Thursday, March 7, 2024

Quote of the Day (Kenneth Roberts, on a Colonial Action Hero)

“The man himself was thick That was my first impression, one of solid thickness: not mental thickness, but physical — a kind of physical unkillableness, it might be called.

“His lips were thick, and so was his long, straight nose. His hands, clasped before him on the table, were enormous and muscular; and their fingers, pallid by comparison with the brown of his face and hands, looked parboiled, as though left overlong in water. Beneath his large eyes the flesh was puffy; and his shoulders, sloping down from a bull-like neck, filled his buckskin hunting shirt so solidly that the leather might have been shrunk to fit them. The breadth of his chest and upper arms gave him the look of holding a deep breath….

“Yet when he spoke, his manner was genial, as though he addressed an equal — which was contrary to the attitude of important military men, according to my understanding. When he smiled, it was hard to tell the meaning of his smile. It might have been considered admonitory, or kindly, or even as sheepish, depending on the state of mind of the person to whom he spoke; but to me it seemed to indicate that he was, at heart, a good-natured man.”—American novelist Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), Northwest Passage (1937)

For about two decades in the last century, Kenneth Roberts was a perennial presence on bestseller lists with his sprawling works of historical fiction. More than 40 years ago, when I was a student assistant at my local library, his novels could still be found on shelves. But when I went looking for a copy of Northwest Passage, perhaps his most famous one, I couldn’t get my hands on it, so I ordered it through Amazon.

I doubt that you’ll find many college English classes that will cite Roberts as a creator of an innovative or dazzling style, the way they might with Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. But as the above passage shows, he could write vividly.

You can practically see in your mind’s eye the historical figure he was describing: Major Robert Rogers, a colonial military leader in the French and Indian Wars whose unconventional tactics foreshadowed the modern “Special Forces.” (I briefly described his life in this blog post from four years ago.)

Once they bought this novel and dreamed of adapting it for film, executives at MGM must surely have had one of their studio actors in mind for the role: Spencer Tracy. The two-time Oscar winner might not have possessed the matinee-idol looks of Clark Gable. 

But his bulk (solid at this time in his late 30s, overweight as he aged) strongly suggested Rogers, and his naturalistic style of acting gave him an everyman quality seen more recently in the likes of Gene Hackman, Brian Dennehy and Ed Harris.

I remember as a child seeing Tracy in the 1940 movie made from Roberts’ novel. (Well, it turned out only to be the first half of it, but that’s a story for another day.) I couldn’t imagine anyone better able to lead a group of men through all manner of perils than the Major Rogers he created onscreen, including the memorable “human-chain” scene across a treacherous river.

Not unlike Tracy himself, Rogers— at least as imagined by Roberts—could find something within himself to win the respect of all kinds of men. But at bottom, his appeal may have rested—as suggested by Tracy’s smile in the accompanying picture here—on the fact that he was “a good-natured man.”

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