Kenneth Roberts in Scholarly Work: John Frederick on Roberts as a Novelist and Historian

One of the joys of studying Kenneth Roberts’ works is coming across what others have written about one of America’s best historical novelists. While it is easier to find more recent assessments of Roberts’ work, I’ve found it a little more challenging to find contemporary assessments of his novels. With that said, I recently tweeted  a link to an article from June 1941 in The English Journal 30.6 by John T. Frederick. The article was written on the heels of the release of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts’ novel written from the perspective of a Tory during the American Revolution.

By the time Frederick wrote his article, Roberts’ was established as one of America’s foremost novelist, having already published ArundelRabble in Arms, and Northwest Passage. Frederick praises Roberts in his article, noting Roberts’ unique ability to “give us pictures of the American past which are honest, rich, and intellectually stimulating,” making Roberts “one of the major American writers” of their day (p. 435). For Frederick, a key factor in Roberts’ success as a novelist was his attention to historical detail.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts autobiography provides, in part, his reasons for writing historical novels.

Roberts’ novels are typically classified as ‘historical fiction.’ Generally, according to Frederick, works of historical fiction share common components: “exciting action on every page; a beautiful and vivacious – but not necessarily, in modern fiction, virtuous – heroine; period costumes and stage settings” (p. 435). Indeed, Roberts’ novels fit the bill of historical fiction; however, as Frederick notes, Roberts would probably be “reluctant” to classify his works as historical fiction. For,

beneath these aspects of superficial relationship  to the conventional work of historical romance there lies bedrock historical fact and purpose which makes the work of Kenneth Roberts essentially and significantly different from the historical fiction that is written merely to entertain (p. 436).

Roberts did not write to merely entertain readers; rather, he wrote to teach history and to correct misconceptions of historical fact (see my post on why Roberts wrote historical fiction). Frederick observes:

He has written his historical novels as a matter of the considered choice of a mature and successful man; not primarily for money or for fame but because he wanted to write them, because he had something to say in them which he wanted profoundly to say, believed profoundly to be worth saying (p. 436).

Frederick’s observation is based upon the “extraordinary thoroughness of Kenneth Roberts’ historical research” (p. 437). Roberts’ writing of each novel was preceded by “prolonged and patient digging after facts” such that Roberts’ research nearly equaled that “of the best professional historians” (p. 437).

March to QuebecFor example, prior to writing Arundel, Roberts traveled the path Benedict Arnold took when leading his expedition to Quebec in 1775. He sought out all possible source material, including the journals and letters of those involved in the expedition. Such was the depth of Roberts’ research that he was able to publish his original research in March to Quebec (1938) – “itself a major contribution to the history of the American Revolution” (p. 437).

The best evidence supporting the idea that Roberts was a historian as well as a novelist is found, according to Frederick, in Roberts’ research for Northwest Passage. Though the main character of Northwest Passage is Langdon Towne, the most dominant and dynamic character is Major Robert Rogers – the leader of Roberts’ Rangers. In what is perhaps Roberts’ most famous novel, Kenneth Roberts “rescued from the comparative oblivion of specialized scholarship one of the most interesting figures of all American colonial history” in Robert Rogers (p. 438). More significantly, Roberts’ penchant for extensive and thorough research led him to locate the record of Roberts’ court-martial, something which “historians had agreed was lost” (p. 437). As with Arundel, Roberts published his research for Northwest Passage in a volume that accompanied the limited first edition.

I believe that Frederick provides a sound case for Roberts as a historian. I believe, however, that many have – and still do – fail to consider Roberts as a historian because of: 1) he wrote novels, and 2) he was a controversialist. It was well-known in Roberts’ day – and today among Roberts fans – that Kenneth Roberts was very opinionated and did not hold back on letting others know what he thought. His opinionated nature shown through all of his novels as he sought to shatter common notions about events and historical figures (note his favorable depiction of Benedict Arnold in Arundel and, especially, Rabble in Arms; and his depiction of the Revolution from the eyes of a Tory in Oliver Wiswell). It’s as if Roberts’ novels were a vehicle for his opinions and views to which he doggedly held and argued.

What should be noted is that while Roberts’ opinions are not bedrock fact, we are able to distinguish between historical fact and opinion in his novels. The point I seek to make here is a philosophical one – that we all encounter fact (in this case, historical fact), and we all interpret that fact. Fact is something that does not change (e.g. Robert Rogers was court-martialed; Benedict Arnold led the expedition to Quebec in 1775, etc.). What we must do, though, is to make sense of the facts – what do they mean? How do they fit in with other known facts? Etc. Further, when it comes to a particular work – such as Roberts’ novels – why did the author include these facts and not others? Is the way in which the facts depicted accurate? Etc. That is, interpretation necessarily accompanies fact – we cannot avoid it. Though we like to think that scientists are unbiased and objective, even they necessarily interpret the facts presented them in their experiments. Detectives interpret the facts of a particular case. And, in particular to this post, historians interpret fact in order to understand the past. We all interpret fact -it’s unavoidable. Thus, where we differ is not in fact, but in the interpretation of the facts.

