History Man

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It wouldn’t do to make excessive claims for Kenneth Roberts. Sixty years ago I might have; he was certainly my favourite writer then, to the extent that when I finally ran out of his books, at the age of 14, in desperation I tried novels by some other Robertses from the same shelf in the Ypsilanti Public Library. They proved to be highly unsatisfactory, nothing at all like Kenneth. What he wrote was history, American history, and I was fascinated by history. There seemed to be so little of it around in Michigan.

Approaching Roberts again after a gap of six decades therefore calls for caution. None of us can be completely objective about our childhood fixations, and besides, this man was a best-selling commercial novelist in an age when historical fiction like Anthony Adverse and Gone with the Wind topped all the lists. (In 1947, for example, no fewer than half the best-selling American books were historical novels, and one of Roberts’s – Lydia Bailey – was in fourth place. It sold a phenomenal 1,405,936 copies, in hardcover.) In the interests of self-criticism, it seems worth asking: just how good was he?

I’ve just reread a couple of Roberts’s books, starting with his first, the one I remember best – Arundel (1930). The title refers to the small Maine seaside town now known as Kennebunkport, but it is basically the story of the terrible overland march in 1775 undertaken by an army under the command of Revolutionary hero – later traitor – Benedict Arnold all the way from the Maine coast to Quebec. The idea, a brave if slightly crackpot one, was a surprise attack on the British garrison there. In the event, the attack was a disaster, though possibly not so great a disaster as the journey itself, a hideous trial of starvation, cold, hostile Indians and a brutally unforgiving wilderness.

Roberts’s nominal hero is a lad from Arundel named Steven Nason who, as a member of the expedition, tell

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott has been a magazine editor and senior editor of Alfred A. Knopf. He is the author of several books of essays dealing mainly with gardening and garden history, one of which received unaccountable praise in Slightly Foxed , No. 2. Although he has lived in Britain for many years, he is still an American.

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