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Kenneth Lewis Roberts (1885-1957 )

 

American author who wrote about the American Revolutionary era. Kenneth Roberts' most famous novel is Northwest Passage (1937). Set during during the French and Indian War, it told about legendary Major Rogers, whose career seen from a point of view of a struggling artist. Roberts' narrative skills and larger-than-life characters made his works popular not only in the U.S. but in Western and Central Europe too. Most of his life, Roberts lived in Maine, and drew on his home state and his ancestors for his historical fiction. His books on his belief in dowsing damaged his reputation and credentials as a serious historian and writer.

"It has been my lot to have some contact with a man who was remarkable and strange; and by chance I encountered him at periods important in the early history of my country. Given the proper guidance, he might have been a greater prince than Jenghiz Khan. To me, at times, he seemed almost a god: at other times possessed by demons. Yet I think that at best he benefited his country more substantially than have warriors, statesmen and authors of greater renown; and at his worst, I suspect he fell no lower than any one of us might fall, provided we had possessed his vision and energy to begin with, and then had undergone the same exertions, the same temptations, the same ingratitudes and disappointments he endured." (From Northwest Passage)

Kenneth Roberts was born in Kennebunk, Maine, the son of Frank Lewis Roberts (1860-1911), a Boston traveling salesman, and Grace Tibbets Roberts (1858-1948). After graduating in 1908 from Cornell University, Roberts worked as a journalist for the Boston Post. In 1911, he married the former Anna Seiberling Mosser, of the Boston suburb Roxbury. She died in 1930; they did not have any children.

During the end of World War I, Roberts served in the Intelligence Section of the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia, commanded by Major General William S. Graves. However, instead of seeing some action in the Russian Civil War, he was assigned to the post of chief military censor in Vladivostok. Robert's stay was brief; he felt unsuited to this kind of duty and returned home from  in January 1919. Roberts noted that between Thanksgiving and mid-January most of the participants in the Siberian Expeditionary Force "seemed semi-Insane with cold, idleness and the depression that accompanies these two curses." (I Wanted to Write by Kenneth Roberts, 1949, p. 115) To avoid boredom, Roberts wrote as much as he could.

After the war, Roberts worked as a staff correspondent for George Horace Lorimer's Saturday Evening Post in Europe and America. Investigating immigration policies and practices, he traveled in Great Britain, Francce, Germany, the Balkans, Greece, and Italy. His exceptionally lucid and informative articles appeared in book form as Europe's Morning After (1921), published by Harper's, and Why Europe Leaves Home (1922), issued by Bobbs-Merrill. Disappointed in the sales of his debut work  of nonfiction, he claimed that Harper's had "published the book secretly." A stint in Washington, D.C., which he found "financially profitable, but spiritually depressing,"  produced  a profile of Calvin Coolidge, Concentrated New England (1924). ('Roberts and Lorimer: The First Decade' by Richard Cary, in Colby Library Quarterly, series 6, no.3, September 1962, p.106-129)

By 1923, Roberts was back in Europe, and wrote for the newspaper a laudatory series on Italian and Bavarian fascism (gathered in Black Magic, 1924), and reported on a politician named Adolf Hitler, whom he dismissed as a loud braggard and a mere "talker." Although Roberts described Benito Mussolini as a "highly offensive character" in I Wanted to Write, his literary autobiography, in 1923 he showed much understanding toward the Italian Fascisti movement. (Kenneth Roberts by Jack Bales, 1993, pp. 25-26)  

A growing need "to escape from city turmoil, summer vacationers, idlers, politicians and coctail parties" prompted Roberts to renovate in 1927 an old farmhouse in Porto Santo Stefano, Italy. The retreat would be a perfect place to complete a series of novels: there were no diversions or disturbances, except the squawking of English sparrows. A narrow donkey path led to the house. Roberts spent in Porto Santo Stefano seven winters. Nobody in the town spoke English.

In 1928  Roberts gave up journalism in 1928 to become a full-time author. He began writing historical novels as a reaction to historians, who were "united in ignoring details, or in failing to dig up the details which they should have possessed, or in pointing out the misinterpretations and downright lies of which diarists, journalists and so on were responsible. . . . " ('At the nadir of 'discouragement': The Story Of Dartmouth's Kenneth Roberts Collection' by Jack Bales, in Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, April 1990)

Intense in his opinions, Roberts repeatedly clashed with academic historians' conjectures. His essays touched on a range of interests. An opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt, Roberts fumed over the welfare state and a road called the Roosevelt Highway (Route No. 9): "It is a road of waffles. There are stretches that lead the traveler to think the road was build in memory of waffles long since dead; of waffles yet unborn; of frankfurter sausages. As soon as one enters the Unites States he is in the Frank and Waffle Belt. Hot waffles. Hot franks. Franks with skins and franks without skins." (For Authors Only and Other Gloomy Essays, 1935, p. 437) 

In general, Roberts' heroes were strong leaders who dominate through their strength of personality. His first novel, Arundel (1930), was an account of Benedict Arnold's ill-fated expedition to Quebec during the American Revolution. Its sequel, Rabble in Arms (1933) followed Arnold and his Northern Army from 1776 through 1777. Roberts' great-great-grandfather had marched with Arnold through the Maine and Canadian wilderness.