Thus, when it comes to Kenneth Roberts, it goes without saying that Kenneth Roberts held to some unpopular opinions (interpretations) of historical fact. This point is well-illustrated in Mark York’s Patriot on the Kennebec (2012). In his work, York seeks to depict Major Reuben Colburn’s contribution to Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. According to York in the “Acknowledgements”, Kenneth Roberts’ barely mentioned Major Colburn in Arundel while elevating the role of the Nasons (Roberts’ descendants) “at the expense of real heroes whose contributions were documented in the primary texts” (York, p. 9). York notes that Roberts was prejudiced toward Colburn, something that is noted in Arundel when Roberts wrote: “I was prepared to mislike Colburn…for being responsible for Washington’s and Aronold’s fondness for bateaux; but I had wronged him” (quoted by York, p. 10). Here, we see that there is a different of interpretation of Coburn’s contribution to the expedition. The question of who is right is beyond the scope of this post (and my ability to research the primary sources); the point is, both Roberts and York have the facts – they differ in their interpretation.[1]

Despite Kenneth Roberts’ tendency of contrarianism and his interpretation of historical fact, I believe that Frederick makes a good case for Roberts as a historian. Unfortunately, Roberts’ choice of genre has limited public perception of him to that of just a novelist. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand Roberts’ approach to writing and the purpose that drove him. What made Roberts a great novelist was his even greater skill as a historian.


[1] Why do people differ on interpretation? In short, it’s due in part to the various presumptions and beliefs one brings into the act of interpretation. We do not interpret in a vacuum, nor do we interpret from a completely neutral stance. Rather, we all bring to the table a framework from which we interpret facts presented to us (our worldview). This isn’t to say that we can’t judge between who is right and wrong; rather, it is to explain why there are differences in interpretation. Thus, to judge between differing interpretations is a more complex endeavor than we tend to view it today.

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.

K.R. in Current Works: Mark York’s “Patriot on the Kennebec”

Today via the comment section of this blog, I was introduced to Mark York and his work titled Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775 .  According to York, here is a short blurb on his book:

In late 1775, a few months after the first shots of the Revolution were fired, Benedict Arnold led more than one thousand troops into Quebec to attack the British there. Departing from Massachusetts, by the time they reached Pittston, Maine, they were in desperate need of supplies and equipment to carry them the rest of the way. Many patriotic Mainers contributed, including Major Reuben Colburn, who constructed a flotilla of bateaux for the weary troops. Despite his service in the Continental army, many blamed Colburn when several of the vessels did not withstand the harsh journey. In this narrative, the roles played by Colburn and his fellow Mainers in Arnold’s march are reexamined and revealed.

In my reply to his comment, I’d asked Mark if he could provide a short summary on how he interacts with Kenneth Roberts’ works in his own Patriot on the Kennebec.  Mark kindly responded in an email with the following:

The journals of the members of the expedition Roberts collected and compiled in March to Quebec are critical to the study, but some of Roberts’ pet peeves, chinks in his historical armor, that he reveals in the margins of March are also disproven by the journals themselves. For example, the banquet at Fort Western and Aaron Burr’s exploits. The meal happened, and yet since his relative, Edward Nason, was an enlisted man, he would have been sleeping outside in the rain and not feasting inside with the Howards, Reuben Colburn, Burr and other officers. There was also some unflattering portrayals of the guides from my neck of the woods in Arundel that are sort of insulting. Roberts was a man of privilege, but he could be unapologetic and uncaring of anyone not so lucky.

My essay in the opening of Patriot reflects these flaws while praising his efforts and making my job so much easier. Yet, I believe I’ve broken new ground in uncovering things about the expedition that other authors have miscalculated. Robert’s and I agree on the complex story of Natanis and Sabatis, though. He reveals his initial bias against my central Maine people in the dialogue of Arundel. ” I was prepared to mislike Colburn for Washington and Arnold’s fondness for bateaux, but I had wronged him.”

I find this very intriguing.  While Roberts was indeed a great writer and to be appreciated for his research and writing, he was not without his foibles and errors.  What I appreciate about Mark is that despite his appreciation for Roberts (or maybe because of ?), he is willing to critique Roberts and point out possible errors in his works.

I look forward to reading this book and I hope you get a chance to purchase this book.  You can find it via Amazon by clicking here.

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