Skip to main content
clickable transparency Dartmouth College Library
Home >  About the Libraries >   Friends of the Library >   Dartmouth College Library Bulletin > April 1990 >

Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

'At the nadir of 'discouragement':
The Story Of Dartmouth's
Kenneth Roberts Collection


For decades Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) was one of America's most Popular historical novelists, writing such best. sellers as Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell, and Lydia Bailey. A resident of Maine for most of his life, he began writing historical novels to 'the speech the events, the customs and the appearance' preserve of his beloved native state. 1 Despite Roberts's love for Maine and its heritage, however, he gave the bulk of his papers, books, and manuscripts to Dartmouth College.

The long-time affection Kenneth Roberts had for Dartmouth commenced at a pivotal time in the author's life. In 1928 he had decided to leave his lucrative position as staff correspondent for George Horace Lorimer's Saturday Evening Post to launch a career as a writer of historical fiction. 2 After exhaustively researching Benedict Arnold's march to capture Quebec during the first year of the American Revolution, Roberts wrote Arundel (1930), which he soon followed with The Lively Lady (1931) and Rabble in Arms (I933). By I934, none of the books had sold very well, and as Roberts recalled years later, some prominent critics had pointedly disdained his literary efforts :

I understood them to say my dialogue was inept, I was deplorably weak in delineating character, knew nothing about plot-structure, couldn't interpret history adequately and, generally speaking, would be well advised to turn to other means of livelihood. I'd worked hard on those books for [six] years without any noticeable reward or acclaim; and their reception and sales were discouraging in the extreme so much so that I was broke and on the verge of abandoning the course I'd charted for myself [six] years before. 3

A letter the despondent author received in April 1934 significantly changed his plaits. Sixteen years later, Roberts reminisced about this event that led to his change of heart:

At the nadir of my discouragement I received a letter from Ernest Martin Hopkins, president of Dartmouth. It was the most touching, the most appreciative, the kindest, the most encouraging letter I'd ever received. At the end of it, he said, with his usual reticence, that he 'hoped' 1 could find time to come to Hanover and that I would be 'willing to accept' the Doctorate of Letters that the trustees of Dartmouth had voted me.

I re-read the letter with a choked heart and foggy eyes. He 'hoped' I would be willing to accept literary re-birth, resuscitation, rehabilitation! Hoped! Ah me!

He 'hoped' I could find time to go to the one place where kind and friendly people were sufficiently interested in my work to say openly that I shouldn't stop writing! That I should keep on! That I should banish doubts and apprehension. He hoped! Oh boy! 4

Roberts was awarded his honorary doctorate degree two months later at Dartmouth's June commencement, at which 458 seniors were graduated (the College's 'largest senior class in history,' noted the New York Times). 5 The 'literary re-birth' the novelist experienced upon receiving Ernest Hopkins's letter was undoubtedly rekindled during the conferring of the degree. In President Hopkins's ascription, he stated that after Roberts served an 'apprenticeship' with the Saturday Evening Post, 'you came to the preeminence which is yours in authorship of historical novels of early American life. In the successive volumes of Arundel, The Lively Lady, and most recently, Rabble in Arms, you have pictured in accurate form the manner of living, the sentiments, and the events of Colonial days, and have shown in New perspective the characters and personalities of some of the important figures of American history.' 6

Others soon followed President Hopkins's lead in commending Kenneth Roberts for his historical novels. An editorial in the Boston Herald published the day after Dartmouth's commencement affirmed that Roberts's honorary degree was 'a proper recognition' of his literary efforts and that 'he has proved three times that the historian can be entertaining, and the story teller accurate and instructive.' 7 The following year Roberts was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters and received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Colby College. In 1937 he made the best-seller list with Northwest Passage and was awarded honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth. In June a year later both Middlebury College and Bowdoin College gave him honorary doctorate degrees. 8

The immediate popularity of Northwest Passage dramatically increased Roberts's literary reputation, as well as the sales of his earlier historical novels. And although readers of his books clamored for his autograph 9 and listened in rapt attention as he read from his works, 10 he never forgot his early years of struggle nor how Ernest Hopkins's letter gave him the self-confidence to continue writing. On several occasions, therefore, he sent Dartmouth College some of his book manuscripts, and after his death on 21 July 1957, the bulk of his papers, books, and manuscripts were given to Baker Library by his niece and secretary, Marjorie Mosser Ellis.

