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.

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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!

Kenneth Roberts Memorabilia: 1938 Parker Pen Ad

Today, July 18, is my birthday. As I’ve grown older, and especially when my two youngest daughters were born five days and 10 days after my birthday, I have become rather specific and picky as to what I want for my birthday. Yes, I still get birthday gifts, but I don’t expect to get a lot of gifts (as one does when they are a child); rather, some money to go to Half Price Books or to go to Music-G0-Round for my drums usually fits the bill. However, the previous fourteen birthdays have primarily been gifts toward books for my education. Occasionally would I get something for my drum set or a book that was outside the realm of my studies.

Parker Vacumatic pen ad featuring Kenneth Roberts in 1938

Parker Vacumatic pen ad featuring Kenneth Roberts in 1938

This year is different, however, as I am no longer in school.  I found a couple of Kenneth Roberts items on the web and pointed them out to my wife. One item that I received today for my birthday is a great ad from 1938. It is an ad for Parker Vacumatic pens featuring Kenneth Roberts. This ad is perfect for me in two ways: first, I am obviously a big Kenneth Roberts fan. Second, I really like old Parker pens. I have two Parker 51 pens that are still in working condition, and a Parker 61 pen/pencil set that has never been used (by the way, be sure to visit Parker51.com – a wonderful site on everything Parker 51). So, the Parker Vacumatic ad really combines two things like enjoy collecting: Kenneth Roberts works and old fountain pens (particularly Parker pens).

Several features about this ad stand out. First, it links a best-selling author with the use of a best-selling pen. Roberts had just published the best-selling Northwest Passage in 1937, and by using his likeness, Parker was riding Roberts’ wave of popularity. Behind Roberts’ picture is the first page of Roberts’ manuscript for Northwest Passage. The caption to the left of Roberts’ image reads:

In drafting the manuscript of Northwest Passage, his great novel of French and Indian wars and the gargantuan Major Robert Rogers, Kenneth Roberts wrote more than 2,000,000 words with his Parker Vacumatic; then rewrote and altered his rough draft to its final version of 300,000 words. The same unfailing pen helped Mr. Roberts create his famous portraits of Cap Huff and Benedict Arnold in Arundel and Rabble in Arms; King Dick, Capt. Boyle and Daniel Marvin in Lively Lady and Captain Caution.

While the ad’s mention of Roberts’ manuscript’s 2,000,000 words clearly intends to highlight the Parker Vacumatic’s durability and reliability, it also points to Roberts’ detailed and diligent work he put into his novels. Having just finished a dissertation that entailed editing and revising, I just cannot fathom writing 2,000,000 words, only to cut out 85% percent for a final tally of 300,000. I cringe at such a thought.

A second feature that stands out is the small print to the lower left-hand side of the ad. In small print, one reads:

 No payment has been or will be made to Mr. Roberts, for the use of his name in this advertisement; and the Parker Pen Company, at his and to show its appreciation, will this summer provide funds to send a welfare worker with the Grenfell Mission to Labrador.

No doubt Roberts had every right to accept money from Parker for the use of his name and image; however, I find that this statement sheds light on a side of Kenneth Roberts that is often overshadowed by his outspoken personality. (For information on the Grenfell Mission, visit this link. The mission was started by Wilfred Grenfell to establish permanent medical care in Labrador and the surrounding area.)

This ad is an amazing piece of history, particularly in the information one can glean about Kenneth Roberts the man. So, when looking through old magazines, don’t ignore the old ads. You never know what you may discover!

March to QuebecP.S. I stated above that I found a couple of items on the web. The second item is a first edition copy of March to Quebec with the dust jacket, both in good condition. I’m very excited about this find as well; I’ve been looking for this book for quite some time in antique stores, used book stores, etc., and could not find it. So, I had to resort to the web (thank you abebooks.com!). Nevertheless, I am excited and have it on my nightstand as we speak, waiting to be read.

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.

Boston 1775 on Major Robert Rogers

Major Robert Rogers

With some sadness, I am going to place this site on a quasi-hibernation as I prepare for my Ph. D. comprehensive exams in March.  I’ll occasionally write a post, but I will save any serious posts for after my comps.  In the meantime, take a look at Boston 1775‘s post titled: “A Negro servant Man, belonging to Major Robert Rogers.” While the post does not mention or discuss Kenneth Roberts, it highlights an aspect of a character in one of Kenneth Roberts’ more famous novels, Northwest Passage.  It’s information like this that helps to bring alive the historical figures in Roberts’ novels.

In addition to reading this post, I encourage you to look through the entire Boston 1775 site; it’s a joy to read for all lovers of early American history, primarily in the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary time period.

Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood: Northwest Passage (1940) on Smithsonianmag.com “Reel Culture”

Lobby card for Northwest Passage. Spencer Tracy (center) and Robert Young (right).  Picture courtesy of Smithsonianmag.com<br />

It seems that the Hollywood rendition of Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage made the rounds in the blogosphere in 2012.  Today we meet up with Smithsonian.com‘s “Reel Culture” in which they ask: “Where are the great Revolutionary War films?”  Noting the film industry’s success in making blockbuster films of the US’s past (particularly of the Western frontier days and the Civil War), the number of great movies on America’s Revolutionary War is quite small.  “Reel Culture” provides one possible reason for the apparent lack of films honoring America’s struggle for nationhood:

Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times….Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?

Though the number of Revolutionary War films are small in number, “Reel Culture” lists various attempts by filmmakers to chronicle this crucial time in our nation’s history, such as 1776, Revolution, and The Patriot (among others).  And, more importantly to this website, the author of the blog post lists Northwest Passage among Revolutionary War films.  Though the setting does not occur during the Revolutionary War, the author justifies the inclusion of this film as such:
Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.

While films depicting Roberts’ works shared some time in the spotlight, Roberts was not a fan of his works making it to the silver screen.  And it is with this thought that I will begin what I hope to be a fun, interesting series: Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood.  In an upcoming post, we will take a look at Roberts’ attitude toward Hollywood taking on his novels.

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: Monster Mania and the Northwest Passage

HT: Monster Mania

Though I’ve been a big Kenneth Roberts fan for over twenty years, have sought to own and read all of his books, and began a website devoted to the man and his works, I must confess (ashamedly) that I have never watched the movies based upon his books.  I am not a big fan of movies made in the 1940s-1960s (probably the time period in which movies based on Roberts’ books were produced), and I am not much of a movie fan in general, so I have been reluctant to watch these movies. Perhaps the biggest reason for my reluctance is that I am afraid that I would find the movies too cheesy and/or ruining what Roberts set out to do in his books.  Nevertheless, I know I must watch these movies at some point, but I’ll wait until my Ph. D. is over.

Thankfully, there are blogs and websites that spend time reviewing these movies, and today I would like to highlight Monster Mania, who provides a brief summary of the 1940 film of Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy.  What I found interesting is that this was to be a two-part movie series (hence the “Part I” in the title).  For whatever reason, no second part was produced.  (The reason why would be hunt down and know!)  I appreciate the post as it offers a review from a cinematography aspect and numerous screenshots of the movie itself.  Take some time to read this post and enjoy!

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