For nearly thirty years, Kenneth Lewis Roberts was the scourge of academic historians. A novelist with a journalism background, Roberts loved the history of early America—more specifically, the history of his native New England. Nothing infuriated him more than the distortion of historical fact, and, as far as he was concerned, no single group of writers distorted history more than the professional historians who, he claimed, mindlessly perpetuated errors of fact and of interpretation.
Roberts’s own conviction was that history should be written neutrally, without romantic mythmaking. His two major novels reflect this attitude clearly. In Arundel, which chronicles Benedict Arnold’s attack on Quebec, the character of the archetypal American traitor is drawn dispassionately, almost sympathetically. Northwest Passage is considered by many critics to be Roberts’s masterpiece, and his depiction of Robert Rogers shows Rogers as Roberts believed him to be, partially the romantic hero of history texts and partially an unscrupulous adventurer.
Roberts’s novels are, as several critics have pointed out, most vivid and exciting when describing sprawling scenes of violent action. The novels are less successful when their writer depicts more mundane matters, and one senses that the author himself found such scenes tedious and was anxious to get to other matters.
Above all, Roberts possessed an enthusiastic love for history. His novels are infused with this enthusiasm, which expresses itself in myriad carefully sketched details uncovered during a lifetime of ceaseless reading and research. His work has been credited with fostering public interest in early American history, as the citation for the special Pulitzer Prize awarded him in 1957 stated. By the end of his life, he had even won the grudging esteem of professional historians, who had been forced by his irascibility to re-examine some of their own assumptions.