John Punshon, widely known in Quaker circles in Britain and the US, has recently retired from teaching at Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion, the Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. He is the author of the standard popular history of the Society of Friends, Portrait in Grey. Two of his books, Encounter with Silence and Testimony and Tradition, deal with aspects of Quaker spirituality, and his latest work, Reasons for Hope, is a study of evangelical Quakerism. He likes ball games, Jane Austen, art deco, Ricky Skaggs, sardine sandwiches and West Ham United. The name Punshon sounds foreign because it is Geordie for Briggs. Below, John writes about Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage.
John Punshon on Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts
One of the things that irks me considerably is the way journalists I otherwise respect will write about 're-reading' such and such a book. Why they employ the ostentatious 're-reading' when they could simply say 'reading', I cannot imagine. It could be a simple statement of fact, of course (and I don’t want to impugn anybody's integrity here), but it usually says to me, as a humble reader, that the journo in question has read all the books I would like to have read and now never will, and is going round the course again while I am stuck at Beecher's on the first circuit. So it irks me.
Actually, I have read quite a few books over the years. I know my Dickens and Austen, Joyce and Lawrence and some authors more modern than them, and I have 're-read' a fair number too. I suppose most of these books would very properly be called classics. But the only book I have ever read four times - Kenneth Roberts's Northwest Passage - is not. So why on earth did I do that? When life is too short to read all the things you think you ought to read, and when you get the chance to go back and encounter the finest minds in the world with the benefit of your own mature reflections, why choose a rollicking adventure story, a historical romance written in another age?
Plainly, the reasons will be largely personal, but at the same time they say something about the times I have lived in, which have been tragic and exciting in equal measure, involving, as they do, a world war and a cold war, the fall of communism and the rise of militant Islam. My grandmother was born before the aeroplane and the motor car. My grandfather began life apprenticed to a builder of spritsail barges on the Thames. They both died in the age of the computer and men on the moon. These are the personal and individual marks of history, and merit contemplation.
Northwest Passage is an historical novel with a clear historical foundation. The main character, Robert Rogers, existed largely as portrayed. He led a regiment of guerrilla fighters which came to be known as 'Rogers' Rangers' in what the Americans call the French and Indian War (1757-63), that part of the Seven Years' War that was fought on their continent. The intended consequence of this war was the removal of the French threat from the colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. Its unintended consequence was that it also removed the disincentive to rebellion and this ultimately bore fruit in the American Revolution (something of which my undergraduate students in the United States were usually blissfully unaware). Northwest Passage is part of a longer sequence of novels which charts the rise of revolutionary sentiment in the colonies and were once known as The Arundel Chronicles. It is a patriotic book.
The narrative begins with an account of a well-documented historical incident, the expedition undertaken by the Rangers, and led by Rogers, to destroy the Indian village of St Francis, situated on a tributary of the St Lawrence in French Canada. This was the place from which raiding parties had descended on the settlements in New England for about a century, destroying lives and property and abducting people. The march there and back is presented in heroic terms and suffers disaster after disaster. Those with a will to live survive. Those with a weakness of personality do not. The party makes it back, but only just.
The scene then follows Rogers to London, where the second third of the book is placed. An accomplished self-publicist, Rogers writes books and a play, and becomes a celebrity, cultivating the acquaintance of some of the leading men of the age. What lies behind his activities is the need to gain political and financial backing for an overland expedition to make his fortune, by finding a northwest passage to the Pacific linking the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia. The plausibility but impossibility of this dream is the substance of the tale. Rogers is a tragic figure, so he fails, the last part of the book charting the dramatic collapse of all of his schemes, held in tension by his indomitable will to survive.
Sadly, all one gets from the movie version, made in 1940, is the melodrama of the St Francis expedition, and none of Kenneth Roberts's narrative skill in making such a colossal character convincing. One of the most successful devices in his style is to balance his cast of characters in revealing ways. Many are stereotypes, but one might argue that most memorable characters are. Rudyard Kipling's Tommy is a case in point. Rogers - shrewd, ambitious, scheming, courageous, naive in many ways - is offset by an artist, Langdon Towne, who is attracted to Rogers, and befriended by him. Towne's ambition is to become a painter of Indians and Indian life, and Rogers is in a position to enable him to do this. In his quiet understated way he mirrors many of Rogers's character traits, but with judgement and without the fatal obsession which is, and historically seems to have been, Rogers's downfall.
The way Towne enters the story indicates the broader place of the novel in Roberts's oeuvre - and how the author's sympathies are gradually revealed as the 700 pages of the story unfold.