The Kenneth Roberts collection occupies eighty-nine linear feet of shelf space, including nineteen feet of bound correspondence books, and is the largest collection of Roberts source material in the world. It includes a complete set of his books (many of them autographed), with Numerous foreign editions; holographs, typescripts, galley proofs and/or page proofs of Arundel, The Battle of Cowpens, Boon Island, Captain Caution, For Authors Only, Henry Cross arid His Dowsing Rod, I Wanted to Write, it Must be Your Tonsils, The Kenneth Roberts Reader; Lydia Bailey, March to Quebec, Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell, Rabble in Arms, The Seventh Sense, and Water Unlimited; research Material and Notes; books front Roberts's personal library, including ones he wrote and his reference books, many with holograph annotations; newspaper and periodical articles by and about him; miscellaneous biographical and critical material; transcriptions of interviews; personal diaries; scapbooks; photographs; maps; pamphlets; memorabilia; material associated with water dowsing and the corporation Water Unlimited; and book reviews. 11

As is evident by the thousands of items in the Dartmouth Collection, Kenneth Roberts was a dynamic man of widely diversified interests and enthusiasms. A voracious reader, he covered virtually everything he read-even mystery novels-with his own comments and annotations, and some of the prized volumes in Baker Library are those that Roberts used as reference sources for his own books. 12 For example, the novelist read numerous works on Benedict Arnold prior to writing Arundel and Rabble in Arms, and steadfastly maintained all his life that the general was 'the most brilliant soldier of the Revolution.' 13 One biography of several he consulted that are now in Baker Library is Malcolm Decker's Benedict Arnold: Son of the Havens (Tarrytown, NY: William Abbatt, Pub., 1932). On one of the flyleaves Roberts had scrawled: 'This book can be held up to all students of literature and history as an example of what not to do. The style is vile: the deductions worthless: the facts distorted. It is a vicious book: an abomination: the nadir of biographical writing. One of the few books I've ever seen that never uses the right word if there's a wrong one available.'

These vehement sentiments -- and others in books and letters in the Dartmouth collection -- corroborate the view held by many that Roberts was outspoken, opinionated, and irascible. Throughout the decades that he spent researching early American history, he frequently denounced historians and biographers for what he considered to be their deliberate falsification of history and their failure to include details in their narratives. Roberts occasionally discussed in correspondence his reasons for writing historical fiction and why he disliked the works of most historians. One of his long-time friends was Dartmouth professor Herbert Faulkner West (Class of 192), contributor of the foreword to Roberts's posthumously published book, The Battle of Cowpens ,14 and for years secretary of the Friends of the Dartmouth Library. West gave all of his Roberts letters to Dartmouth, and in one dated 26 July 1935 the novelist specified what he considered to be the shortcomings of historians:

What I wanted to do [in Arundel], if I could, was to write the history of the Northern Army in such a way that it could be thoroughly understood by anyone. What first interested me in the campaigns was the fact that I had four ancestors, three of them officers, who fought through the entire existence of the Northern Army. What then interested me even more deeply was the fact that nowhere was there any book that gave a comprehensive and understandable picture of the wide ramifications of the campaigns in such a way that they fell into their proper relationship with each other and made the whole story into a unit. The more carefully you go into those campaigns, the more you are impressed by the failure of historians to see the thing as a whole, and the more fuddled you become. Justin Smith did a handsome job on the march to Quebec, 15 but the second the march was over, he was through with that particular job. . . . Hoffman Nickerson did a magnificent piece of work in THE TURNING POINT OF THE REVOLUTION; 16 but the year 1777 which is the year he covers, is only a fragment; and unless you know, in their proper relationship to the whole, the details of the preceding campaigns, you don't know why things happened. You're confused, and the picture you get is distorted. . . . All of the historians were united in ignoring details, or in failing to dig up the details which they should have possessed, or in pointing out the misinterpretations and downright lies of which diarists, journalists and so on were responsible-such details as the construction and rig of Arnold's fleet, who was Burgoyne's mistress, who were the male and female spies that Burgoyne used, what were the "underhanded attempts" made in Congress and by outside enemies to undermine and destroy the reputation "of the brave General Arnold, . . ."17

