The History Behind the Fourth of July

Happy 4th of July! I apologize for not posting for awhile, but aside from being engaged in spring clean-up activities here at Old Scrolls Book Shop, I’ve been busy fighting a war.   I’ve just finished reading Kenneth Robert’s 836-page epic of America’s War of Independence, Oliver Wiswell.   It had me hooked from page one.

Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts (1st Trade Edition, Doubleday Doran, NY, 1940)

Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts (1st Trade Edition, Doubleday Doran, NY, 1940)

Independence Day seems a great time to write about author Kenneth Roberts, who is most famous for his splendid historical novels covering early American history, particularly the Revolutionary war era.

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Kenneth Roberts, photo from the back panel of dust jacket on his book “Boone Island.”

History is most often written by the winners; therefore we usually don’t get “the rest of the story.”

Oliver Wiswell is a thoroughly researched and well-written historical novel, telling the story of America’s war for independence from a different side– the Colonial Loyalist’s point of view.

Covering the eight years of grueling societal division and conflict, Roberts brings to light events and issues that were never exposed in your average American History class. All your standard heroes, like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and others are here seen as the imperfect, three-dimensional characters they actually were. Important battles are set forth as they actually happened – often won by the Loyalist side, and yet lost by retreating British generals who had no interest in victory.

Map on front endpapers of "Oliver Wiswell"

Map on front endpapers of “Oliver Wiswell”

This was truly America’s first civil war, dividing families, friends and neighbors in a great clash between those who believed they should avoid the bloodshed and suffering of a war with Great Britain and those who wanted to engage in war at any cost to gain complete independence. Both sides were patriots who loved their country, with different ideas on the best course to follow for the future of the colonies. It was not a matter that was put up to a vote. Well respected citizens and educated people were driven out of their homes if they were believed to be Loyalists; tarred and feathered, tortured or sent into hiding by mob rule. Families, homes, farms and businesses were destroyed –neighbor against neighbor.

Rear endpapers, "Oliver Wiswell"

Rear endpapers, “Oliver Wiswell”

Not without humor, Roberts succeeds in exposing the absurdities of war, and the follies of the military leadership and troops on both the British and Colonial side. He also conveys the resilience and strength of civilian men and women who, caught in the circumstances of war through no fault of their own, suffered great loss and hardship. His well-drawn characters are appealing and his scenes descriptive as he takes us from Boston to New York to England, France, and back to the colonies as his main character, Olive Wiswell, struggles to preserve his American homeland in the best way he knows how.

To experience this time in our history from the Revolutionist side, read Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel (1929) – the American Revolution through the Battle of Quebec and Rabble in Arms (1933), where he presents the conflict from the viewpoint of the Colonial rebels who are fighting against all odds to halt the advancing British invasion. The struggles of soldiers and civilians alike are vividly brought to life, amidst the miseries of war when food and supplies are scarce because of human greed and faulty links in the chain of command.

Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts (Doubleday Doran, 1933)

Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts (Doubleday Doran, 1933)

Rabble in Arms, by Kenneth Roberts (Later printing - Doubleday Doran, NY, 1943).

Rabble in Arms, by Kenneth Roberts (Later printing – Doubleday Doran, NY, 1943).

All of these books are compelling reads and make for a thorough education on America’s beginnings.

The great thing about an intensely researched and well-written historical novel is this; as you become involved with the characters, you absorb the facts of history in a way that never happens when reading a textbook, and hear the story as it can never be told in a book without characters. You experience life as it happened for people of the time, in detail.   As history unfolds in this compelling way, it stimulates a hunger for further reading and research.

I came late to appreciating the writing of Kenneth Roberts. Now I know why his books have quickly left our shelves, year after year.  He was a great novelist of America’s historic past, and wrote his novels with the same dispassionate truthfulness that made him a great journalist for The Boston Post and The Saturday Evening Post in the early twentieth century.

*Key historical novels by Roberts and their topics include:

Arundel (1929) – The American Revolution through the Battle of Quebec
The Lively Lady (1931) – War of 1812
Rabble in Arms (1933) – Sequel to Arundel; the American Revolution through the Battles of Saratoga
Captain Caution (1934) – War of 1812
Northwest Passage (1937) – French and Indian War and the Carver expedition
Oliver Wiswell (1940) – The American Revolution from a Loyalist’s perspective, from the Siege of Boston to the United Empire Loyalists
Lydia Bailey (1947) – The Haitian Revolution and the First Barbary War
Boon Island (1955) – 1710 shipwreck on Boon Island, Maine

In 1957, two months before his death, Roberts received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”  He died, aged 71, in Kennebunkport.

*taken from Wikipedia

Collectible first editions of Kenneth Roberts works are almost always available here at Old Scrolls Book Shop.

 

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