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Title: Kenneth Roberts, an American novelist
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Title: Kenneth Roberts, an American novelist
Series Title: Kenneth Roberts, an American novelist
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Table of Contents
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Full Text





An American Novelist


Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.
New York

PRINTED AT THE Country Life Press, GARDEN CITY, N. Y., U. S. A.



An American Novelist


Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.
New York

PRINTED AT THE Country Life Press, GARDEN CITY, N. Y., U. S. A.



r N







M AINE is in Kenneth Roberts' blood. Arundel was the village
that later took the Indian name of Kennebunkport, and it was in
Arundel that his parents, grandparent, greatgrandparents and he
himself had lived. To Berwick and Kittery, not far away, his an-
cestors had come in 1639, and for the two stormy centuries that fol-
lowed they were a part of the history of the state. They fought with
Washingon, they followed Benedict Arnold up to Quebec, they
manned privateers in the War of 1812. It is not by accident that the
scene of his novels has been, for the most part, the land in which
he was born.
The latest edition of Who's Who In America, with its customary
brevity, supplies this outline of his career up to now:

Roberts, Kenneth (Lewis), author; b. Kennebunk, Me., Dec. 8, 1885; s.
Frank Lewis and Grace Mary (Tibbets) R.; A.B., Cornell U., i9o8;
Litt.D., Dartmouth, 1934, Colby, 1935, Middlebury, 1938, Bowdoin,
1938; Phi Beta Kappa (Dartmouth, 1937); m. Anna S. Mosser, of Boston,
Mass., Feb. 14, 1911. Editor in chief, Cornell Widow, 19o5-o8; reporter,
spl. writer and conductor of humorous column and page, Boston Post,
1909-17; editorial staff, Puck, I916-17; staff Life, New York, 1915-18.
Capt. Intelligence Sect., Siberian Expeditionary Force, 1918-19. Staff
corr. Saturday Evening Post since 1919. Mem. of the Nat. Institute of
Arts and Letters. Author: Europe's Morning After, 1921; Why Europe
Leaves Home, 1922; Sun Hunting, 1923; The Collector's Whatnot (with
Booth Tarkington and Hugh McNair Kahler), 1923; Black Magic, 1924;
Concentrated New England, 1924; Florida Loafing, 1925; Florida, 1926;
Antiquamania (illustrated by Booth Tarkington), 1928; Arundel, 1930;
The Lively Lady, 1931; Rabble In Arms, 1933; Captain Caution, 1934;

For Authors Only and Other Gloomy Essays, 1935; It Must Be Your
Tonsils, 1936; Northwest Passage, 1937; Trending Into Maine, 1938;
March to Quebec, 1938.

Those are the unelaborated facts, the bare bones of a great career.
About the books, and about Roberts' position as a novelist, Ben
Ames Williams has written with skill and insight, later on in this
booklet. About the career he has said less.
It opened as a reporter and special writer in Boston, on the staff
of the Boston Post. After many years he is still actively remembered
in the Post's offices, for the vehemence of his opinions as much as
for the brilliance of his reporting. He established then his reputation
for accuracy and his passion for the exact truth, a passion which
grew with the years and which his novels vividly reflect. Since he
was not only a good reporter but a notable humorist, he found him-
self eventually on the staff of Life-not the present picture magazine
but the old weekly that everyone over thirty-five remembers with a
wistful sigh. That was in 1918, the war was on, and before the year's
close he was sailing for Siberia with the Siberian Expeditionary
He returned in the spring of I919, and, in the Saturday Evening
Post, proceeded to publish a number of incendiary articles on Russia
and on the Philippines. In the same magazine he published also his
only serious dramatic work, a one-act play written with Robert
Garland, called THE BROTHERHOOD OF MAN, and dealing with the last
days of the Czar. Collectors should keep a watchful eye for the issue
in which it appeared.
Such was the furor raised by his articles that later in the same year
the Post sent him to Europe to find out what lay behind the con-
fused post-war dispatches, and to look into the flood of immigration
then reaching the United States from middle Europe. Through 1920
he continued his work, bringing to a head with a startling and
nationally read article the dangers lying in the drainage of Europe's
pauper reservoirs onto American soil. His work was followed by
Congressional action, and the erection of quota restrictions that are
still in effect.
Between 1920 and 1927 his Post articles had reached the stature
of a national institution. He covered Europe from end to end,