Towne is the son of a not very prominent local businessman in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who is nevertheless successful enough to send him to Harvard College. Towne's way in the world lies in cultivating the New England social elite for which he in fact feels contempt. He is overheard making inflammatory political remarks in a local tavern and has to flee. This is how he encounters a recruiting sergeant for the Rangers and finds himself enlisted. It is Towne who first tells Rogers about the northwest passage and who is as profound an influence on Rogers as Rogers is on him.
Rogers was a hero, but a flawed hero, both in the novel and in real life. He is portrayed with massive qualities of endurance, imagination and leadership, and Roberts regards him with an almost metaphysical awe - as if he were an elemental spirit in human form. I remember a discussion I once had with a psychiatrist friend about heroes. He was willing to accept that certain acts could be 'heroic', but thought it unhealthy to have heroes, because such psychological devices enabled those of us who are not heroic to avoid the challenges of everyday life by contemplating the actions of those to whose personal qualities we could never aspire.
I thought then - and still do - that this viewpoint is gravely mistaken. We live by imagination, we live by transcending our limitations. We aspire always to be more than we are, to become what we can be. The function of the hero is therefore to provide examples, models (in modern jargon) of the possibilities open to us. Rogers is an interesting character because we both identify with, and recoil from, those character traits he embodies which we find in ourselves, to our pride and our embarrassment. Rogers possesses heroism, endurance and a certain moral blindness, but without all three his character would lose its distinctiveness.
There is something classical about this, and it panders to my prejudice that the Romantic Movement is something that, on the whole, we would have been better off without. There is a story in the fifth book of the Iliad which is particularly unpalatable to modern sensibilities. The Trojan Adrestos runs into a chariot accident too close to the Greek lines and is captured by Menelaus. He bargains for his life and Menelaus is about to agree terms of ransom when Agamemnon intervenes and scolds Menelaus, telling him in effect that the war is about honour not plunder. So they kill Adrestos. His death was inevitable. He had it coming, so to speak.
Now why should that be? Underlying the story there are conceptions of dignity and the conduct appropriate to different circumstances. The Trojan lost his life because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was suitably brave, suitably accomplished, suitably well-born. He was well enough off to have bought his life, but not when Menelaus was seeking retribution for the abduction of his wife. It is as if there is a greater pattern to human life - fate, perhaps, which reasserts itself continually against human intuition that things should not be like this. They are, and we have to bear the consequences.
On the flyleaf of the book there is a provocative and rather obscure quotation from Robert Cunninghame Graham, who reminds us that history and literature provide many examples of glorious failure. He then implies that those of us who have enough imagination to have sympathy for such figures are doomed by our natures to the same failures. I am not quite sure what to make of this, but I assume Roberts chose the quotation to emphasize one of the lessons of the book, which is that we do not stand apart from those whom we admire. If we seek some kind of nourishment from their virtues, we may find ourselves saddled with their vices also. I suppose this was the danger my psychiatrist friend found unacceptable. And there lies the difference between us. This seems to be a prescription for a life devoid of adventure, which is what I take New Labour heaven to be.
I grew up as an imaginative child deep in the country on the northern fringes of Dartmoor, over 60 years ago. The trees, the stream at the bottom of the hill, the brooding presence of the Moor and the life of nature were magical to me. I had adventures every day, and I guess the fundamental appeal of this book is that I bring my childhood memories to it, because it is they which still feed my imagination.
My childhood was in many ways an idyllic time, but it was lived out against the backdrop of the Second World War. I had the security of a loving home, but the hidden menace of Nazism was not so far away. I remember asking my mother what would happen if the Germans came and she said that my father would probably get mixed up in the resistance (though he was in Egypt at the time, a non-combatant member of the Eighth Army). I knew the Gestapo got you if you did that sort of thing. So even when I was a child, the war was personal to me; and if we had been in France, this might have happened. My family was on the left, their opposition to fascism was longstanding, and that is how it rubbed off on me.
In my childish subconscious, two things came together: the imaginative world of woods, streams and fields in which I lived out the heroics of a child; and the real world in which I heard my relatives discuss what would happen after the war. Imperceptibly and unconsciously my outlook on life, and therefore my tastes, and to some degree my choices, were being formed. So when I encountered Langdon Towne denouncing the establishment and the powers that be, I knew temperamentally exactly what drove him, and Cunninghame Graham's imagination kicked in. So, as you will appreciate, when Northwest Passage fell into my hands I knew the mental landscape immediately.
I am not a child any more, and formative experience seems to me a continuing process. Many books come across one's table, some confirming one's outlook, some challenging it, quite apart from all the human interaction which contributes to the process. I am the same person as I was years ago, though I by no means believe the same things as I did then. One thing, however, has been constant in my world view, and it is that human beings, often the most seemingly improbable and obscure ones, are capable of great heroism. They, not the poets, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. This book salutes them, and so do I.