Meet Kenneth Lewis Roberts, (1885 – 1957) famed writer of historical novels, distinguished local citizen and irritable neighbor.
A study of Roberts’ life reveals a complex, driven personality. In a writing career that spanned almost 40 years Roberts established himself as a prominent writer of historical novels. At the same time, Roberts’ intense focus on his writing created some stressful moments for people outside his immediate family and close circle of friends. In many ways he epitomized the independence and high principles of the characters he wrote about in his novels. (See sidebar for a list of Roberts’ most popular novels.)
The early inspiration for Roberts’ writing came from his maternal grandmother Jane Tibbetts. Some of the tales she told Roberts described exploits of his ancestors that took place in the Maine Indian Wars and the American Revolution. He would find ways to use these rough-hewn and spirited characters in his novels.
In 1935 Roberts looked back on a successful career as journalist and novel writer. He said, “I’ve had a theory for a great many years that a writer can write more effectively about his own people than he can about people that aren’t in his blood….My people have always lived in Maine. All of twenty years ago I started mousing around for something to write that would have my own sort of people in it.”
The influence of Roberts’ writing reached beyond literary circles. His first major novel, Arundel published in 1930, recounted the saga of the American Revolution through the experiences of characters from a district called Arundel. Today this locale is made up of the towns of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. In 1915 the town of North Kennebunkport broke away from Kennebunkport and wanted a shorter name. As a result of the historical prominence Roberts’ book brought to the area, when the citizens sought to change the name in 1957, they chose “Arundel.”
Roberts was born December 8, 1885 in the Storer Mansion adjacent to today’s Lafayette Park on Storer Street, Kennebunk. His parents, Frank Roberts and the former Grace Tibbetts, came from well-known Maine families.
Local historian, Joyce Butler, prepared a biographical account of Roberts for The Brick Store Museum in 1986. Butler describes how Roberts “summered at Kennebunk Beach as a boy where his Grandmother Tibbetts owned a cottage on Lord’s Point.”
While summering at Kennebunk Beach he met Anna Seiberling Mosser. Her parents also had a cottage at Lord’s Point. They fell in love and married in 1911. The couple moved to Boston, where Roberts worked in her father’s leather factory. After a short time he decided he did not like the smell of leather. It inspired him to find a job writing for the Boston Sunday Post. During this period he was also writing for Life and Puck magazines.
Roberts showed promise as a writer while a student at Cornell University. Before graduating in 1908 he wrote for and edited the school’s humor magazine Cornell Widow. He also wrote lyrics for two college football fight songs.
When America entered World War I, Roberts enlisted in the army in 1917. He served as an intelligence officer in the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. His duties gave him the opportunity to further his writing career by making influential contacts in publishing.
One of these contacts was George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post. Prior to leaving for Siberia Roberts suggested to Lorimer that he write about his upcoming experience. Lorimer agreed and the two began a life-long personal and professional relationship. Roberts wrote articles for the Post from 1919 to 1928. Roberts described how he worked with Lorimer: “I told him my ideas, which he instantly rejected or accepted…The price to be paid for a story was never discussed, and Lorimer was always generous.”
Many of these articles were the basis for early books by Roberts, but they never gained the popularity of his later novels.
Roberts’ connection to Kennebunk remained strong throughout his life. In 1919 he and his wife purchased a stable from his Aunt Lucy on Kennebunk Beach. They remodeled it into a five-room home, calling the former stable “Stahlhall.”
Early in his writing career Roberts established two locations for his writing. In the summer he worked in Kennebunk. During the winter he and his wife spent time in the small picturesque town of Porto Santo Stefano in Tuscany, Italy.
One of the most important events in Roberts’ personal and literary life was his meeting with Booth Tarkington. Tarkington was an established playwright and author and visited Kennebunkport in the summer. The two found they had many interests in common. In addition to Roberts’ writing they enjoyed collecting antiques. For fun they collaborated with Hugh MacNair Kahler, a writer who vacationed in the Kennebunks, and wrote several satirical accounts on antique collecting that Tarkington illustrated.
Tarkington encouraged Roberts to focus his writing on novels as a way secure a livelihood. Over the years Tarkington would edit most of Roberts’ novels. The final book Tarkington worked on was Oliver Wiswell. Published in 1940, this was a controversial account of the American Revolution as seen from the Loyalist’s view.
For the extensive editing and revisions Tarkington made to his writing, Roberts offered to include Tarkington as co-author for his novels, Northwest Passage and Oliver Wiswell. Tarkington declined. In gratitude for his help, Roberts dedicated both novels, plus Rabble in Arms to Tarkington.
Roberts achieved true financial security following the publication of Northwest Passage in 1936. This book was produced as a movie featuring Spenser Tracey. With the success of Northwest Passage, Roberts built a 12-room home he called Rocky Pasture on 146 acres of land in Kennebunkport.
Since Roberts’ property was located far from the town’s water supply he became interested in “dowsing” – a method to pinpoint underground water by the use of a forked stick. He met a talented dowser, Henry Gross a federal game warden from Biddeford, and they became good friends. They formed a water dowsing company called “Water Unlimited.”
His interest in the questionable form of finding water by dowsing helped contribute to Roberts’ reputation as a controversial personality. He hated to be interrupted in his work. Sounds from vacationers enjoying the beach, barking dogs, passing cars all tried his patience. When a salesman came to his house at the invitation of Roberts’ wife, Roberts threatened him with a shotgun.
There were also reports that Roberts had fired his shotgun at an airplane flying over his house because it interrupted his writing.
While Roberts based his novels on painstaking research, many in the academic world were critical of his writings because he showed sympathy for historical characters like Benedict Arnold.
Toward the end of his life many of his critics came to appreciate his love of American history and his accuracy in portraying historical events.
In 1940 Time magazine featured his portrait on the cover and ran an eight-page article about his current novel Oliver Wiswell.
Two months before his death in 1957 Roberts was honored with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. He received the award: “for his historical novels which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”
Roberts’ detailed approach to writing about early American history brought him and the area world-wide recognition. As a counterpoint to this celebrity status, his thorny reputation for impatience with those who interrupted his writing routine only added to his stature as a complex and fascinating character.
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