Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This historical novel, like Rogers’s others, treats early American history relating to his own family’s New England roots. It focuses on an imperfect, unconventional hero who has deserved better, in Roberts’s view, from historians. In his later novel Oliver Wiswell (1940), Roberts contradicts the conventional picture of an event and deals sympathetically with the loyalist side in the American Revolution. Displaying a characteristic pattern of its author, Northwest Passage adopts an iconoclastic stance in purportedly offsetting one-sided views of historians and biographers. When a noted historian claimed that no record existed of Rogers’s court-martial, Roberts located it in England. In his aforementioned autobiography, Roberts observes that history gives only an outline of events, explaining nothing fully and omitting details that the novelist must explain. When history, for example, did not explain why a powder-burned ranger lieutenant had to turn back with forty men before the Indian village attack, Roberts provides a reason. Also noting that most historical accounts are both dull and filled with bloodless personages, the author affirms his intent to give the reader the vivid illusion of sharing the experience of the past.

Representing the apex of its author’s career, Northwest Passage has been critically acclaimed for its thorough research, action-filled scenes, and vivid descriptions enriched by historical detail; it was popularly received as a best-seller. Roberts also was praised for using images consistent with speaker and subject, simple and concrete diction, and a direct style with uncluttered syntax that keeps the narrative moving swiftly. The novel’s success overcame some critical reservations about its being overwritten and overladen with historical detail; the book established its author with most critics and historians as a superior historical novelist setting a high standard of excellence for other writers of the genre. Along with Roberts’s other work, it has won for him a lasting place in American letters. Although the Pulitzer Prize committee did not give the novel an award, it publicly cited the author’s work as having long contributed to creating interest in early American history. Roberts’s ability to bring history alive as well as to reexamine conventional conceptions of historical figures and events makes Northwest Passage worthy of study both for students and for all readers liking a well-told tale of early America.