Kenneth Roberts Books: Nostalgia and Rabble in Arms

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IMG_3261 Kenneth L. Roberts, “Rabble in Arms,” International Collectors Library (Garden City, NY: 1947)

I’ve picked up Rabble in Arms this week for my summer reading. In doing so, I’ve become a little nostalgic about when I collected my first Kenneth Roberts book. I read my first Roberts book in my junior year of high school. I had a reading report to do and no book to read. So, one day I was wandering around our school library and I just randomly picked up a copy of Rabble in Arms. After glancing through it, I thought I’d give it a shot. Little did I know that upon completing Rabble in Arms, I would have read one of the very few books that stand out from among the rest.

Several years passed by without my reading any other Kenneth Roberts books, but I recall considering Rabble in Arms my favorite book. Finally, in either my senior year of college or just after graduating college, I stopped at a rather large used book store in Baton Rouge (that’s unfortunately not there anymore!). And for some reason, I became intent on finding a copy of Rabble in Arms. I didn’t remember the full title, and I didn’t remember Roberts’ name; however, I was bound and determined to find the book. I was nearing the end of my search, literally in the last section of the store when I stumbled upon the copy of Rabble in Arms you see above. I was ecstatic and went home to begin reading a lost but found treasure. Little did I know what purchasing this book would begin…

My first copy of Rabble in Arms is no first edition, nor is it a special edition or a signed copy.. I had to hot glue the spine to keep it from flapping open, and scuff marks are evident on the back board. Yet, it sits on the shelf containing my best copies of Roberts’ works (except when I’m reading it!). Any time I’ve moved, I’ve made sure this book was packed carefully and placed prominently on my bookshelf. This copy may never hold any monetary value, but it will always be of greatest value among all of my books.

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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.

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?

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere

Google is a great tool.  You can search an untold number of websites to find what you’re looking for (most of the time).  One thing I want to see accomplished with this site is a “coming together” of Kenneth Roberts fans.  To accomplish this, I will highlight blog posts dealing with Kenneth Roberts in some form or fashion.  Google, then, helps to accomplish this!

Today I stumbled across a post written by someone anonymous (at the blog titled Fairhope Farms) about Kenneth Roberts’ Rabble in Arms– my favorite novel of all times.  In it she discusses the vividness of Roberts’ language and his attention to detail (in its various forms).  I also admire her for admitting she appreciates Benedict Arnold and Roberts’ portrayal of Arnold (I will hopefully deal with this in a latter post).  Anyway, see this post by clicking here.

***Update 5:22 P.M.*** I’ve added an RSS feed that will include recent posts that deal with Kenneth Roberts in some form or fashion.

Welcome to the Kenneth L. Roberts Unofficial Site

Kenneth Roberts, probably known more for his works such as: Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Oliver Wiswell, Northwest Passage, and Lively Lady, was a prolific writer, having written numerous articles on various topics and books on tourism, antiques, cooking, and water dousing.  While probably not as well-known today as in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, Mr. Roberts is still worthy to read.  Unfortunately, as I have surfed the web (which is chock-full of fan sites for anyone and anything), I have not found any one site devoted solely to Kenneth Lewis Roberts and his works.  I hope to change this (as much as I can on limited resources and time)  with this site.

I first became acquainted with Kenneth Roberts when I was in my junior year of highschool, roughtly 1992/1993.  I had a book report to do on any book of my choice, and I happened to come across Rabble in Arms in my school library.  I had never heard of the novel, nor had I heard of Kenneth Roberts; instead, I grabbed the book because it was set in the Revolutionary War era.  Little did I know then that I would begin a fascination with the works of Kenneth Roberts and a desire to collect anything I can of his writings (with a small budget, of course).

While many students decry American History (and history in general) as dull, useless and a near-death experience, Roberts writes about history in such a way as to make it come alive (which, I believe, is his intention as mentioned in his book I Wanted to Write).  Further, Roberts writes about aspects of American history ignored, misunderstood, or neglected by the general public.  For instance, the primary subject of Rabble in Armsis Benedict Arnold.  Many know Arnold as the most infamous traitor in American history; yet, many probably know very little of the great good he did for our country before his defection.  I, for one, was not aware of this; all I remember is his traitorous act as taught in middle school and high school history classes.  Roberts attention to historical detail, colorful and vivid language, and his ability to string together seemingly isolated, rather dry historical facts into an invigorating storyline helped me to see that there was more to Arnold, so much so that it makes his traitorous act even more devastating.  Roberts applies this technique (for lack of a better term at the moment of writing this post) in all of his historical fiction novels, exposing the reader to little-known historical events and/or people along with an interpretation of the events that more than likely bucks the trend of contemporary understanding.

I intend this site to eventually become a sort of depository for anything Kenneth Roberts.  As alluded to above, I have little to no resources to do any extensive research, nor do I have the ability to access many of his original documents or correspondences; rather, others have already done that (see this short bio on Jack Bales, who has written two books on Kenneth Roberts.  These are definitely on my want list now!).  Instead, I hope to serve as a Grand Central Station of information, links, etc. for those who are fans of Kenneth Roberts or for those who are just stopping by for curiosity’s sake.

So, with this said, I hope this develops into a useful site!  If you have any resources or ideas, please let me know. 

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