By John Bauerschmidt
Literary fashion comes and goes, even in the more resilient popular sphere, and can deal unevenly with novelists. Kenneth Roberts, who died in 1957, is a case in point. Roberts wrote eight historical novels, dealing with the American Colonial period and the early days of the Republic through the War of 1812. Several were picked up by the Book of the Month Club, in his time a sure sign of publishing success, and his novel Northwest Passage was made into a 1940 movie starring Spencer Tracy. He was a close friend of another popular novelist, Ben Ames Williams, many of whose own books were turned into films, as well as the multiple Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, who mentored Roberts as an author.
Simply mentioning these names, however, is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of literary fame. Robert Gottlieb writes about Tarkington’s “pronounced plunge into obscurity” (The New Yorker, Nov. 11, 2019); and if this is fair to say, then Roberts might be considered at an even greater depth of non-notoriety. Yet there is something about his historical novels that may be more lasting, and that is their witness to continuities in the American experience and character.
Roberts was from Kennebunk, Maine, and his novels, especially the earliest, often have a connection to the town of his birth and to his forbears. Roberts did some of his best writing when describing his part of the world. His first novel, Arundel (1929), named after a nearby small town, recounts the story of the American invasion of Canada in 1775. The overland march to Québec through the Maine wilderness, under the leadership of Benedict Arnold, was an early effort at the beginning of the Revolution to add Canada to the American orbit.
The novel introduces us to Arnold, who reappears in Rabble in Arms (1933) as the American and the reinforced British army under General Burgoyne continue the struggle in upstate New York, culminating in the 1777 surrender of Burgoyne’s force to the Continental army. Roberts emphasizes Arnold’s critical role in the American success, which set the stage for Washington’s later victory at Yorktown and for independence. Roberts’s revisionist view of Arnold, presented as the victim of the jealousy of less able commanders and of blinkered politicians, illustrates the theme of the great man ill-served by history, led to treason by his resentment.
Roberts returned to the theme of the great man with the colonial soldier and explorer Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage (1937). The novel opens during the French and Indian War, with Rogers leading a mixed colonial force of “Rangers” in a surprise attack on the indigenous settlement at St. Francis in Canada. The St. Francis Indians are allies of the French, and the town is destroyed and its inhabitants massacred by the Rangers, who are then pursued through the wilderness and decimated by an avenging enemy force. Roberts describes the massacre and the running battle that follows in harrowing and realistic detail: again, some of his best writing. Roberts, who served as a soldier in the First World War, had no illusions about the stupidity and wastefulness of war.
The rest of the novel continues the story of its fictional protagonist, Langdon Towne, who served in the attack on St. Francis, as he moves to middle 18th-century London to pursue life as an artist. He seeks, perhaps redemptively, to sketch and depict the native peoples of North America in their own context. The change of scene and subject points to the exhaustive research that Roberts was willing to undertake, and his ambition as a novelist. In London, Towne reencounters Rogers, who has come to London seeking government backing for an expedition through the American continent to the Pacific (Lewis and Clark before their time).
In Roberts’s telling, Rogers is a titanic character. His ambition has continental scope, but his flaws are equally monumental. Towne returns to North America to accompany Rogers on the long-awaited expedition, and travels west beyond the Mississippi, sketching and documenting as he goes. But the plan of discovery goes awry as Rogers is brought down by his political enemies and his character flaws. We last glimpse Rogers back in London, committed to the Fleet Prison for debt, personally ruined and with his great enterprise frustrated.
Oliver Wiswell (1940) continued Roberts’s embrace of the large novel, with broad scope, now taken up from a different angle: the story of the American Revolution told from a Loyalist perspective. Roberts gives us the Revolution as a civil war between North American colonists: an idea that is now more familiar among historians (Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles, is an excellent recent example), but Roberts pioneered and popularized it. Like Northwest Passage, Roberts’s novel moves back and forth across the Atlantic, his characters increasingly caught up in their struggle against the Rebels.
This novel allowed Roberts further scope to explore the theme of the stupidity and venality of politicians (both American and British), a theme that reappears again and again in Roberts. But more importantly, the perspectival “world turned upside down” that the novel explores gives us “loyal Americans” (that is, supporters of King George and the “rule of law”) rehabilitated from “Tories” to being authentically American. As the novel concludes, we see the organized exodus of Loyalists from the independent Colonies, and the founding of New Brunswick by the evacuees: an important building block of Canadian identity that would be further cemented by the defeat of the renewed American invasion in the War of 1812.
What we might now characterize as Roberts’s counter-narrative against American exceptionalism, shown in the last novel, features again in Lydia Bailey (1947). The novel moves across the Atlantic again, but this time from Haiti to North Africa. Roberts takes his protagonist, Albion Hamlin, the son of a Loyalist officer raised in the United States, to Haiti in the midst of its successful revolution against French colonial rule, to search for the eponymous heroine, a governess to a French colonial family. The Haitian revolutionaries, led by Toussaint L’Overture, are faced with an invading French army, and Hamlin confronts the American envoy, Tobias Lear, with the information that Napoleon intends to subdue the Haitians and then to invade North America. Lear dismisses Hamlin, failing to understand the urgency of American support for the Haitians.
Lydia Bailey allows Roberts to develop one of his most memorable characters, King Dick, one of L’Overture’s lieutenants, whom Hamlin meets in Haiti. Born the son of a king in Sudan, Dick is captured as a young man and sold into slavery in Libya. Given his freedom, Dick makes his way as a merchant to the Caribbean and eventually to Haiti. As Roberts presents him, Dick is an accomplished man of the world, whose friendship is critical to Hamlin and Bailey. L’Overture as depicted by Roberts is a charismatic and capable leader, and the Haitian struggle for independence and freedom is a noble one.
Dick then accompanies Hamlin and Bailey as they make their escape from Haiti to France with the family she has been serving as governess. This brings them to the Mediterranean, where the two Americans are betrayed and then captured and enslaved by the forces of the Bashaw of Tripoli in what is now Libya.
A lengthy period in captivity in Tripoli then makes them witnesses of another early American interaction with the world: Tripoli’s attacks on American shipping, and the dispatch of a naval squadron to North Africa and an expeditionary force of mercenaries (with a tiny detachment of Marines, hence the Marine Hymn) to topple the Bashaw and replace him with his brother Hamet.
A battle is fought and won by the American-sponsored force; but at the very end, the American envoy (Lear again!) strikes a deal to abandon Hamet and his Arab force. The Marines and mercenaries are evacuated, but Hamet is left in the lurch.
Roberts’s narrative, both in Haiti and in Tripoli, gives us an unvarnished view of American power in its infancy: both its prospects and its abuse. For Roberts, the United States is not an exceptional country, just a normal one, with virtues and warts as well. In his novels as a whole, he often presents us with counter-narratives: about Arnold, about the Loyalists, about American involvement abroad.
Roberts gives us American history from an awkward angle: the perspective of the traitor, the defeated, the abandoned instruments of American policy. He broadens the national narrative to include others not normally included in his time, and further reminds us that the United States shares the continent with many nations and peoples. In doing these things, he illustrates an enduring contrarian strain in the American character: one that is frustrating to some, but a hardy perennial in spite of it.