Oliver Wiswell.

My Dad was the finest man I’ve ever known, but he didn’t have a lot of formal education or refined taste in literature.   He read the novels of John D. MacDonald, C.S. Forester and Kenneth Roberts.  Cheap paperbacks you could buy in the Rexall drugstore on 45th in Seattle.  So I read them as well.  It was a productive use of my time.  Kenneth Roberts (1885–1957) started as a journalist, tried his hand at soldiering in the First World War (Siberia expedition), went back to journalism (Saturday Evening Post), and ended up as a historical novelist.

Roberts was a cross-grained guy.  Arundel (1931) and A Rabble in Arms (1933) celebrate Benedict Arnold—before the treason.  Northwest Passage (1937) centers on Robert Rogers, the subsequently disgraced American hero of the French and Indian Wars.[1]  Oliver Wiswell (1940) is a view of the American Revolution from the perspective of a Tory.  After Arundel[2] it is his best book.

In Oliver Wiswell the hero instinctively helps a man who is being tarred and feathered and ridden on a fence rail for dissenting from common opinion; helps treat the British wounded after Bunker Hill (one guy is gut-shot by a musket ball with a nail pounded through it); interviews New York Loyalists who have been driven into hiding in a swamp to escape their tormentors; hears of other Loyalists who have been imprisoned in the depths of Connecticut’s Simsbury mines; investigates the mass murder of American prisoners of war by their British guards in New York; wanders in disguise through the back-country in search of the troops that General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga[3]; travels for a while with the many people migrating West of the Appalachians to escape the war and the “Land of Liberty”; arrives in South Carolina in time to hear of the bloody civil war underway in the South and to participate in the Loyalist defense of Ninety-Six; learns of the American assault upon the civilized Cherokee; returns to New York to share in the whale-boat fights on Long Island Sound as Loyalists sought to escape the United States; and ends by helping found new colonies in Canada for the Loyalists.  So, reading this book could give you the idea that the American Revolution involved a lot of informal violence on both sides, but especially against the opponents of the “Empire of Liberty.”

While not an “academic” historian, Roberts did a lot of research for his books.  He consulted both published primary sources and the “literary” histories of an earlier time.  Like any journalist, he sought out dramatic human stories that illustrated larger patterns.

In recent years, academic historians have systematically exploited many more sources that were used by Roberts.  However, their books largely confirm what Roberts intuited.[4]  There was nothing gentlemanly or moderate about the Patriots’ war with the allies of the British Army.  Roger Parkinson, The Common Cause, examines how Patriots nurtured white fear and hatred of blacks and Indians as a way to bind people to the Revolution.  Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost, shows how on the Southwestern frontier many hopes for the future—especially among the Indians–failed when the United States succeeded.  Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles, tracks the fate of losers red, white and black.  Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence, speaks directly to Robert’s theme of ruthless liberty.

All this emphasizes the achievement of the Founders in calming America after 1783.

[1] The first third of the book, on Rogers’ raid on the St. Francis Indians, is marvelous.  The rest is a dog.

[2] In one of the novels, an English noble-woman says “You live in a rundle?  Oh, you mean Arun-dell.”

[3] They were promised parole, but the Americans declined to fulfill this promise—or adequately care for their captives.

[4] See the discussion of books in Jane Kamensky, “Red, White, Black and Blue,” NYT Book Review, 21 May 2017.

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