Kenneth Roberts – Maine’s Contribution to American History
by Tom Seymour
Kenneth Roberts had a habit, according to his friend Ben Ames Williams, another great, Maine author, of believing what people told him. That innocence nearly cost him his life when, going on the word of acquaintances that skunk cabbage was edible, he put the thing to the test. Skunk cabbage only presents itself as edible when in a 100-percent dry state, something that requires not only tedious processing, but also takes one year or more to achieve. Otherwise, the plant e
xcites such a fiery sensation in the mouth and further down the esophagus, that it can, indeed, prove deadly.
But that was how Kenneth Roberts was, a man with a craving to learn new things, to prove and disprove whatever life presented him. And that, perhaps, contributed to his enormous prowess as a historian and writer of some of America’s finest historical novels. Young people, from the 1930s to the present time, have cut their “history teeth” on the thought provoking, intense and suspenseful novels written by Kenneth Roberts, of Kennebunkport, Maine. Roberts’ contribution to educating the youth (and older people as well) of America lies in his unerring historical accuracy and an innate ability to make interesting and immensely entertaining reading of what otherwise might remain dry, historical side notes.
Many the friendly argument has occurred between friends sitting in fishing and hunting camps and around kitchen tables throughout Maine, regarding some small point of history. And more often than not, the prevailing argument was based upon something out of a Kenneth Roberts novel. After all, if Kenneth Roberts wrote it, then it was certainly so.
After all, where else might (at least prior to the days of computers and internet access) someone learn why the Arnold Expedition to Quebec, during the Revolutionary War, turned into such a fiasco, or who was responsible for introducing the woodstove to colonial America? All these topics and more receive diligent coverage in the well-researched novels written by Kenneth Roberts.
Roberts, a descendant of Colonial Mainers, never lost sight of his heritage and in fact, a number of his forebears played parts in the cataclysmic events and struggles that shaped Maine, New England and ultimately, our nation.
So when penning such classics as Arundel, or Rabble In Arms, for instance, Kenneth Roberts was in fact, telling the world about his ancestors, their lives and times, hopes and dreams. Such intimacy and close ties with a subject make for not only excellent historical content, but just as importantly, lively reading.
Prior to writing historical novels, Kenneth Roberts had cut out for himself a widely recognized reputation as a journalist. In 1917, Roberts, while writing for a Boston newspaper, penned a short story, which his agent managed to peddle to the Saturday Evening Post.
This, the author’s first successful contract for a short story, marked the beginning of a 20-year stint as a Saturday Evening Post correspondent in Europe and America. In addition to his journalistic abilities, Roberts had some experience as a soldier, having served in World War I and being stationed, in, of all places, Siberia.
With all this behind him, Roberts decided in 1928 to devote his time and energy to writing historical novels. Roberts had a memorable reply when someone derided novels that required the use of reference books in the writing, “historic novels,” in other words, as opposed to pure fiction.
To this, Roberts said, “I am of the opinion that every novel which deals adequately with any period at all is a historical novel.” And of course, Roberts went on to prove to the world the value of well-researched, historical novels.
Roberts’s first novel, Arundel, was published in January of 1930. It took him 52 months to write his 618-page epic about the heroic colonials who followed Benedict Arnold up the Kennebec River in leaky bateaux, trekked across the Height of Land and lost their way in a morass of endless wetlands in their hopeful quest to storm Quebec and take it from the occupying British.
Roberts suggested early on that his book wasn’t a great seller and in fact, bemoaned the $1,420.95 check for royalties. His expenses, after all, were staggering. The research involved not only poring through moldy volumes and handwritten notes by the actual participants, but also a physical trip to the route taken by Arnold’s men. Roberts even located, by pacing and measuring, the exact spot in Quebec where Arnold was shot. Such attention to historical accuracy comes at a price, but it was a price that Kenneth Roberts was willing to pay.
Of course Arundel proved to be a great success and while his first royalty check seemed small for the effort involved, that soon changed, and for the better.
Roberts followed up the success of Arundel by writing The Lively Lady, a swashbuckling tale of privateering, battles on the high seas and a seeming eternity spent in the dismal and gloomy surroundings of England’s Dartmoor Prison.
In time, novels rolled out from his pen in a long, flowing stream. Besides Arundel and The Lively Lady, Roberts also wrote, Rabble In Arms, a gripping tale of the American Revolution; Captain Caution, an epic drama set in the British prison hulks; Northwest Passage, a book that gave life, spirit and personality to Robert Rogers, of Rogers’ Rangers fame; Oliver Wiswell, a thought-provoking drama of the life of Loyalist Americans during America’s war for independence from Britain, and Boone Island, a book all about the horrors experienced by 14 men shipwrecked in winter on a barren, rocky island off the coast of New Hampshire.
And then Roberts wrote Trending Into Maine. In this volume, Kenneth Roberts tells the reader about himself, his ancestors and his beloved home state of Maine. This is, of course, the Maine that was, the Maine that so many people from other places so fondly remember. It is the Maine of simple pleasures, traditional arts, crafts and recipes, the Maine of old ways, honor and courage.
Roberts also turned his attention to a project that would benefit history lovers and students of history for many generations to come. During the course of writing Arundel, he sifted through original journals, diaries and records kept by participants in the Arnold Expedition. This was the first time anyone had gone to such lengths regarding this period of American history.
By combining these historic records in one volume and making them available to the public, Roberts did a great and magnanimous service to history buffs everywhere. This priceless collection comes complete in one, neat package called, March To Quebec.
When not otherwise engaged, Kenneth Roberts devoted considerable time to improving his farm, home and land at Kennebunkport, Maine. An astute observer of nature, Roberts chronicled such natural dramas as how great horned owls killed domestic ducks and geese on his farm, how hop vines, once planted, are nearly impossible to eradicate and to his great credit, how a local farmer found numerous wells on the Kennebunkport property armed only with a forked stick.
Any person with ven a passing interest in the State of Maine or the role of New Englanders in the history of the United States of America needs to read Kenneth Roberts’s novels—all of them. Doing so will, in the opinion of countless Kenneth Roberts fans, give the reader an invaluable education.
Kenneth Roberts, Maine’s great contribution to American History, was born on December 8, 1885 and died on July 21, 1957.
Roberts, who was born in Kennebunk’s Storer Mansion and in 1938 built a home called Rocky Pastures in Kennebunkport, graduated from Cornell University in 1908, served in World War I, and was a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post until he quit in 1928 to write his many historical novels and his books of essays and other non-fiction, most set in New England. He won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 1957 for “his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.” - Maine Historical Society