Quotations From Chairman Rabble
Kenneth Roberts: A Patriotic Curmudgeon

[1]3,771 words

The events of January 6 have been called an insurrection, a riot, an assault on democracy — the epitome of white supremacy, revolution, anarchy, elements of a coup d’etat.

One word they haven’t been called is rabble, which is almost a term of honor, and honorable terms aren’t what the state or its servitors want passed on. Honor, you say? Rabble?

“A rabble in arms, flushed with success and insolence.” This was how General Burgoyne described American troops to Lord Rochfort, and it was this rabble, especially led by Benedict Arnold, that defeated Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga in 1777, securing the American Revolution. It was done without air power, dodgy balloting machines, or the media’s viperous aid. It was done on the field of battle, where we beat the British fair and square.

But it almost didn’t happen, and Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), whose historical fiction novels were best sellers in the 1930s and 1940s, chronicles this close shave in Rabble in Arms. Roberts was a journalist who served in the occupation of Vladivostok during World War One, a hapless American incursion aimed at stopping the Bolsheviks. While the American troops were finally withdrawn without too much harm to themselves, Roberts used this misadventure as an outline for his studies of American political and military incompetence, backed up by solid historical research. He has been described as a quirky contrarian.

Certainly, Roberts would be considered a reactionary today. After World War One, he urged stricter controls on immigration, testifying before a Congressional committee that “if America doesn’t keep out the queer alien mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.” In an article in the Post, Roberts referred to Jews as “human parasites,” warning against further Semitic immigration to America, which would turn America into a “futile and useless hybrid race.”

Almost seems like one of us!

Roberts was something of a crank, no doubt a legacy of his years as a journalist uncovering corruption in Boston and his service in the Army. Roberts turned to writing historical fiction with the aid of neighbor Booth Tarkington, who helped edit his books. Robert’s series of historical novels dealt with events in and surrounding his native Maine and New England, including Arundel (1929), Lively Lady (1929), Rabble in Arms (1933), Captain Caution (1934), Northwest Passage (1937), Oliver Wiswell (1940), Lydia Bailey (1947), Boon island (1955). 

If someone said Vivaldi wrote one concerto six hundred times, then it can be said Roberts wrote the same novel seven times. The plot is as follows: A clever, dynamic hero is determined to achieve a goal, is assisted by a garrulous sidekick and is usually enamored of a woman, then becomes impatient with the mendacity and incompetence of nitwits and bureaucrats who almost drown him in waves of stupidity and hostility. The sidekick is more boisterous and comic than the hero. Hero and sidekick are dismayed by the infernal world of preferment and imperial domination that always stands in the way of a rule of free and enlightened men, especially those common-sense types living in New England. 

Rabble in Arms‘ hero Peter Merrill, a merchant and patriot, joins the American revolution, although Nathaniel, his brother, gets entangled with Marie de Sabrevois, a femme fatale and British spy whose intentions are obvious to everyone except love-stricken Nathaniel, who also seems to take the “moderate’ vie” that maybe the British aren’t so bad, since there are so many crooks and cheats on the American side.

Besides, having been in London, Nathaniel enjoys a rich culture. Peter believes that “culture” decadent, corrupt, and based on privilege instead of honest labor.

An exasperated Peter is joined by Doc, a crusty old doctor, and Cap Huff, a local farmer turned soldier. Their loose talk and observations provide much of Rabble in Arms humor and views on life and government, although Peter is no mean observer of human experience. Unlike many heroes in novels, he works for a living, is a merchant and ship’s captain, and has no truck for useless things like preferment and the stratified world of academia. As he describes a college education:

Steven Nason may not have what Harvard calls an education, but he can talk the Abenaki language, and drive a straight furrow, and keep a company of soldiers under control, and get along with his neighbors. He doesn’t believe everything he hears, like some educated dunces I’ve met; and he knows the difference between what’s good and what’s worthless, though that’s something colleges don’t seem to be able to teach. And to top it all off, he’s had a year of war. It’s hard to believe, but there are those who’d prefer Steven Nason’s education to that of some who’ve spent four years in college and almost learned to read the Bible in Greek.

Peter is immediately dismayed by the Continental army’s bureaucracy and incompetence after he joins, as well as political appointees more inclined to caucus and weed out rivals than prepare to fight the British. The only general worth anything is Benedict Arnold, and as Merrill observes the army, Cap Huff speaks of what’s around them:

“Brother,” Cap said, “he’s a pig-nut! Look around at the officers in this army and you’ll see the greatest lot of pig-nuts there ever was! Some are good ones; but most of ‘em ain’t nothing but pig-nuts!”

“Pig-nuts?” I asked.