The early novels did not sell particularly well, although they were exhaustively researched and enjoyable read. Once he bewailed that Zane Grey's Fighting Caravans ("an uspeakably terrible piece  of tribe") and Chic Sale's The Specialist, about building outdoor privies, had led the best-seller lists, while he can't find Arundel on any list. (I Wanted to Write by Kenneth Roberts, 1949, p. 201)

Northwest Passage was the story of Robert Rogers, his struggles in the French and Indian war, and his later attempts to find a Northwest Passage. The book was reprinted 15 times in the first year of issue. To Roberts'  disappointment, his book, the public's favorite, did not win the Pulitzer Prize; it went to John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley. However, Roberts was awarded in 1957 a special Pulitzer price for his contribution to an interest in American history.

The MGM screen version of Northwest Passage, directed by King Vidor and starring Spencer Tracy as Major Rogers and Robert Young as Langdon Towne, covered only the first half of the story. According to Vidor, part two was never made "because of the producers' lack of courage." (King Vidor, American by Raymond Durgat, 1988, p. 191) In the first half of the novel Rogers is a hero but not in the Book 2. Basically Vidor's film re-affirmed the novel's Social Darwinist undercurrent and suspicion toward the majority-rule principle. Most of the reviews were positive: "It's a mannish, not-for-the squeamish, generally robustious screen version Metro has made, somewhat too generously Technicolored and inclined to grow sanctimonious about its Indian-fighting hero, Major Robert Rogers of Rogers's Rangers; but it still is a better-than-fair condensation of the first part of the book, still a rich and well-played and vicariously thrilling chapter of pre-national history. (Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, March 8, 1940) Nowadays this hit movie is considered historically questionable and even racist: "this film depicts all native Americans as degenerate subhumans, makes Major Rogers look like Peter Pan and is surprisingly hardcore about cannibalism." (Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian, March 13, 2013)

Forgetting good judgment, which he had showed in his historical work, Roberts became a fiece advocate of dowsing. His three books of the subject were Henry Gross and his Dowsing Rod (1951), which sold 16,426 copies the first year, The Seventh Sense (1953), and Water Unlimited (1957). With Henry Gross, a game warden, Roberts traveled around the world, trying to find underground water veins, oil, minerals and other natural resources with the help of a dowsing rod. Roberts had first met Gross in 1947, when he asked him to find a new well for him. Roberts was impressed by the mysterious powers of Gross, who amazingly could work far away from the actual field sites. In his books, Roberts recounted many of his friend's experiments in long-distance dowsing. Gross managed to locate three fresh water sources in Bermuda while sitting in Kennebunkport – 800 miles away. Once he dowsed a map of Africa and found a huge vein beneath the Sahara Desert. Gross also used the rod to locate people and lost objets. His stick, usually made of fresh-cut maple, could discern rye whiskey and other kind of liquors from each other. Roberts wrote in Henry Gross and his Dowsing Rod  (1951) that "when the potentialities of the rod are more clearly understood and utilized, it may rank with electricity and atomic power." (Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner, 1957, p. 107)

On his Kennebunkport farm, Roberts maintained, raised and sold migration birds.  To prove that wood ducks can't be raised in an incubator in singular seasoning he spent $2,000. Roberts died on July 21, 1957, in  Kennebunk. Roberts' literary mentor was his neighbor Booth Tarkington, whom he dedicated Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell (1940), a tale of the American Revolution from the perspective of a colonial Loyalist soldier and historian, and Rabble in Arms. Other notable novels include The Lively Lady (1931), dealing with the War of 1812, Captain Caution (1934), a chronicle of Arundel, Lydia Bailey (1947), a picaresque romance, and Boon Island (1956), based on the shipwreck of a British ship in 1710 on the tiny Boon Island off the coast of Maine. Moreau de St.-Méry's American Journey 1793-1798, which he edited and translated with his wife Anna M. Roberts, came out in 1947. Roberts' diaries were sealed until 2006.

