Kenneth Lewis Roberts (December 8, 1885 – July 21, 1957)


                                                                          PHOTO by Harold Stein, NY

One of America’s most popular historical novelists, Kenneth Lewis Roberts was born in Kennebunk, Maine in 1885. He is perhaps best known as the author of Northwest Passage (Doubleday Doran & Co., 1937), an important historical novel set in early New England.   He wrote many additional colorful and historically accurate novels, as well as non-fiction books (bibliography appears at end of this article).

 He was educated at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where for two years he was Editor in Chief of The Cornell Widow, a humor magazine.  Graduating from Cornell in 1908, he worked as a reporter and columnist for the Boston Post.  After serving in World War I as a Military Intelligence Officer, he worked as a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post, writing on conditions in Europe, the United States and the Orient after the war.  He gave up that position in 1928  when he began writing extensively researched historical novels.  His first book Arundel, was about the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and was published in 1930.  Over the next several years he wrote Lively Lady, Rabble in Arms, and Captain Caution.

At first his novels were not well received by critics, who panned them as weak in plot structure and character development, among other criticisms.  But his fortunes turned around when Dartmouth College bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him in 1934.  The President of Dartmouth lauded him as the preeminent author of historical novels about early American life, depicting the times with accuracy and giving new insights into the characters and personalities of important figures of the times.  Colby College joined in shortly afterwards and also awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

The publication of Northwest Passage (1937) propelled him into the spotlight.  Hugely popular, it reinvigorated sales for all of his previous novels as well.  Northwest Passage made the best seller list in 1937.  A year later Bowdoin College and Middlebury College gave Roberts honorary doctorate degrees.  Before his death, Roberts was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his historical novels, particularly for Northwest Passage. 

Kenneth Roberts often attributed the positive transformation of his literary reputation to Dartmouth College’s bold recognition of his work.  In gratitude for this, when he died most of his manuscripts and papers were given to Baker Library at Dartmouth.  This library holds the largest collection of Roberts source material in the world, occupying eighty-nine linear feet of shelf space and includes galley proofs, autographed books, research material, personal diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, memorabilia, and more.

He was a voracious reader, who often made lots of notes and comments in the margins of books as he read (most of these books from his personal library are also installed in the Roberts Collection at Dartmouth’s Baker Library). 

Roberts was a man of wide ranging interests and passions.  In addition to historical novels, he wrote non-fiction on subjects ranging from immigration to black magic.  Later in his life he became deeply interested in “dousing” or “water-witching” and wrote several books on the subject, much to the chagrin of some of his friends and associates, who were not converts to the practice of using a divining rod to locate water.  He formed a corporation called Water Unlimited with Henry Gross, a game warden who was gifted at water dousing. He also wrote a book by the same name.  Gross and Roberts traveled the world advocating the practice and (often successfully) helping people locate water.  Roberts endured quite a bit of mockery and ridicule for this practice at the time.

Books by Kenneth Roberts are still in great demand today, and fine first editions of many of his books command high prices.  More importantly, his stories inspired many readers to become avidly interested in American History.  

Kenneth Roberts died on July 21, 1957 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

For more information on Kenneth Roberts’ life and books, visit these links: (University of New Hampshire) (Dartmouth College) (Waterboro Public Library, Waterboro, Maine)



Europe's Morning After (1921)

Why Europe Leaves Home: A True Account of the Reasons Which Cause Central Europeans to Overrun America (1922)

Sun Hunting: Adventures and observations among the native and migratory tribes of Florida, including the stoical time-killers of Palm Beach, the gentle and gregarious tin-canners of the remote interior, and the vivacious and semi-violent peoples of Miami (1922)

The Collector's Whatnot: A Compendium, Manual, and Syllabus of Information and Advice on All Subjects Appertaining to the Collection of Antiques, Both Ancient and Not So Ancient (1923)  authored by Kenneth Roberts and  Booth Tarkington using the pen names of Cornelius O. Van Loot,  Milton Kilgallen, and Murgatroyd Elphinstone.

Black Magic: An account of its beneficial use in Italy, of its perversion in Bavaria, and of certain tendencies which might necessitate its study in America (1924)

Concentrated New England: A sketch of Calvin Coolidge (1924)

Florida Loafing: An investigation into the peculiar state of affairs which leads residents of 47 states to encourage Spanish architecture in the 48th (1925)

Florida (1926)

Antiquamania: The collected papers of Professor Milton Kilgallen, F.R.S., of Ugsworth College, elucidating the difficulties in the path of the antique dealer and collector, and presenting various methods of meeting and overcoming them / (1928); written by Roberts and illustrated by Booth Tarkington.

Arundel: A Chronicle of the Province of Maine and of the Secret Expedition Against Quebec (1930), also published as Arundel, Being the Recollections of Steven Nason of Arundel, in the Province of Maine, Attached to the Secret Expedition Led by Colonel Benedict Arnold Against Quebec

Lively Lady: A Chronicle of Arundel, of Privateering, and of the Circular Prison on Dartmoor (1931)

Rabble in Arms: A Chronicle of Arundel and the Burgoyne Invasion (1933)

Captain Caution: A Chronicle of Arundel (1934)

For Authors Only, and Other Gloomy Essays (1935)

Northwest Passage (1937)

It Must be Your Tonsils (1936, with pictures by Paul Galdone)

March to Quebec: Journals of the Members of Arnold's expedition (1938)

Trending into Maine (1938), essays on Maine legends, history, seafaring, food; illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Oliver Wiswell (1940)

The Kenneth Roberts Reader (1945)

Lydia Bailey (1947)

Don't Say That About Maine! (1948)

I Wanted to Write (1949)

Henry Goss and His Dowsing Rod (1951); Henry Goss was a federal game warden in Maine whose gift of water dousing led to fresh water in Bermuda

The Seventh Sense (1953)

Boon Island (1955/1996), about actual shipwreck in early Maine history

Water Unlimited (1957)

The Battle of Cowpens: The Great Morale Builder (1957)