(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

NORTHWEST PASSAGE is considered by many to be the best of Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels. Certainly, it has scope, painting as it does a mural of the surging of the shorebound colonies to push westward toward the Pacific Ocean in the mid-eighteenth century. All the aspects of the story are here: the opportunists who saw in the vast country stretching to the west the chance to attain wealth and power, the dreamers who went exploring as a mountain climber climbs a mountain, because it was there; the old warriors, unable to find a place in the tamed colonies along the coast, who had to go west to continue the only life they knew; and the curious who had to go west so that they could bring back the pictures and the descriptions and the maps for the mystification of those who remained to run the farms and to work in the shops and factories.

Roberts has attempted to escape the embarrassed self-consciousness of the ordinary historical novel, which must present characters who are legends as far as the reader is concerned, in simple everyday situations. His device is to get around the problem of the hackneyed scene by not focusing on the subject of the novel at all. The novel is about the career of Robert Rogers, the leader of the famed Rogers’ Rangers and the seeker of the Northwest Passage. The plot begins with Rogers’ expedition to destroy the settlement of St. Francis, from which the French-sponsored Indians had time and time again swooped down on the settlements of New England, and it ends after Rogers is a broken man, with all of his dreams turned to dust. The focus of the novel, however, is on the career of the narrator, Langdon Towne, who first joins Rogers on the St. Francis expedition and whose career constantly crosses that of Rogers thereafter.

There are, essentially, four steps in the development of the novel: the introduction of Langdon Towne, the expedition to St. Francis, the mounting and failure of the expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and the disintegration of Robert Rogers. This development is paralleled by the story of Langdon Towne, first as a promising young artist, then as a successful maturing artist. Whatever unity the novel has as a work of art is derived through the development of the character of Langdon Towne.

Perhaps the greatest boon gained from focusing the novel on Towne is that Roberts is thereby able to present a more balanced picture of Rogers, a man glorified in schoolboy histories, yet a man who was both opportunist and adventurer, a man who was constantly in debt, yet a man who could acquire and use the respect and support of many of the most respectable citizens in the old and in the new worlds. The dichotomies of Robert Rogers are reflected in his relationship with Langdon Towne.

When Langdon Towne first meets Rogers, the young man is running from the persecutions of an unscrupulous King’s Attorney. Rogers is taken with the idea of having an artist record the beauties of the country that he wishes to promote as a source of wealth and land for expansion, and Towne is caught up by...

(The entire section is 1264 words.)