“Pig-nuts,” Cap repeated. “It takes a sledge hammer to crack a pig-nut, and when you get inside it, there ain’t nothing you’d care to use. Besides being like pig-nuts, most of the officers are like women in not being able to stand getting told they done something kind of wrong. You ever tried criticizing a woman much? Arnold, he knows how to do things; and when he sees a pig-nut doing things wrong, he tells him. Tells him loud, so everybody hears it. The trouble is, you can tell a man with brains he’s wrong and he’ll try to fix things up; but you take and tell a pig-nut he’s wrong, and he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to have something heavy fall on you when you ain’t looking.

When the army sets up camp, fever and typhus kill dozens of men, mostly due to incompetence. Peter Merrill offers his verdict:

That’s one of the unfortunate but inescapable things about an army. Half the orders are given by men incompetent to give orders; but for the sake of maintaining the discipline without which an army is worthless, the orders must be obeyed on pain of public disgrace or even of death.

Merrill and Doc’s strong complaints about the camp and lackluster preparations for fighting the British get a warning from Cap Huff:

Listen, old Catamount! When you know as much about an army as I do, you’ll be carefuller than what I was. This is probably the gol-dangdest army for politics that ever was, and all the politics is over at headquarters. Those fellers don’t do nothing but tattle on each other, and hunt around for others to tattle on. All the armies I ever heard of, they always tried to have a few generals that knew how to fight scattered around somewheres, so’s they could be got at in case of need; but this army-Hell! If this army hears about a general that knows how to fight, he gets coopered up in a hogshead and dropped down a well, so’s he can’t win a battle and interfere with the political fellers!

A major bugbear of Merrill (and Roberts) is war profiteering, and he makes it clear it’s an old American tradition. Cap Huff and Phoebe, a sympathetic woman, discuss this: 

“You don’t know what trouble is till you start interfering with somebody who’s making money out of the war!”

“Well for God’s sake!” Cap roared. “They expect us to fight for ‘em, don’t they?”

Phoebe ate the last of her corn pone and rose to her feet to re-tie her red knitted sash.

“I wouldn’t put it just that way,” she said. “They don’t know anymore about war and fighting than a five-year-old girl knows about having a baby. They know they’ve got a lovely chance to make money privateering, and that’s all they want to know. What they expect is that somebody’ll keep the war from stopping until they’ve made all the money there is.”

She added dryly. “Their idea of a nice war is one that’ll last about fifty years.”

Hello, military-industrial complex!


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The exchange recalls Captain Caution, when news of war with Britain breaks out in 1812, and the first thing men do on the coastal villages is not to join the navy, but speed out in their ships and start raiding British commerce as privateers, and so serve America. . . and make a buck from seized goods.

Throughout Robert’s books, his open dislike of British society, especially the one of royal favoritism that defined colonial America, was very strong. He liked showing common, average men and women as superior to those with upper-class pretensions. A tension throughout Northwest Passage is that of Langdon, an American who wants to be an artist, and his conflict with the patronage world of the arts in 18th-century England. This is restated in his love affair with Elizabeth, an upper-class colonial lady that turns sour. Langdon finally discovers true love and companionship in Ann, a common woman who, having become a lecturer of American life, gladly flees to coastal Maine from an England where people, she vehemently says, “live like dogs.”

A more farcical turn comes in Rabble in Arms when Doc and Verrieul, a French frontiersman, have to convince a spy following them that they’re loyalists. Doc begins:

“I do believe,” he said, “that there ain’t nothing as hypocritical as an American. The Philistines were pretty bad, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Americans.”

“A low set,” Verrieul agreed heartily.

“Why,” Doc said, “there ain’t a gentleman among ‘em! Practically every one of ‘em works!”

“Impossible!’ Verrieul murmured. 

“Well, it’s the truth,” Doc said. “They got this idea that one man’s as good as another, and that a feller like you or me has just as much right to walk plum down the middle of the road as the Duke of Buggerdum.”

Verrieul seemed shocked. “I had no idea it was as bad as that.”

“It’s worse’n that,” Doc insisted. “America’s a nation of shopkeepers! What you think of a country that not only ain’t got sense enough to have a King, but ain’t got enough sense to have important offices at all, like the Queen’s Bedchamber Women, or Wet Nurse to the Prince of Wales, or Porter of the Back Stairs for the Princess Amelia, or Heater of Water for the Horses, or an Honorable Band Suberannalated Gentlemen Pensioners at five hundred dollars a year apiece, like you can read about in my Almanack! Why, Americans don’t pay their generals as much as His Royal Majesty, God bless him, pays the Cistern Cleaner to His Majesty’s Household!”

