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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A Blast From the Past: Kirkus Review of “Oliver Wiswell”

Book reviews are not one of the most popular forms of reading in today’s abundance of literature. Usually (at least in my circles) they are read by scholars or graduate students as they do research for papers or projects. I must admit, before I began my Ph.D., I had no interest in book reviews; I for sure did not see any value in them other than learning about another person’s opinion about a book.

As I progressed through my Ph.D. studies, I began to develop an appreciation for book reviews. True, they primarily provide one scholar’s view of another’s work; but, they also give a glimpse into the life and time of the author and the subject of the review – they are snippets of history. Here, you also observe the attitudes toward a particular book and its author – attitudes that are generally lost among the innumerable details of the past. It brings to life a particular author, and it sets a book in its context.

YesterdayI came across a book review on Oliver Wiswell written by Kirkus in 1940. According to Kirkusreviews.com, Kirkus was:

Founded in 1933, Kirkus has been an authoritative voice in book discovery for 80 years. Kirkus Reviewsmagazine gives industry professionals a sneak peek at the most notable books being published weeks before they’re released. When the books become available for purchase, Kirkus serves the book reviews to consumers in a weekly email newsletter and on Kirkus.com, giving readers unbiased, critical recommendations they can trust.

The reviewer of Oliver Wiswell gave the book four stars – the highest rating given to a book by the reviewer from Kirkus since three starts was given to Grapes of Wrath (1939). The reviewer says of Oliver Wiswell: “A superb love story — an extraordinary piece of characterization — and a unique background, handled with Roberts’ masterful technique.”  The question is raised, however, if America was ready for such a book – one of the American Revolution told from the perspective of a Loyalist.

Up to the time of Roberts’ writing of Oliver Wiswell, Roberts had no recollection of any book on the American Revolution told from the Loyalist perspective. For Roberts, such a lack betrayed an incomplete view of the Revolution. Roberts was criticized by some for writing from the Loyalist perspective, claiming that Roberts himself was favorable toward England and her cause in the war with the colonies. Nevertheless, Oliver Wiswell quickly became one of Roberts’ more well-known works.

After providing a brieve summary of the novel, the reviewer from Kirkus closes their review with high praise for Roberts’ 1940 novel:

I could quote,endlessly, passages that give the book an incredible timeliness. But I’ll leave it to you — and you — and you. Don’t miss it. This is THE book of the year — the book that gives us a symbol of the ideals which were forged in the crucible and came out a great nation. Roberts has told great stories; he has contributed as much as any and more than most, to our American background. This is his best book.

The reviewer does not shy from providing a glowing endorsement of Roberts’ controversial novel. Particularly noteworthy is that a higher rating was given to Roberts’ work than that given to Grapes of Wrath – a work that eventually outlasted Roberts’ work in the public eye. Steinbeck’s work is still widely read and published relative to Oliver Wiswell, which has all but faded from the memory of American readers.

Perhaps there will be a day when Kenneth Roberts and his works are once again making waves in American culture as was the case in the early- to mid-twentieth century.

A Question and a Freebie

  • I recently had a reader of this website send me an email asking me the following question:

When young, I was an avid KR fan. I seem to remember one of his books talking about lawn mowing at Oxford.  How to get a perfect lawn, mow one way for a hundred years and then the opposite for the next hundred, etc.
Can you direct me to the passage? Or does my memory play tricks on me?

I must confess that I have not been able to find what he is looking for.  I’ve looked through his various essays in For Author’s Only and those provided in the Reader, but to no avail. If you know what our reader is referring to, please email me at:

kennethrobertswebsite at gmail dot com

  • Also, another reader – abradley41 – commented on another post that Barnes and Noble has Oliver Wiswell for FREE for the Nook.  So, if you’re an e-reader fanatic, here’s an excellent Roberts novel for free!  Here is the link.

“Oliver Wiswell”: an Authoritative Work?

As stated before, I am catching up on Kenneth Roberts news in the blogosphere.  I try to post on matters I find relevant and helpful to those interested in learning more about one of America’s least-known great authors.  However, sometimes you’ve just got to post things out of the ordinary.