For further reading: A Century of American History in Fiction: Kenneth Roberts' Novels by Janet Harris (1976); Kenneth Roberts: The Man and His Works by Jack Bales (1989); Kenneth Roberts by Jack Bales (1993); 'Roberts, Kenneth (Lewis)' by Frank R. Levstick, in Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers, edited by Lesley Henderson and Aruna Vasudevan (1994); 'Roberts, Kenneth [Lewis]' by Jack Bales, in Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999) - See also: James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was set during the French and Indian War and based loosely on Robert Rogers.

Selected bibliography:

  • Panatela: A Political Comic Opera, 1907 (with Romney Berry; music by T.J. Lindorff, H.C. Schuyler, and H.E. Childs)
  • Europe's Morning After, 1921
  • Sun Hunting: Adventures and Observations among the Native and Migratory Tribes of Florida, 1922 
  • Why Europe Leaves Home; A True Account of the Reasons which Cause Central Europeans to Overrun America, 1922 (with illus. from photographs)
  • The Collector's Whatnot, 1923 (with Booth Tarkington and Hugh Kahler)
  • Black Magic: An Account of Its Beneficial Use in Italy, of Its Perversion in Bavaria, and of Certain Tendencies which Might Necessitate Its Study in America, 1924
  • Concentrated New England: A Sketch of Calvin Coolidge, 1924
  • Florida Loafing, 1925
  • Florida, 1925
  • Antiquamania, 1928 (editor; the collected papers of Professor Milton Kilgallen [pseud.])
  • Arundel: Being the Recollections of Steven Nason of Arundel, 1930  
  • The Lively Lady: A Chronicle of Certain Men of Arundel in Maine, of Privateering during the War of Impressments, and of the Circular Prison on Dartmoor, 1931
    - Vihreä keulakuva (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1949)
  • Rabble in Arms: A Chronicle of Arundel and the Burgoyne Invasion, 1933
  • Captain Caution: A Chronicle of Arundel, 1934
    - film: Captain Caution, 1940, dir. by Richard Wallace, screenplay by Grover Jones, starring Victor Mature, Louise Platt, Leo Carrillo, Bruce Cabot  |
  • The Brotherhood of Man, 1934 (play, with Robert Garland)
  • For Authors Only and Other Gloomy Essays, 1935
  • It Must Be Your Tonsils, 1936 (pictures by Paul Galdone)
  • Northwest Passage, 1937
    - Luoteisväylä 1-2 (suom. R. Sopanen, 1938-40)
    - films: Northwest Passage, 1940 (Book I; Rogers' Rangers), dir. by King Vidor, screenplay by Laurence Stallings, Talbot Jennings, starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Ruth Hussey; Northwest Passage, TV-series  1958-59, starring Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnet; Frontier Rangers, 1959, dir. by Jacques Tourneur, starring Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett;  Mission of Danger, 1960, dir. by Jacques Tourneur, George Waggner, starring Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett;  Fury River, 1961, starring Keith Larsen, Buddy Ebsen and Don Burnett
  • Trending into Maine, 1938 (with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth; rev. ed., 1944)
  • March to Quebec: Journals of the Members of Arnold's Expedition 1938 (compiled and edited by Kenneth Roberts)
  • Oliver Wiswell, 1940 
  • The Kenneth Roberts Reader, 1945 (introduction by Ben Ames Williams)
  • Moreau de St.-Méry's American Journey 1793-1798, 1947 (translated and edited by Kenneth Roberts and Anna M. Roberts; introduction by Stewart L. Mims) 
  • Lydia Bailey, 1947
    - Kuumat tuulet (suom. Eeva Kangasmaa, 1948)
    - film: Lydia Bailey, 1952, dir. by Jean Negulesco, screenplay by Michael Blankfort, Philip Dunne, starring Dale Robertson, Anne Francis, Charles Korvin, William Marshall
  • I Wanted to Write, 1949
  • Don't Say That about Maine!, 1951 
  • Henry Gross and his Dowsing Rod, 1951
  • The Seventh Sense; A Sequel to "Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod," 1953
  • Boon Island, 1955
    - Haaksirikkoiset (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1958)
  • Cowpens: The Great Morale-Builder, 1957 (as The Battle of Cowpens, 1958)
  • Water Unlimited, 1957 
  • For Authors Only, and Other Gloomy Essays, 1968
  • Boon Island: Including Contemporary Accounts of the Wreck of the Nottingham Galley, 1996 (edited by Jack Bales and Richard Warner)
  • The Kenneth Roberts Reader, 2002 (introduction by Ben Ames Williams)
  • Northwest Passage, 2007 (introduction by John Jakes)


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