Writers for Conservatives 52: Kenneth Roberts and the Art of Historical Fiction
The author was a writer of historical fiction novels that were very popular in the 1930s and '40s, and that are still worth reading. I read them avidly when I was a boy, and I have enjoyed rereading them, with a critical eye, for this essay. Historical fiction is an amorphous genre regarded by literary critics with a dubious eye, if only because it encompasses so many kinds of books of such varying quality: War and Peace, American Westerns, the swashbuckling novels of Rafael Sabatini, The Scarlet Letter, bodice-busting Regency novels whose only claim to historicity is the props - the fashions, quaint language (especially oaths), wigs, swords. Most use history only as background for the fictional plot. Even Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace to demonstrate a theory of history, was more interested in his fictional characters than in Napoleon or Kutuzov, who get only cameo roles.
There is a type of this fiction however, that is intended to be historically accurate, that means to bring to life the past by weaving through its meshes fictional characters in their own plot, and Kenneth Roberts was such a writer. His subject was the American Revolutionary period from the 1760s through the War of 1812. The novels for which he will be remembers are Arundel, Rabble in Arms, Northwest Passage, and Oliver Wiswell. The first two are about Benedict Arnold's march through the Maine wilderness to Quebec in 1775, and his subsequent struggles with Burgoyne's army on Lake Champlain, ending with Arnold's triumph at Saratoga and Burgoyne's subsequent surrender. Northwest Passage is about the career of Major Robert Rogers of the famed Rangers, the scout and Indian fighter. Oliver Wiswell looks at the Revolution from a Loyalist viewpoint.
The center of interest in the first two novels is the dynamic, charismatic figure of Benedict Arnold, who was certainly one of Washington's best generals, a tactical genius on the battlefield and no mean strategist, as his decision to challenge Burgoyne's fleet on Lake Champlain shows. Portraying Arnold in incredibly precarious situations as he guides his men through the wilderness or through the battle of Valcour Island, are the most vivid parts of the two books, those scenes that are remembered long afterwards.
Similarly, in Northwest Passage what holds our attention and lives in our memory is the perilous adventure (the expedition against the St. Francis Indians) and the excruciating tale of hardship in the wilderness stoically endured by Rogers and his men. The latter part of the book, when the narrator seeks out Rogers in debtor's prison in London, showing the once towering figure in ignominious ruin, is a masterful touch.
Oliver Wiswell is an anomaly - a description of the War of Independence from a Loyalist perspective. It is difficult, to be sure, to sympathize with the narrator, but the novel is very well done, and it reminds us what we tend to forget, that the war was also a civil struggle waged with great bitterness and brutality.
The writer of historical fiction must always face the problem of how closely to mesh the historical and fictional characters. Roberts chooses first person narration (by contrast, War and Peace is third person narration), and then he manages the mingling of the two strands, historical and fictional, by making his narrators in Arundel and Rabble in Arms scouts directly responsible to Arnold, a relationship neither too formal nor too intimate, allowing the historical characters to enact their roles as we know they did, while the fictional characters move in and out of the story as the author wishes. So they are always there when Arnold is in action, when Roberts' writing is most skillful.
Roberts was a thorough and scrupulous researcher, and later edited and published The March to Quebec, a compilation of diaries, letters, and accounts of the men who made the arduous journey with Arnold. Accuracy as to facts is one thing, but historical understanding is another, and in that department Roberts was lacking to a degree. So he attributes Arnold's troubles solely to scheming by petty incompetents in the army and ignorant politicians in the Continental Congress, showing a shallow understanding both of Arnold and the Congress at the time. In Robert's defense, however, I should point out that he was writing about what we should call Arnold's heroic years, 1775-77, when he was at his best. But the character of the man who would, in just a couple of years, plot with the British to surrender the fortifications at West Point and capture George Washington, was already implicit. We have to ask ourselves why Arnold was such a stormy petrel, why such dubious characters were so persistent in their calumnies. Other generals, notably Schuyler and Washington, were slandered and plotted against, but it was Arnold who made such an issue of these matters. The truth, I think, is that Benedict Arnold was a shallow man, a first-rate fighter who could see and foresee the ramifications of a course of action (which was why he was such a bold strategist), but who quite lacked depth of feeling about himself and his world. So he seems never to have grasped the enormity of his betrayal and how it would affect the rest of his life.
But this is really a minor complaint. If Roberts' fictional characters are stock figures, they don't get in the way of the historical characters, the ones who really interest us, about whom Roberts wrote so well.
A good biography of Arnold is Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor by W. S. Randall (1990). Not very insightful about Arnold's character, but the picture of the radical atmosphere in Philadelphia in 1778-9, when Arnold was military governor, and made the decision to become a traitor, is vivid and suggestive. *