Over at On, Now, to the 3rd Level, Daniel Yordy discusses what I believe to be about community, particularly Christian community (not so much a church in the traditional sense, but a community in the sense of a commune?).  In this long post, Yordy discusses the issue of freedom and the “lie” that freedom does not result from war (I hope I understand his point correctly).  Now, what I find interesting is that Yordy quotes favorably Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell seemingly as an authoritative work in this matterHere’s what Yordy states:

If you want to know for certain that the American Revolution had absolutely nothing to do with freedom, just read the first three chapters of Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The American Revolution opposed freedom in every possible way. In reality, it was nothing more than an excuse to kill one’s neighbor and to burn down his home.

While I believe that Roberts was faithful to his commitment to accurately portray historical events (which I believe is backed up by his tedious research), I’m not sure how far one is to take the fictional aspect of his work as authoritative.  The chapters Yordy refers to, if I am not mistaken, are written from the perspective of the fictional character, Oliver Wiswell, who is a Tory living in America during the Revolutionary War.  The character gives his view, as a Tory, on the war.  While chapters 1 – 3 are technically Roberts’ words, he intends to portray common Tory sentiment of the war. On the other hand, I believe Roberts himself would side with the “rabble” who fought against England.

This issue raises the question on the role of historical fiction in one’s research and support.  If historical fiction is written in the manner of Kenneth Roberts (backed by significant research and historical facts presented as faithfully as possible), can it be used authoritatively? At the very least those parts that are historical fact in nature, as opposed to fiction written with no intention of presenting any historical fact (I am sure there are numerous forms of fiction; here I use “fiction” in its most general form, as a story made up by its author, not reflecting any true person(s) or even(s))?

Personally, I believe one treads on shaky ground if he bases an argument, in part or in whole (and outside of the realm of literature and the arts), on historical fiction; however, my opinion may be a result of my doctoral studies in which any reliance upon fictional works is frowned upon.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: Summer Reading List

Kenneth Roberts recently made a summer reading list!  Oliver Wiswell was the book of choice by USA Conservative News.  Here’s the opening line when Roberts was mentioned:

The best historical novels ever written about the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 are by Kenneth Roberts, a very popular author 70 years ago that most people today have never heard of.

This statement, in my opinion, is true on several levels, unfortunately so in regards to the last part “…that most people today have never heard of.”

One Eternal Day” also suggested Oliver Wiswell for summer reading.  Jim Skaggs, the blog author, also suggests Rabble in Arms, The Lively Lady, and Captain Caution.  I like what he says about the quality of Roberts’ work: he makes John Jakes’ work look like “pulp fiction.”  It’s great to see that there are others who appreciate Roberts’ work.

Arundel made it on the reading list at the Hackley Public Library.  A rather trite review of the book, but I think it’s because the author didn’t like it too much; they only gave Arundel a 5.  Oh well, not all are fans!

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: “Feast of Nemesis” on Oliver Wiswell

Feast of Nemesis provides short, but interesting thoughts on Roberts’ novel, Oliver Wiswell, of whom the main character is a Tory during the American Revolutionary War.

According to the post, Oliver Wiswell is contemporary:

The tragic dilemma of Oliver Wiswell and the tories is a central tragedy of our time. They learn what modern exiles have to learn: 1) that decency, thrift, sobriety, intelligence have no value in a civil war; 2) that there is no hope for the vanquished in a social revolution except to start life over again in a new country.

The post further states that “like all Roberts romances, Oliver Wiswell is also important history.”  I’m not sure I’d say that all of Roberts’ novels were primarily romances; rather, they were primarily history that involved romance within the plot.  I don’t think Roberts wrote with the idea of developing a new romance.  If this were so, his novels were all the same because the romance aspect seems to be rather identical in all of his novels.  Anyway, I digress.  The post goes on to say in regards to the novel as 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, through 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.

Again, interesting perspective in regards to one of K.R.’s most famous novels.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: Kenneth Roberts a Revisionist?

Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism Last week or so I linked a post on Lew Rockwell‘s site that contains a chapter from Jeff Riggenbach’s latest book “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.”  In a nut shell, Riggenbach seeks to look at the change in the way historians understand American history since the mid-nineteenth century.  America’s history, once held in high esteem, is now viewed as being “series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores” (Riggenbach, ch. 1).  In the chapter provided on Rockwell’s site, Riggenbach deals with objectivity (or lack thereof) of the historian and the seemingly oxymoron “historical fiction.”

