July 21, 1957: Kenneth Roberts, known chiefly for his many historical novels, dies at the age of 71 in Kennebunkport, where he was born and where he lived for many years.

Roberts’ best-known works include “Northwest Passage,” a French and Indian War-era tale that was published in 1937 and made into a 1940 movie starring Spencer Tracy; “Arundel,” a 1929 novel about Benedict Arnold’s 1775 march to Quebec; and “Rabble in Arms,” the 1933 sequel to “Arundel,” which chronicles the unfolding of the American Revolution up to the 1777 Battles of Saratoga.

Roberts recently had won a Pulitzer citation for his books, which had been on best-seller lists for 20 years. He also had just finished proofreading another book, “Water Unlimited,” for publication that October.

A Cornell University graduate, Roberts participated as an Army captain in the Intelligence Section of the little-remembered Siberian Expeditionary Force, part of an unsuccessful, ill-equipped, multinational invasion of Russia immediately after World War I intended to reverse the communist takeover.

In Kennebunkport, he became fast friends with novelist Booth Tarkington, a summer resident who often provided useful critiques of Roberts’ work.

Roberts was known for his reclusiveness as a writer, going so far as to rent a cottage in Italy’s Tuscany region so he could avoid visitors and telephone calls and concentrate on his work – only to be distracted by braying donkeys, shouting fishermen and the racket generated by Italian military pilots who conducted training maneuvers outside his bedroom window.


“Perhaps I may be regarded as allergic to noise,” he concluded in his 1949 memoir.

Nonetheless, he persisted in striving for seclusion.

“I have been accused of hermitacy or recluse-ism because I stay at home and work while others sit in the sun on a beach: because I shun cocktail parties and large gatherings of distractomaniacs,” Roberts asserted in his memoir. “If that’s being a hermit or a recluse, I plead guilty. I’m also a writer, and it’s my unalterable belief that writers should stick to writing: not argue world affairs over radio programs, or act as ballyhoo men (and most offensively so) during presidential campaigns, or kill valuable hours at noisy gatherings of gin drinkers who have nothing better to do, or try to collaborate with the editorial staffs of moving picture companies. In addition to wasting time, such things are ruinously destructive to a writer’s peace of mind.”

Presented by:

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: jowen@mainetoday.com.

Comments are no longer available on this story