“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.

“Time” on Kenneth Roberts – 11/25/1940

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of Time.com

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of Time.com

As I continue to search for anything on Kenneth Roberts on the Web, I am beginning to find a little more out there than the run of the mill short bios.  This past Friday night I came across an archived article from Time.com dated 11/25/40.  The event that occasioned this article was the upcoming release of Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell.  You can access this article by clicking this link, or by clicking the link provided in the right side-bar.

Several things stuck out to me in regards to Kenneth Roberts the person. 

First, K.R. was known during that time for his attention to historical detail.  The writer of the article compares him to James Fenimore Cooper for his historical detail (in the footnote, Roberts is quoted as saying that this comparison “… irritates me almost beyond endurance”).  In addition, Roberts was recognized for “his tirelessness in tracking down historical obscurities,” causing the article’s writer to comment that “he [Roberts] is probably the world’s No. 1 literary detective.”

Second, Kenneth Roberts was known as a controversial figure in his own right.  According to Time, K.R. published his historical findings, despite any potential of upsetting any hard-held beliefs regarding American history, for instance K.R.’s positive portrayal of Benedict Arnold in Arundel and Rabble in Arms.   With Oliver Wiswell, K.R. continued to go against the status-quo by providing a “sustained and uncompromising report of the American Revolution from the Tory viewpoint.” 

To take this view of K.R. even further, Roberts was no stranger to controversy even in his earlier writings.  Roberts’ Why Europe Leaves Home, published in 1922 as a result of his time in Europe, described the new-developing immigrating patterns of people in “war-dislocated Europe” (post-WWI).  Roberts then “warned vanishing Americans that unless they tightened restrictions on immigration, the U.S. would soon be a disposal plant for most of Europe’s human waste.”  Very bold words for that time, and how much more “politically incorrect” for today’s society!  The article’s writer goes on to claim that Roberts’ book helped to hasten along the passage of the Restrictive Immigration Law. 

Lastly, the writer of this article makes a claim that I believe is forgotten (or at the very least is one the way out) today amongst the general public – the claim is that Kenneth Roberts’ Oliver Wiswell is important history.  To quote:

Like all romances, Oliver Wiswell is also important 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, though [sic] 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.

I believe that one can take this claim and extend to all, if not most, of Kenneth Roberts’ works.  I take it from what I’ve read so far of Kenneth Roberts that he did not write a novel for the sake of writing a novel; rather, Roberts wanted to write history – to educate America of her history – in a way that the reader is not bored with dry facts.  In doing so, Roberts mixed together the crafts of the historian and novelist in order to present American history according to the facts and date, not according to the lore developed through the passing of time which result in misconceptions of the actual events. (This is not to say that all history we learn in school is wrong; rather, that some things we may accept as true may in fact be otherwise.)

Roberts’ influence and impact upon American history was apparently widely recognized during his lifetime.  Unfortunately, the public’s knowledge of Roberts and his works has seemingly faded to almost non-existence.  Why is this so?  While I do not know the answer, I do hope that this site can help in bringing the knowledge of Kenneth Roberts and his works back to the general public.

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