Kenneth Roberts in the News: Northwest Passage and Historical Town Markers

I believe that I can safely assert that Kenneth Roberts is no longer nationally known like he was just 50 years ago. I know that I had not heard of him growing up; it wasn’t until 1992 or so – as a junior in high school – that I picked up Rabble in Arms on a whim for a book report. Despite his lack of national recognition today, however, he is still known around his old stomping grounds of New England, particularly Maine and New Hampshire (at least Portsmouth, NH). Bookstores in the area carry rare copies of his books, news sites and libraries occasionally will write up a nostalgia piece on Roberts or his work. There was even an interior decorator event that took place at Roberts’ estate, Rocky Pastures back in 2012. In short, the memory of Roberts is alive and well in New England.

Portsmouth, NH; By http://maps.bpl.org – Bird’s eye view of Portsmouth, Rockingham Co., New Hampshire

What I find interesting when it comes to New England’s memory of Roberts is not so much of what they remember of the man; rather, it is in how they use their memories of him. For instance, J. Dennis Robinson at Seacoastonline.com recently penned a piece on an historical area in Portsmouth, NH. As is the case with many cities and towns in America, developers are wanting to transform a historical section of Portsmouth – the McIntyre block – with modern condos and posh hotels. In doing so, the developers will seek to “honor” the history of the McIntyre block (I place honor in quotes because – let’s face it – most developers care less about history and more about the almighty dollar).

In his piece, Robinson recounts the various buildings that stood in the McIntyre block, the people who bequeathed the land to Portsmouth, and other important historical notes of the area. In doing so, Robinson seeks to remind the citizens of Portsmouth that the building there are more than just buildings – they are physical reminders of where the town has been and of who they are (in light of their past).

Stoodley’s Tavern, courtesy WalkPortsmouth.blogspot.com

I found Robinson’s piece interesting (as one who is unfamiliar with Portsmouth history) in various ways, but particularly in his conjuring up of Kenneth Roberts. Earlier, I noted that it is interesting how New Englanders remember Roberts; Robinson serves as an excellent illustration. One building that was a part of the McIntyre block was an old tavern called Stoodley’s Tavern, which was once owned by a ranger with Roger’s Rangers. To help his readers “remember” this tavern, Robinson points to the tavern’s key role in Roberts’ Northwest Passage:

Stoodley’s Tavern is a key setting in the novel “Northwest Passage” by Kenneth Roberts, and in a 1940 Hollywood film of the same name. Technically, the historic visit by Robert Rogers depicted in the book and film took place at Stoodley’s first tavern on State Street. But his Daniel Street establishment was visited by Paul Revere as Portsmouth citizens planned their raid on Fort William and Mary at New Castle in 1774.

It’s one thing for a fan of Roberts to point out this connection; it’s quite another to use the reference of Northwest Passage as a memory marker in a publicized article. It goes to show that there are still readers out there who are well-versed enough to catch Robinson’s reference.

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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.

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