set Washington by its ears with his political dispatches and a
singular contribution to political satire: the august figure of
David Augustus Flack, ex-minister to Bessarabia, a blunt humorist
whose views could not completely have pleased the sacred Washing-
tonian cows. By 1923 he was back in Europe investigating the future
of two new figures on the scene: an Italian named Mussolini, whose
legions had just captured Rome, and an obscure little brown-shirted
man named Hitler, who was setting out to rescue Germany from
the Jews, the French and the international bankers. In the intervals
he had had the opportunity of examining (and doing much to
explode) America's own South Seas bubble, the Florida boom; he
had written a series of satirical political one-act plays, and he had
been to Scandinavia to report on liquor control to prohibition-
ridden America.
It was in 1926 that he first began to collect material for a series of
novels. Books dealing with many phases of his reportorial career
had appeared but the novel was a new form. He had made himself
the best and the best-known reporter in the country; that career he
proposed to put behind him. He had long felt that parts of the
American Revolution had never before been adequately treated, and
so his research was directed toward the epic campaigns of the
Northern Army from the March to Quebec in 1775 to the Battles
at Saratoga in 1777. With the Revolution itself he had an intimate
family link: his great-great grandfather and two other relatives
fought at the siege of Louisburg in 1745: three others were in the
army that attacked Ticonderoga in 1759; two of his great-great-
grandfathers were captains in the Continental Army during the
march to Quebec in 1775, the retreat from Ticonderoga in 1777,
the battles at Saratoga in the same year and at Valley Forge in 1778.
For two years he collected his material and in 1928 set about
writing his first book, ARUNDEL. That summer he continued his work
in Maine with the assistance of his friend and neighbor, Booth
Tarkington, and the following May completed it in Italy in a little
farmhouse on a hilltop in the small fishing village of Porto Santo
Stefano, midway between Leghorn and Rome. ARUNDEL was pub-
lished in January of 1930. That was the first of the famous "Chron-
icles of Arundel" and its publication marked the rise of a new star
of the first magnitude in the literary skies.

For many years, when not in Europe, the greater part of the year
Kenneth Roberts lived in a house near the sea at Kennebunk Beach,
with his wife and a small white wire-haired terrier named Serena
Blandish. Across the road was his workshop, an odd building in Span-
ish style designed by the owner in conjunction with such architectural
authorities as Booth Tarkington and Samuel G. Blythe. Even in
Summer it was extremely cold. There, surrounded by an unexcelled
library of books dealing with his own particular periods, the plot-
ting of all his novels was done. Most of the writing, and much of the
agonizing work of revision, used to be done at Porto Santo Stefano;
but that retreat has been temporarily and perhaps permanently
abandoned as the demands upon him, because of the constantly
growing popularity of his books, became more and more insistent.
In 1938 he built a stone house on high land above Kennebunkport,
looking across the little river from which many of his ancestors
sailed as sea captains, and over the blue light of Wells Bay, where
he has fished and gunned since boyhood.
Like most able authors he has little of the author about him. He
has a profound knowledge of wines, speaks Italian with a somewhat
Neapolitan accent and English with great vigor and conviction,
writes in longhand on large sheets of yellow paper whose margins
are quickly filled with annotations. Having been president of a
society at Cornell called Kappa Beta Phi, whose objectives were
somewhat opposed to that of the older society of Phi Beta Kappa,
Dartmouth has recently made him a member of the latter, and other
colleges, like Colby, Middlebury, Bowdoin and Dartmouth, have
awarded him honorary degrees.
His methods of work are arduous, involving as they do minute
research and continuous rewriting. He keeps a business man's day,
in his study from nine in the morning to six or after; occasionally
working late into the night. He has none of the idiosyncrasies which
great writers are often supposed to possess. Had he liked he might
have been a successful business man, but fortunately for America
he was stricken from the beginning with an unquenchable desire
to write. That desire, linked with the true flame of greatness, has
given us the "Chronicles of Arundel", NORTHWEST PASSAGE and
promises in the future even more far-reaching achievement.