Of course, many scholars and academics disagreed with Roberts, but as literary historian John Tebbel -- who knew him -- has pointed out, 'they disagree with each other in the scholarly journals too, sometimes even more savagely. [Roberts] contested them on their own ground occasionally, and often he was incontestably correct.' 18 Furthermore, even though the novelist probably deserved his sobriquet 'the irascible Mr. Roberts,' 19 not all of his observations, letters, and marginalia are negative, and much of it reflects his familiarity with his subject and knowledge of what other authors have written about it. One rare book sought by both book collectors and historians is Ponteach; or, The Savages of America, by Robert Rogers. 20 The volume includes a biography by Allan Nevins of Major Rogers (1731-1795), who achieved fame as a commander of colonial Rangers in the French and Indian War. Roberts relied heavily upon the book while working on Northwest Passage, and his personal copy of Ponteach, a valued work in Baker Library, contains hundreds of his observations and comments. While many of the annotations (such as 'Damn these historians!' on page 102) reveal Roberts's acerbity and cantankerousness, others show his thorough understanding of eighteenth-century American history.

Roberts's observations and candid reflections can also be found in his personal diaries, which the author depended upon while writing his literary autobiography, I Wanted to Write. Covering the years 1912 to 1935 they are especially useful to the scholar wanting to see a daily record of how a trained reporter viewed events during this significant period in world history. The diaries, however, are restricted in that until the year 2006 they may not be copied in any form, nor may they be directly cited. Additional diaries for the years 1936 to 1957 are a gift to the Library from the estate of Marjorie Mosser Ellis, but are sealed until 2006.

Although researchers have limited access to Roberts's diaries, there are no restrictions on the rest of the Roberts collection. One segment of the material that has fascinated even persons with little interest in Kenneth Roberts is the author's voluminous files on water dowsing. Roberts first became interested in dowsing --the controversial practice of finding underground water by means of a forked stick -- sometime in the late 1930s when he was building his stone house on his Kennebunkport estate. He soon became a passionate advocate of dowsing, and with Henry Gross, a retired Maine game warden and expert dowser, traveled around the world proselytizing for the art of water divining and helping people locate water.

By 1950 the two men were besieged with requests for Henry Gross's dowsing services. Since the game warden's retirement income was only $61.48 a month, Roberts sought to provide a steady income for his friend. Thus, in 1950 they formed 'Water Unlimited.' The organization's prospectus -- 'sent only to persons who asked for help' -- reads in part:

Water Unlimited, Inc., a corporation of the State of Maine, has been formed to enable seriously-interested persons to seek Henry's help, to stimulate scientific interest in the further development of water dowsing, and to encourage those who have this latent ability -- and there are many -- to improve their technique through practice and study so that they may become dependable and valuable. . . . [Kenneth Robert's] only interests in Water Unlimited are to see that Henry Gross receives a proper return for inestimably valuable services, and to make sure that his future dowsing experiences are accurately recorded and preserved. 21

To ensure that his dowsing experiences were accurately recorded and preserved and 'to prove to scientists that [dowsing] IS possible,' 22 Roberts wrote three books: Henry Gross and His Dowsing Rod (1951), The Seventh Sense (1953), and the posthumously published Water Unlimited (1957). Manuscripts and/or typescripts of these three volumes are in Baker Library, as well as many related items that Roberts gathered during his years of dowsing research. This material includes books, articles, clippings, scrapbooks, transcripts of talks and interviews Roberts gave on dowsing, correspondence, notebooks, and records of his and Henry Gross's dowsing cases. 23

