other times when Towne mentions Huff, but what I recall here helps to make clearer the link between NP and Arundel.)

Though Arundel takes place in the American Revolutionary War, the story begins years before the War. In the beginning of the book, the narrator Steven Nason tells of how his grandfather hailed from Kittery, Maine, before moving to Wells, Maine, where Nason’s father was born.

Book I of Arundel begins in 1759 when Nason was 12 years old (placing the time frame of Arundel  parallel to the same time period when Langdon Towne met with Huff in Boston). Nason opens by recounting his first kiss with Mary, and then that evening, when Nason made it home, his house was full of guests, one of them being Cap Huff (“the noisiest person at the board,” 23). Nason spends a little time telling the reader about Huff, and on page 24, we learn that Huff knew little of his parents, but that in 1725 they were brought to Kittery after being saved from Indians. “Shortly thereafter this son being born” – that is Cap Huff (24). So, we are not told the year Huff was born, but we know that it was after 1725. So, in Northwest Passage and in Arundel, when the stories coincide in 1759, Cap huff was around 29 – 33 years old. This puts him around 46 – 50 years old when the Revolutionary War began and when Cap Huff makes a prominent appearance in Arundel (and Rabble in Arms).

As we can see, though both novels were set in different periods of Colonial American history, they overlap each other by virtue of Roberts’ use of his ancestors (the Townes and the Nasons) as the basis of the main protagonists of the novels and the roots they planted in Kittery, Maine and surrounding towns.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: Jack Bales’ bio of Kenneth Roberts

Okay, so what I found wasn’t on a blog, but instead on Dartmouth’s library website.  Nevertheless, I found a brief bio on Kenneth Roberts written by his biographer, Jack Bales (of whom I’ve written on in the past).  This short bio is a great glimps into Kenneth Roberts the man.

What stuck out to me was Bales’ discussion on Kenneth Roberts’ discouragement over the lack of sales and acclaim of his first several novels during the first 6 years of his writing (which included my all-time favorite novel, Rabble in Arms).  Bales states:

After exhaustively researching Benedict Arnold’s march to capture Quebec during the first year of the American Revolution, Roberts wrote Arundel (1930), which he soon followed with The Lively Lady (1931) and Rabble in Arms (I933). By I934, none of the books had sold very well, and as Roberts recalled years later, some prominent critics had pointedly disdained his literary efforts :

I understood them to say my dialogue was inept, I was deplorably weak in delineating character, knew nothing about plot-structure, couldn’t interpret history adequately and, generally speaking, would be well advised to turn to other means of livelihood. I’d worked hard on those books for [six] years without any noticeable reward or acclaim; and their reception and sales were discouraging in the extreme so much so that I was broke and on the verge of abandoning the course I’d charted for myself [six] years before. (Bales)

While Roberts was generally known as an opinionated, curmudgeonly man, this piece by Bales reveals that popular sentiment did not paint a full picture of Roberts.  Roberts ended up receiving a letter from the president of Dartmouth (Ernest Martin Hopkins) which praised his works, thus serving as a turning point in Roberts’ career.

This, then, brings us to an interesting piece of Roberts trivia: though Roberts was a native of Maine and loved Maine with practically his whole being, Dartmouth serves as the home of his works and correspondence because of Hopkins’ letter and Roberts’ receiving an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth.

 

“The Kenneth Roberts Reader” & Ben Ames Williams

In a recent post regarding The Kenneth Roberts Reader, I posed the question about why Ben Ames Williams was chosen to write the introduction, and not Booth Tarkington.  Now, I realize in the grand scheme of things, the answer to this question has absolutely no bearing on anything; rather, this question is really a result of curiosity. 

I posed the question in an e-mail to Jack Bales, author of Kenneth Roberts and Kenneth Roberts: The Man and His Works, and to John at townsendbooks.com (he has a large collection of Kenneth Roberts books), below are their answers:

Jack Bales: Kenneth Roberts and Ben Ames Williams were actually close friends and often socialized together.  In fact, along with Booth Tarkington, B.A. Williams was one of Kenneth Roberts’ closest friends.  Jack Bales covers this friendship in his second book titled Kenneth Roberts.

John: Though he was somewhat unsure of the exact link, John states that it could have been a reciprocated favor, as Kenneth Roberts wrote an introduction for one of Williams’ books The Happy End (1939).

So, there you go!

 

How Do I Find Out More About Kenneth Roberts?

Before beginning this site, I performed just basic searches on Google for any information on Kenneth Roberts.  Sadly, all I got were short bios that all sounded alike, and this probably because they all referenced the same sources (primarily Jack Bales’ two books on Roberts.  You can reference a short bio on Jack Bales  from a link on the right).

As an instructor, I rarely refer my students to Wikipedia.com because of how fluid information seems to be on this site (at least in regards to how easily one can adjust information on there).  However, in the case of info on Kenneth Roberts, Wikipedia is one of a few sites that carries extensive (compared to what’s out there) info on Roberts.  So, if you would like to have a brief lesson into Kenneth Roberts in general, refer to the Wikipedia article here.  If you want to catch a glimpse into Kenneth Roberts the person, see Bales’ article located on Dartmouth’s Library Bulletin site here.

If you know of other sites that provide better or more info, let me know!

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