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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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, tells the tale. But the real hero of the book is Arnold himself, whose struggle to drive his ill-assorted forces more than 300 miles through some of the worst country in North America, meanwhile contending with everything from wet gunpowder to political squabbles, remains a classic of leadership and endurance to rival Xenophon or Hannibal crossing the Alps. Roberts clearly admires Arnold, yet at the same time conveys a sense of the flaw in his character that would lead him to betray his country five years later.

It may be no accident that in terms of writing – crisp, vivid, sometimes painfully so – the best parts of Northwest Passage (1937), Roberts’s first major commercial success, also involve a sort of anabasis. This time it is the struggle of a troop of Rogers’s Rangers, a famous band of irregulars raised and commanded by another larger-than-life character called Robert Rogers, to get back from a long-distance raid on an Indian village in Canada in 1759. Rogers, a hulking New Englander reputedly more skilled as a woodsman and Indian-fighter than anyone of his time (‘He’s the size of moose,’ says one admiring follower, ‘but he goes drifting through the woods like an owl’), is obviously a powerful and brilliantly effective leader, a man after Roberts’s heart. Yet as the story goes on following the return from the raid, it gradually becomes plain that for all his strength and energy Rogers will never achieve his grand dreams – to build a personal kingdom on the frontier, to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Instead, he becomes a drunk and a mercenary, and at the end is just another lost soul, probably a traitor, wandering through the chaos of the American Revolution.

For the modern reader, Kenneth Roberts presents certain problems. After My Lai, it will take a strong stomach to accept unquestioningly his enthusiastic account of the Rangers’ destruction of an Indian village; his characterization (other than of, say, Rogers and Arnold) tends to be thin; and he can slip into sentimentality. His attitude toward women skirts misogyny. But his grasp of historical detail is stunning and it is hard to fault his prose when he is describing, for example, what it’s like to be lost waist-deep in a swamp in a three-day rain turning to snow. Once he gets into his stride, in fact, the pace of his stories is imperative.

Roberts produced in all half a dozen novels, which made him by all accounts comfortably prosperous. He built himself a house on the shore near Kennebunkport and while churning out books seems to have become progressively more crotchety and cantankerous. Not that he was ever one for received opinions – he managed to upset a lot of patriotic American readers by defending the actions of Loyalists during the Revolution, particularly in Oliver Wiswell (1940).

But his reputation as ‘the irascible Mr Roberts’ appears to have been well deserved, given as he was to attacks on professional historians and on anyone else – especially reviewers – who were less than friendly to his books (and many were). It did not help that late in life he took up, of all things, water divining. In the 1930s, when he was building his house, he met a retired game warden-turned-dowser named Henry Gross and became a believer, which for a man of Roberts’s nature meant outspoken proselytizer. Gross’s feats were indeed amazing – on one occasion he managed to locate water in Bermuda without ever leaving Maine, by dowsing with his forked stick over a map of the island. The two men set up a company together, and Roberts devoted most of the rest of his life to three books on dowsing, all more or less derided.

I once had a chance to meet Kenneth Roberts. Fascinated as I had been by Arundel (pronounced, incidentally, ‘a-RUN-del’ and not, as in Sussex, ‘AR-un-del’) I got a summer job in Kennebunkport and bicycled from Michigan to the coast of Maine, where I spent a lot of my off-hours in the village library. The librarian knew Roberts and offered to introduce me. I was far too shy. He must have been in his irascible seventies then and thoroughly involved with his forked sticks, so my reluctance may have been just as well.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Charles Elliott 2006


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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