As one might imagine, Roberts faced a largely skeptical American public when talking or writing about water divining (he noted on his personal copy of The Seventh Sense that the book's subtitle should read: 'Or How to Lose Friends & Alienate People'). Newspaper, magazine, and book writers regarded Gross and him as 'fair game,' and the two were often publicly mocked and ridiculed. Bergen Evans wrote in The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense that Roberts believed Gross to have 'rhabdomantic powers which, if only recognized and utilized, would flood the earth with life-giving waters and cause the deserts to blossom like the rose.' 24 In 1952 the American Philosophical Society gave 'a royal roasting to historical novelist Kenneth Roberts for championing water-finding by means of a hooked-stick 'divining-rod' -- a technique known as "dowsing."' 25 In an article for Harper's Magazine entitled 'Dowsing Is Nonsense,' Thomas M. Riddick asserted that Roberts's 'illogical and unscientific conjecture may do real harm.' 26 After Roberts received an advance copy of the article, he fired off an angry letter to an editor at Harper's, in which he referred to Riddick as 'a son-of-a-bitch,' and denounced the essay as 'pretty shoddy stuff to appear in a magazine of Harper's reputation.' 27

Not only did Roberts encounter derision in the public press, but even most of his friends had little use for his dowsing crusade. Herbert Faulkner West admitted that he 'always regretted that [Roberts] ever got mixed up with it,' 28 and believed that the author's three dowsing books 'were written with the zeal of a fanatical crusader, and with a little too much readiness to damn anybody, with an irascible kind of petulance, who wouldn't accept immediately the mysterious powers of Mr. Gross.' 29 Arthur Hamilton Gibbs, another of Roberts's close friends, theorized that Roberts's obsession with dowsing was sort of a 'literary holiday' for the author, and that Roberts may have 'wrote himself out' after completing Oliver Wiswell (published in 1940) and almost certainly after finishing Lydia Bailey (1947). 30 Roberts's last novel, Boon Island, was published in 1956, and neither it nor The Battle of Cowpens, published two months after his death, rank with his major works.

Despite the misgivings of his friends, Roberts remained a dowsing advocate until his death, and his books and letters record the dozens of instances when he and Henry Gross located water for individuals and businesses. His devotion to this cause is reflected in one of his last memorandums, written the month he died and now preserved in Baker Library: 'I can do more good to my country by writing about my dowsing experiences than I can by writing novels, no matter how historically accurate they may be.'

Although Roberts paid little attention to historical research throughout the 1950s, two months before he died his many vivid dramatizations of history earned him a special Pulitzer Prize 'for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.' This citation-part of Dartmouth's Roberts collection-serves as a reminder that Kenneth Roberts's works were not only models of historical writing and accuracy, but also enjoyable to read. As John Tebbel declared: 'A generation of Americans owes a debt to Kenneth Roberts. He gave them an accurate picture of scenes from the nation's beginnings and educated them about aspects of our origins in a way that made many of them, at least, converts to the enjoyment and understanding of history.' 31 And since Kenneth Roberts was passionately in love with early American history all his life, it is appropriate that subsequent generations of Americans can study his papers, books, and research material at the college which offered him, in his words, 'literary re-birth, resuscitation, rehabilitation!' 32


*The author wishes to thank Kenneth Roberts's niece, Virginia Mosser, and the Kenneth Roberts Estate for permission to quote from Roberts's writings. He is also grateful for the enthusiastic assistance of Philip N. Cronenwett, Curator of Manuscripts and Chief of Special Collections at the Dartmouth College Library, and the many helpful staff members of Special Collections.

1. Kenneth L. Roberts to Julian Street, 2 November 1931, Julian Street Papers, Princeton University Library. Printed with permission.

2. Jack Bales, Kenneth Roberts: The Man and His Works (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1989), pp. 27-28.

3. 'Roberts Also Loves Green: Dr. Hopkins' Inspiration Lead to Historical Find.' Boston Herald, 30 September 1950 p. S (Volume 30. Letters, June 1950-1951). In these reminiscences, Roberts mistakenly gave 1935 instead of 1934 as the year the received his honorary degree from Dartmouth. Thus, the number of years between the time he left the Saturday Evening Post (1928) and the year he received his honorary degree (1431) is six, not seven. See also Kenneth Roberts, I Wanted to Write (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co , 1949). p. 280.

4. 'Roberts Also Loves Green,' p. 5.

5. 'Dartmouth Honor for 5 Who Died.' New York Times 19 June 1934, p. 22.

