Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

On the novel’s first page, the narrator reports that he is not telling the story to prove a case. However, the story does underscore several of Roberts’s themes. First is the idea that early America’s history was forged by brave leaders of men such as Rogers. A related second theme is that such figures can be unfairly judged by history. In his literary autobiography I Wanted to Write 1949, Roberts implies that he sees the pattern of the past as the story of great men—such as Rogers and Benedict Arnold, a major figure in Roberts’s Arundel (1930) and Rabble in Arms (1933)—surrounded by traducers. Moreover, he attempts to correct the preconceived images of American history and to disclose the fallacy of labeling a man on the basis of one deed. For example, Benedict Arnold’s treason is his mark in history, yet his ability as an outstanding field officer is usually ignored. Viewed historically, the lesser-known figure of Rogers is perhaps more often viewed as an unsuccessful seeker of the Northwest Passage who died impoverished and unheralded rather than as a masterful military leader who, given proper support, might have discovered a path to the Pacific before the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition of 1804-1806. A third theme suggests a warning: When a man is tempered in war, he cannot easily erase its imprint. Towne, recalling his tolerance of killing an Indian in battle, determines to eschew war thereafter. Less capable of change, wartime leader Rogers, once out of war, cannot adjust to bureaucratic red tape, politicians, and jealous superiors. The Indian fighter cannot use the same tactics out of war as in it. Risking fortune and countermanding orders aimed at frustrating northwest exploration, Rogers finds his vision and merited trust with the Indians, gaining him the enmity of superiors. Furthermore, in peacetime he is prone to indulge in such soldierly vices as drinking, womanizing, and gathering debts.