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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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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)
1923, Roberts was back in Europe, and wrote for the newspaper a
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
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
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
(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)
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.