By Ben Ames Williams

ON THE SIXTH DAY of September, 1928, Kenneth Roberts sat down
at his desk, filled his fountain pen, and wrote at the top of a sheet
of yellow paper the words: "Arundel, Chapter I." He was at that
time just short of forty-three years old. As a staff writer on The
Saturday Evening Post he had established an international reputa-
tion as a great reporter; but except for two short stories he had never
written fiction. For ten years he had been brooding over the notion
of writing a series of novels dealing with the fortunes of one family
through three periods in the history of Maine. In 1925, his more or
less formless thoughts began to settle into shape; and he began that
incredibly patient research which was to become the basis of his
novels. On that September day in 1928 he wrote the first words of
ARUNDEL; on the twenty-fourth of May, 1929, he finished the first
draft. The man who can today fairly be rated as America's greatest
writer of historical fiction-with no time limits-had done his first
job of work.
Not that ARUNDEL was finished. The manuscript had already been
three times revised; the book was to be revised again and again,
both before its publication and afterward. Nevertheless, the com-
pletion of the first draft may be taken as marking the emergence of
the novelist from the reporter.
Today there stand five novels to Mr. Roberts' credit. The public
verdict on them has already been delivered, and the critics have
applauded each book as it appeared; but it is now possible to make

some appraisal not of the individual volumes, but of the stature and
importance of the man's work as a whole.

There has been too much emphasis, in the discussion of Mr.
Roberts' works, on the fact that they are based on history Novels
that require the use of reference books," he himself once wr5,eare
occasionally damned by being called historical novels. If there is
anyone able to write effectively of any period in the world's history,
including the immediate present, without cluttering his desk and
brain with upwards of three tons of assorted reference books smell-
ing faintly of old glue and moldy leather, I congratulate and envy
him. What is more, I doubt that it can be done. In other words, I am
of the opinion that every novel which deals adequately with any
period at all is an historical novel."
This is, of course, true. The present is a part of history, as well as
the past; and the best novels dealing with our life today will be
source books for the historian of the future. So in the wider sense
all novels are historical novels.
The result of this emphasis on the extent and accuracy of Mr.
Roberts' historical research has been to becloud his merits as a
novelist. It is conceivable that any first-rate reporter could have put
together an account of the expedition against Quebec as complete
and as accurate as that in ARUNDEL; but only a first-rate novelist
could have written the book which Mr. Roberts wrote about that
expedition. If it were not so easy to say that Mr. Roberts is a pro-
found student and a great historian, it would have been clear long
ago that he is also a novelist whose stature and whose capacities are
steadily increasing.
It is impossible to define a great novel. Probably only time can
offer a final appraisal of any book. But from an examination of
those novels which after half a century or more still appear to be first-
half a dozen others-it appears that they have some traits in com-
mon. They have gusto. They seem to have been written headlong,
rushingly, the words tumbling over one another like those of a
speaker so full of his subject that he cannot wait to pick and choose.
They are long yet seem short; the novelist has so much to tell that
the reader puts his book down while still hungry for more, still full

of questions and inquiry. No man can read WAR AND PEACE and re-
main incurious about Napoleon. No man can read ARUNDEL and
RABBLE IN ARMS without wishing to know more about Benedict
Arnold. One reader, having finished RABBLE, raced through every
biography of Arnold in the Boston Public Library in a fruitless effort
to satisfy that profound curiosity which Mr. Roberts had evoked.
This quality of gusto in the great novels of the past was not a
mere matter of piling words on words. It was the robust exuberance
of overflowing genius, pouring out-sometimes without discretion
or critical restraint-scenes and characters and chapters in a teem-
ing flood, from which the reader might take what he chose and let
the rest go by. And those great novels had another common quality.
They were most often tragic in their theme; and their writers were
more interested in failure than in success, in weakness than in
strength, in vice than in virtue. The novelist exalted what was good
by hating what was bad; he praised virtue by portraying the ugli-
ness of vice. No one who has read the book can think of adultery
without remembering that hideous thin black fluid which trickled
out of Madame Bovary's mouth when she was dead. Mr. Roberts as
an individual and as a novelist hates sham, hypocrisy, littleness above
all things. When he deals with the petty and the mean his words
have a scalding bitterness; and seen through his eyes, the stupid
follies, the selfish intrigues, the petty bickerings of the Continental
Congress become as abominable as adultery.
His novels have these two qualities-the gusto, and the abhorrence
of evil things and men-which appear to be common to all great
novels. But merely to write many words does not make greatness in
a novelist; nor to hate evil. The man must also be master of the
tools of his trade. He must know how to handle humor, description,
Mr. Roberts since he began his career as a reporter has always been
skilled in humorous writing, and humor enriches every page of his
novels. Cap Huff as a character in whom humor was an inherent
and persistent quality can face any comparison without flinching.
The Harvard episode in NORTHWEST PASSAGE is Mr. Roberts at his
humorous best; but there are single lines and brief passages here
and there through all his novels which will make the reader smile or
chuckle or laugh aloud before he reads on. Mr. Roberts' descriptive