“They don’t understand such refinements,” Verrieul said. “They’re mere money grubbers.”

“And brag!” Doc complained. “You never heard so much brag! To hear ‘em talk, you’d think they had a chanst of licking England!”

Canaille!” Verrieul said.

Doc was mystified. “Can you what?” Then, when Verrieul had explained, Doc said “Oh!” A little feebly, and added, “yes, you’re right!” They’re the worst Can-Is there is! With them Americans it’s all the time Can-I this and Can-I that; and the truth is, they can’t. They can’t lick nobody without they hide behind a tree and do it long-distance! They ain’t sporting!”

“Purely barbarous in action and speech,” Verrieul assured him. “It’s agony to be near such uncultivated fellows, talking through their noses about trade, trade, trade!”

“Hypocrites!” Doc exclaimed.

“You said ‘hypocrites’ once before,” Verrieul said. “Don’t repeat yourself.”

“Why not?” Doc asked helplessly. “If I don’t repeat myself, I got to use profanity.”

We need not think what Roberts or his characters would say about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Roberts gave a lot of thought to different peoples and races, and how America would grow and secure its strength, and, as his views on immigration earlier related, he believed in a strong, hard-working native stock. Yet he felt American life walked a tightrope of racial security balanced with failures to grasp military, economic and political necessities. Again, he goes back to protagonists who value common sense and tactics over the presumed leaders, the generals and politicians who let their rank delude them as to their abilities. 

Merrill is clear-headed and sober in his estimations:

I wish to say here that I think an injustice has been done Arthur St. Clair in calling him a coward. He was no coward, nor was he a bad general, either, as generals go. Yet there was no more drive and inspiration in him than to a barrel of pork. I had seen ship captains like him, and usually they were troubled with mutinies because of the frequency in which boatswains, third mates and even ship’s cooks considered themselves — occasionally with reason — more competent to do the sailing. St. Clair’s trouble, as I saw it, was one that afflicts many white men: he had never learned to interpret what lay before him. If he read, in a book, a passage of little subtlety, he was almost sure to misread it: if called on to judge the movements of an enemy, he was apt to judge wrongly: if need be, he could even persuade himself that the likeliest place for the education of a small son was a dangerous post in the wilderness, where all his time and all his thoughts should be spent on defending that post.

In Rabble in Arms and Arundel, Roberts puts forth a (then daring) idea that Benedict Arnold was a noble, heroic general forced into treason by political intrigue against him. He took this further in Oliver Wiswell, when, in a spectacular turn-around, he made his hero a loyalist who fights against the revolution, losing again and again because of British stupidity and short-sightedness, especially in not giving Arnold the troops and authority he needed to crush the revolution, which could easily have been done at critical points. Robert’s prose and characters in Oliver Wiswell are so stirring and convincing you almost wish it had happened. 

A similar hero is Northwest Passage’s Robert Rogers, the Indian fighter and commander of Roger’s Rangers. Rogers, like Arnold, was a dynamic leader inspiring men to crawl on their knees for him, but he later turned against the Americans and fought with the British. Roberts makes part one of Northwest Passage a rousing adventure — the 1940 movie follows this story. Part two (not filmed) deals with the decline and fall of Rogers as he is stymied and betrayed by royal officials, Indian agents, politicians who see his visions of a great American West as an impediment to their control of the colonies, and Roger’s frustration, alcoholism, and domestic nightmare married to a woman (Elizabeth) unconcerned with his visions, but only concerned with her social climbing, help guide his lapse into dissipation. 

Langdon chronicles Roger’s fall, which to him is the destruction of an American hero; one flawed, true, but offering a vision of the frontier as redemptive and rejuvenating to Europe. There’s a hint of Citizen Kane in this narrative, and perhaps echos of Donald Trump’s failure, done in by a political cabal and his own shortcomings. Yet, as Ann concludes in the end of the book, in beautiful, autumnal imagery:

“Dead?” she said softly. “Rid of him? He’ll never die, and you’ll never want to be rid of him and what he stood for.”

She rose, crossed the room and slid aside the shutter. The wind of late October rattled the windows, and we heard the scurry of dry leaves whirling against the door with the sound of moccasined feet running across frosty grass. A bellowing squall plucked at the corner of the house. 

“That sounds like his voice,” Ann whispered; “his voice and his footsteps, 

Searching, hurrying, hunting! Ah, no! You can’t kill what was in that man!”

It could well be the epitaph of Trump, the swamp drainer.

