Kenneth Roberts in the Digital Age

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While I enjoy the conveniences technology affords us – such as the iPhone, laptops, internet, etc. – I must confess that I have not taken hold of the e-book craze.  I’ve only bought one Kindle book, and that was out of necessity.  Google Books offers numerous partial-views or full-views of books. One can own thousands of books without owning a book case.  But, that’s not for me.  I’d rather sit in a room flooded with books.  I want to hold a book in my hands and smell the pages as I thumb through them.  And when I need to reference a book previously read, I don’t mind getting out of my desk chair to retrieve the book from across the room.

Nevertheless, Google Books and the move to digitize book has its advantages to poor Ph. D. students like me.  And here is where this post connects to this website.  Ever since I began my hunt for anything Kenneth Roberts – not just his novels, but his books written in the 1920s, his Post articles, his cookbook, and his water dowsing books – I have sought tenaciously for, but never succeeded, his books written in the 1920s during his Post days.  No bookstore that I have visited – from Louisiana to Maine – has carried these books.  No yard sale has happened to miraculously have a rare copy of one of these books. Nope. Only the Ebays, Amazons, Alibris, etc. of the world have carried these books, and at a price that I cannot yet afford. So, for the longest of times, I had to yearn for these books, longing to read what Roberts wrote before his days as a historical fiction writer.

Well, thanks to Google and other digitizing efforts, Kenneth Roberts’ fans can read books such as Why Europe Leaves Home and Europe’s Morning After.  All one needs to do is to access Google Books, and type in the title or Kenneth Roberts’ name, and within seconds one can be reading a rare book in digitized form.  I discovered that one can even purchase Why Europe Leaves Home in Kindle version.

But still, I hesitate reading these titles via Google Books.  There’s part of me that wants to wait to read them until I have the book in hand – literally.


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

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of

Time 11/25/40 - courtesy of

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 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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