passages, especially when he writes about that region around
Arundel which he knows and loves so well, evoke a deep peace and
serenity, as though the reader looked upon the scenes which the
author describes. These passages, by virtue of Mr. Roberts' skilful
use of the first person form of narrative, are enriched by affection.
The reader comes to love the land as Steven Nason loved it long
Mr. Roberts has created a dozen characters which fix themselves
in memory more deeply than the reader may at the moment realize.
Another novelist half a dozen years after ARUNDEL was published
found himself with the first draft of a novel finished, and suddenly
realized that his leading feminine character was not only exactly the
Phoebe Marvin of ARUNDEL, but she was even called Phoebe in this
later tale. Some of Mr. Roberts' characters have this trick of em-
bedding themselves permanently in the reader's consciousness. In
the more superficial matter of quick characterization, Mr. Roberts is
adept. One line often serves to present an individual complete and
recognizable. "She had the look of never having done anything that
did not give her pleasure." "I have never known a man so proud of
a weak stomach, or so desirous of discussing it." "Wyseman Clagett
. stood there looking at me horribly." "High Sheriff Thomas
Packer-the same who later hanged the school teacher, Ruth Blay."
"It seemed to me he was the most violent-looking man I had ever
seen." "He had a merry, easy way with him; an air of polite atten-
tion to whatever was being said." "A man with a nose all bulbous,
like a red sponge . peering at me out of eyes nearly hidden by
bloated lids." Examples could be multiplied unendingly. In these
technical respects, Mr. Roberts is master of the tools of his trade.
Of his books, four are written in the first person. The fine novels
which have been written in the first person can be counted on the
fingers of two hands. The writer beginning his task may choose to
tell his tale from any one of a number of points of view. He may
write as though he were omnipresent and omniscient, knowing not
only everything that is said and done, but everything that is thought.
He may write in the third person, yet tell only what one person in
his tale sees and hears and witnesses. He may select any vantage
which appeals to him as the most useful for his purposes. But it is
an axiom in the writing trade that the more strictly a writer limits


S -- r --

I I7i -*
. . * . . . . .-^ ",i ,ii' ,_ .. f -


.A' .. . . .

^ ^^--a^ e,,
^^^SS^^e?^ ^'"S^^^^^^

Opening page of the original manuscript of NORTHWESr PASSAGE

Some of Kenneth Roberts' notes for NORTWESr PASSAGE and diagram of Fort Michilimackinac
as it was at the time of this novel. From the original manuscript.

himself in this respect, if he works successfully within the limits he
has set, the more effective his work will be.
To write in the first person, to tell only what "I" saw or heard or
thought, is perhaps the most severe of limitations. This form of
narrative Mr. Roberts has made completely his servant. No one has
used the first person so effectively since LORNA DOONE.
To any reader of Mr. Roberts' successive novels it must be ap-
parent that his capacities are steadily increasing. His most recent
novel is unquestioably his best thus far. I said in reviewing ARUNDEL
that it revealed Mr. Roberts "as a novelist of extraordinary powers.
The publication of this, his first work of fiction, is an event; the
book itself is a fine, thrilling, human, vivid tale. Roberts has been
able to deal as justly with great men as with mean ones; he has
known how to let the reader share in suffering and triumph too; he
has caught in pen and ink the ache of cold, the gnaw of hunger, and
the stupor of great weariness. And he has found a way to keep alive,
throughout these pages, the sense of valor and of loyalty which make
them shine."
Seven years later, in reviewing NORTHWEST PASSAGE, I said: "When
Kenneth Roberts wrote ARUNDEL, he produced a novel which for
most writers would have been a culmination. In RABBLE IN ARMS, and
today in NORTHWEST PASSAGE, he has proved that ARUNDEL was no
more than a promise now bountifully fulfilled."
It is of interest to compare these two novels; to see in what
respects NORTHWEST PASSAGE is the better. In Mr. Roberts' own
opinion, ARUNDEL was too long. He says: "I was unfortunate in the
amount of information I had accumulated. . I was filled with
an almost uncontrollable desire to tell what I knew. . ." The first
draft, even after three revisions, ran to something over 300,000
words. In the fourth revision it was cut a few thousand words; in
the fifth, and again in proofs, further cuts were made so that the first
edition contained about 250,000 words. Out of his original draft,
enough words to make a long novel had already been thrown away;
but the end was not yet. The book was published in January, 1930;
and as late as July and August, 1932, Mr. Roberts put aside his work
on RABBLE IN ARMS for two months while he made a further revision
of ARUNDEL for a new edition.
So Mr. Roberts' own opinion was that ARUNDEL was too long; but

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