6. 'President Hopkins Pays Tribute to Prominent Men Awarded Honorary Degrees,' The Dartmouth l8 June 1934, p. 7.

7. 'Dr. K. L Roberts.' Boston Herald, 19 June 1934 p. 12. This editorial appeared under the heading 'Kenneth Roberts and His Books' in early printings of Captain Caution.

8. Bales, pp. xxi-xxii.

9. Roberts. I Wanted to Write, pp. 316, 323-325.

10. `Record 18,000 Throng Garden for Final Day of Book Fair: Kenneth Roberts Reads from New Novel,' Boston Herald, 27 October 1940 pp. 1, 31.

11. Bales, p. 272.

12. John Ira KitchJr.. `From History to Fiction: Kenneth Roberts As an Historical Novelist' (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1965), pp. 48-S0.

13. Kenneth Roberts, Rabble in Arms (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 8: Co., 1946, c1933). p. 857. According to Roberts, Benedict Arnold's motives stemmed from the commander's conviction that it was better to give the colonies back to England rather than let them, through an incompetent Continental Congress, fall into the hands of France.

14. Herbert Faulkner West, Foreword to Tile Battle of Cowpens: The Great Morale-Builder, by Kenneth Roberts (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 8( Co., 1958), pp. 7-16. This volume was originally published in a limited edition of 300 numbered copies as Cowpens: The Great Morale Builder [Hanover, NH]: Westholm Publications, 1957.

15. Justin Smith, Arnold's March from Cambridge to Quebec: A Critical Study (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1903).

16. Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928).

17. Kenneth Roberts to Herbert Faulkner West, 26 July 1935, Dartmouth College Library. Printed with permission.(Box 10, Folder 12).

18. John Tebbel, Foreword to Kenneth Roberts: The Man and His Works, p. x.

19. See, for example, Edward C. Winston, '3-Day Sale Opens: 2.000 Spend $100,000 at Roberts Auction,' Portland [Maine] Press Herald, 19 July 1967, p. 1. (Volume 51, p. [ 177]).

20. Robert Rogers, Ponteach; or, The Savages of America; A Tragedy, with an introduction and a biography of the author by Allan Nevins (Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1914).

21. Water Unlimited, Inc.. Suggestions to Prospective Clients: Revised Work Sheet (Kennebunkport, Maine?: n.p., n.d.), pp. 2, 3. (Box 27. Folder 149). In a 'Daybook of Dowsing Cases,'(p.4) now in Baker Library, Roberts recorded the gross income of Water Unlimited, Inc.: 1951 -$20, 125.27; 1952-$13,742.41; 1953 -$11,413.42; 1954-$16,353.59; 1955 - $18,207.82; 1956 (thru Nov. 1O)-$26,235.86 (Box 22, Folder 40).

22. Kenneth Roberts, interview by Arlene Francis, 19 July 1954. transcript. Dartmouth College Library. Printed with permission. (Box 16, Folder l6-2)

23. See also Edward S. Drown, Jr., 'Water Witching,' Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, n.s., 8 (April 1968), pp. 51-54; V[irginia] L. C[lose], 'Witching in Baker,' Dartmouth College Library Bulletin, n.s., 8 (April 1968), pp. 54-58./

24. Bergen Evans, The Spoor of Spooks and Other Nonsense (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), p. 12.

25. 'Kenneth Roberts' Water Dowsing Beliefs Panned by Ancient Club,' Portland [Maine] Press Herald, 25 April 1952, p. 44.

26. Thomas M. Riddick. `Dowsing Is Nonsense,' Harper's Magazine 203 (July 1951), p. 68.

27. Kenneth Roberts to Horace A. Knowles, 28 June 1951, Dartmouth College Library. Printed with permission.

28. Herbert Faulkner West, 'The Work of Kenneth Roberts.' Colby Library Quarterly 6 (September 1962), p. 98.

29. West, Foreword to Cowpens: The Great Morale Builder p. vi. When Doubleday & Company published the trade edition of this book, West's three anti-dowsing sentences were deleted from the foreword.

30. Arthur Hamilton Gibbs, interview by John Ira Kitch Jr., 7 February I963.

31. Tebbel, page xi.

32. 'Roberts also Loves Green,' p.5.