Kenneth Roberts’ Genealogy

Characters bearing the surname of Towne or Nason serve as either the main protagonist or play a central role in most of Kenneth Roberts’ novels.  For instance, Langdon Towne was the central character in Oliver Wiswell and Steven Nason was the central character in Arundel. Roberts use of these surnames exhibit not only his attention to historical detail, but his desire to link his works to his New England ancestors.

Some time ago, a Kenneth Roberts fan mailed me some information he received when he attended a presentation by Jack Bales at the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine. Among the material sent was a short genealogy of Roberts’ family.

Kenneth Lewis Roberts (1885-1957)

Parents: Frank Lewis Roberts (b. 1840) and Grace Mary Tibbetts (1840)

Grandparents: Jane Amanda Nason (b. 1800) and Ebenezer Armstrong Tibbitts (b. 1800)

Great Grandparents: Daniel Nason (b. 1785) and Lydia Towne (b. 1785)

Great-Great Grandparents: Edward Nason (1756-1847) and Sarah Merrill (b. 1758)

Great-Great-Great Grandparents: Joshua Nason (b. 1725) and Sarah Butler (b. 1728)

Interestingly, Roberts follows his family history from his mother’s side; none of the characters in Roberts’ books are based on ancestors from his father’s side. Various reasons are plausible for such an exclusion. Jack Bales in Kenneth Roberts states that little is known of Roberts’ father (and even of Roberts’ immediate family [Bales, 1]) and that he “was not at all close to his father and never mentioned him in any of his articles or books” (Bales, 2). It’s unknown why Roberts was distant from his father, but one can speculate that his father’s job as a traveling salesman played a significant role (Bales, 2).

Roberts’ relationship with his mother, on the other hand, was one that Roberts spoke of in his I Wanted to Write and in various essays (Bales, 2). The time spent with his mother’s family eventually served as the backdrop for his writings on Maine and his novels.

Though Roberts’ characters surnamed Towne or Nason are fictional, they are based upon real people in Roberts’ past and illustrate his deep appreciation for his family’s history and for his beloved state of Maine.

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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