Robert’s heroes are cantankerous, outraged, and long-suffering as they endure the idiocy around them. But, unlike modern anti-heroes, they stand for something. They aren’t dreamy, but hard-headed men trying to get others to follow their reasoning, and the never-ending attempts by the hero’s foes are what propels the action of intrigues, battles, missed victories, a sweep of American history that often threatens to gurgle down the drain except when the right man or a sudden flash of bravery and common sense saves the day. 

Merrill, Robert’s voice in Rabble in Arms, makes a bald pronouncement at the end on patriotism, one lofty with a twinge of bitterness:

Now nothing, it seems to me, is so valuable to a nation as the truth. All of a nation’s woes, and all of those that dwell within that nation, have their rise in men’s inability to recognize the truth, or their unwillingness to tell the truth — the truth as to why wars are fought, and how they are bungled or protracted, while those who fight them lose their lives and their fortunes: the truth as to why taxes are levied, and how politicians misspend them: the truth as to the pettiness and ineptitude of those who, by flattery and misrepresentation, rise to high places.

Only by being told the truth can man be saved from his own follies, and from repeating in the future the insanities that in the past have brought disaster.

That is why patriotic speeches by politicians set me all a-sweat; for I saw how frequently, even in the darkest days of our rebellion, politicians placed their own small interests ahead of the truth, ahead of the army, ahead of their country — just as they always have and just as I fear they always will.

Roberts makes Arnold a hero partly because the general spurned French intervention in the war and elements in Congress cajoled by foreign payments from France, recalling a pamphlet popular in that time:

I remember too, what Price had said: that a Parliament or Congress which subjected itself to any sort of foreign influence would, by that act, forfeit its authority: that a state which submitted to such a breach of trust in its rulers thereby lost its liberty and was enslaved.

Lydia Bailey, Robert’s next-to-last novel, deals with Albion Hamlin, an attorney sent to Haiti to settle an estate that the title character has inherited. It is 1798, and the Alien and Sedition act has been passed by the Federalists, and Hamlin, opposed to it as a threat to Americans’ freedom, makes the short list of troublesome Democrats.

In Haiti, he encounters Lydia, living in a tenuous luxury that is falling apart as Haiti is gripped by a slave revolt. Hamlin is determined to rescue her, and finds himself immediately on the side of the rebels, represented by Toussaint L’Overture and Dessalines. He grows to despise the French, and although not entirely at ease with the semi-African culture of the island (Hamlin describes the first scent of being in port the overwhelming, musky smell of Africans), they have overthrown slavery and seek freedom. Hamlin, an American, must support them.

His sidekick this time is King Dick (no jokes, please), a black sailor and adventurer who speaks like a minstrel show (“O my gooness golly”), but is colorful, a resourceful soldier and scout, able to navigate between the factions of the idealistic L’Overture and the more brutal Dessalines. 

Hamlin’s real villain is a federalist official trying to do him in. 

Hamlin sees hundreds of whites held captive by Dessalines, who then has them killed, and Hamlin dismisses this in two sentences. He believes the Haitians were fighting for their freedom, and the French had long oppressed and brutalized them. The French got what they deserved.

Hamlin and Lydia sail away, but in the Mediterranean are captured by pirates and sent to Algiers as captives; separated, they plot to escape, aided by the timely arrival of King Dick. Once free, they join the American expedition to liberate Tripoli, and so are able to return to America. . . Hamlin keeping an abiding bitterness for the Federalist Party and its suppression of freedom.

After Lydia Bailey, Roberts claimed he had been written out, and probably said all he had to say. Boon Island is a minor but no less colorful tale of a 1710 shipwreck off Maine’s isolated shore, leading to cannibalism among its desperate crew. Lydia Bailey, like Northwest Passage, was made into a movie, and is worth a look.

Roberts can be irritating. In I Wanted to Write, his 1949 autobiography,

his annoyance at people interrupting his writing is acidic. When he was a reporter, he covered the 1923 Putsch in Munich, and judged Germans to be fools and drunkards, calling Hitler a buffoon with no future. He could fall into journalistic cliches and prejudices of an insular American. 

In 1936, George Orwell reviewed Captain Caution and The Lively Lady. He wasn’t enthusiastic:

It is blood and thundery stuff about privateering in the War of 1812, and is chiefly interesting as showing that the old-fashioned nineteenth-century type of American bumptiousness (“The libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood” etc) is still going strong.

There is bumptiousness, but Robert’s novels deal with the ordinary people rising, stumbling into battle, waylaid by official corruption and mendacity, but somehow winning at the end. . . and telling a ripping yarn in the meantime while offering meditations on freedom, democracy, and its contradictions, but says it is the inevitable choice against the forces of oligarchy and plutocracy. 

Chairman Rabble is indeed cantankerous, but a vigorous consolation for this and any time; a patron saint of the deplorables.

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