Riggenbach spends some time highlighting Kenneth Roberts and his works to illustrate his previous section on historical fiction.  While briefing the reader on Roberts’ bio, Riggenbach mentions Roberts’ desire for writing historical fiction: “to help insure preservation of ‘the speech, the events, the customs and the appearance’ of his native state” (ch. 1).  Riggenbach, however, seems to imply that Roberts’ intentions were not so pure.

Riggenbach notes that Roberts’ first works (Arundel, The Lively Lady, Rabble in Arms, and  Captain Caution) received very little attention until his publication of Northwest Passagein 1937, which received much acclaim that resulted in a Hollywood movie based on the novel.  Roberts’ subsequent novels were best sellers.  So, why the sudden attention and acclaim?  Riggenbach seems to suggest that Roberts’ success resulted from his ability to to adapt his writing in a way that matched American sentiments, thus allowing him to gain noteriety and fame.

To support this, Riggenbach compares two of Roberts’ novels – Rabble in Arms(pre-fame) and Oliver Wiswell (during the height of his fame) – in which Roberts’ highlights unfavorable characters in a positive light (Rabble in Arms – Benedict Arnold; Oliver Wiswell– title character is a Tory).  Riggenbach quotes Linda Orlando as the voice of American sentiment toward Roberts’ Rabble in Arms:

Linda Orlando may be overstating the case when she writes that Roberts “explained and defended the treason of General Benedict Arnold” and that Roberts considered Arnold “misunderstood,” and “not the villain history had depicted him to be.”  But there can be little doubt that Roberts’s novels were taken in just this way by many of his contemporaries.

Americans, then, did not take to Roberts’ novel because of his  positive portrayal of the epitome of betrayal and evil (at least to Americans) – Benedict Arnold.  No American, then, would dare to read Roberts’ pro-Arnold books!

When Roberts wrote Oliver Wiswell, he was still riding the wave of success resulting from Northwest Passage.  Around the same time of Northwest Passage’s publication, Riggenbach notes that American sentiment towards Britain had begun to change as well.  Though as late as 1941  most Americans did not view Britain in a too-positive light (just two years before, American ships were harassed by the Royal Navy), Ameircan sentiment towards Britain began to change as a result of the work of “the ‘liberal’ wing of the Democratic Party, who in the late 1930s sought to change  American foreign policy.  Coincidentally (?), when Roberts published Oliver Wiswell (a book in which the title character is a Tory during the later part of the American Revolution)  in 1940, his works continued to sell well based upon his recognition from Northwest Passage and the rising pro-British sentiment in the U.S.

Riggenbach concedes that what he argues as cause for Roberts’ sustained popularity is not completely certain:

Perhaps it was this same ‘underlying favorable pre-disposition’ that led the reading public to suddenly embrace the pro-British novels of Kenneth Roberts, after years of ignoring them.  Or perhaps, as the efforts of the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia to reshape public opinion on the crisis in Europe began to succeed, the pro-British stance of Roberts’s novels began to seem more palatable – even appealing.  Or did a confused American public, still only partially weaned from its suspicion of England and its distrust of what George Washington had called “foreign entanglements,” reach out for Kenneth Roberts’s novels out of a felt need to find a way to justify the friendlier attitude toward the English that already seemed well on its way to becoming the new conventional wisdom?

While Riggenbach leaves the question open for the reader to decide, he leaves no doubt as to his answer:

History is the witness both of the times it describes and of the times in which it is written … Roberts’ meticulously researched depictions of the American Revolution tell us much about the times the depict, but they have much to reveal as well about the times in which they were published and first found a mass audience.  For the writers who gain the widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its own major preoccupations – the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of a person’s attention and concern (emphasis mine).

So, without having read the entire book, it seems that Riggenbach is including Roberts as a revisionist, interpreting historical fact and information in light of current ideals, sentiments, philosophies, etc.  Roberts, virtually unknown before Northwest Passage, happened to hit the perfect storm with rising pro-British sentiments in the U.S. and the publication of Oliver Wiswell, enabling him to sustain his popularity.

I’m not sure what to make of this claim; as I stated, I’ve not read the entire book and I don’t want to take one chapter out of context of the entire book, but what I’ve read so far seems to make Roberts out as a mere opportunist.  What do you think?

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