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Anne Arundel 100
A Would-be Review of Rob of the Bowl
Written by Sue Wilkinson, Historic St. Mary's City
(Note: Sue Wilkinson reviews this historic
tome while successfully avoiding
reading the book.)
I insisted that this edition of River Gazette, with its focus on Maryland’s founding, should include a review of Rob of the Bowl by John Pendleton Kennedy. After all, St. Mary’s College of Maryland might not exist but for this novel written in 1838, which sparked wider interest in the ancient St. Mary’s City, the radical policies promulgated by the founders, and the need for a memorial to recognize this lost bit of history. Two short years after Rob’s publication, Maryland legislators created St. Mary’s Female Seminary as a “living monument,” where Lord Baltimore’s policy of freedom of conscience could incubate.
“Who is our reviewer?” asked the editor. “Anyone but me,” I thought. I’ve tried reading Rob – more than once – without success. I freely admit that I just don’t have the patience to parse a 75-word sentence when eight words would have conveyed the same idea. Don’t take my word for it, dive into the following paragraph chosen at random – it closes Chapter Two:
As the occasion of my story may enable me to illustrate some of the points in the character of the worthy Captain, I will not forestall the opinions of my readers, regarding him, by further remark, preferring that he should speak for himself, rather than leave his merits to be certifi ed by so unpractised an adept, as I confess myself to be, in unriddling the secret properties of a person so deserving to be known.
Can you imagine my desperation as I cajoled, begged, and finally bribed one of the most erudite individuals I know to assume the task?
It turned out this was a re-read for my bookish friend, Janet Haugaard, the College’s editor emerita. She had perused Rob some two decades ago, when she was new to St. Mary’s. “The book was recommended as a means for learning about St. Mary’s County history,” Haugaard commented after her second round with Rob, “but I am not sure this is a book one recommends to others.”
Rob is set in Maryland’s first colonial capital of St. Mary’s City. The year is 1681 and Lord Baltimore’s policy of religious toleration is being challenged by the state of Virginia. Meanwhile, the local rumor mill is fueled by supernatural going-ons, which are actually orchestrated by the rascal Rob Swales, or Rob of the Bowl, to divert attention from his illegal activities. Students of St. Mary’s history will feel right at home when introduced to a pirate leading a Protestant uprising, a Dutch official, and a character named “Garret.” Rob also tells a love story and there is a happy ending.
Sounds like a good story and a fun read, doesn’t it? But things went sadly wrong with Rob. In Haugaard’s analysis, “The kernel of a good tale is buried in interminable sentences and a cast of characters so large you need a chart to remember who they are.” She admitted to skipping huge sections of the book.
I suspect Haugaard stayed somewhat engaged in Rob by noting similarities with The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850 by Kennedy’s contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Both books,” she says, “were romances written as a backward glance at imagined times. Both showed nostalgia for the imagined freedoms of old England. Both relied on the premise of being inspired by ‘found’ ancient documents.”
In the preface to Rob, Kennedy thanks the state for rescuing documents that inspired the novel and memorialize by-gone days. Was this an artistic contrivance or reality? Silas Hurry, Historic St. Mary’s City laboratory director, curator, and student of Rob and John Pendleton Kennedy, pointed out a mention of missing volumes in the preface to Maryland Council Proceedings: Volume 15, published in 1896. These journals, which covered proceedings from 1671-1681, Rob’s time, were “discovered almost by accident” after having been “removed from Annapolis over thirty years ago.” Hurry suggested, and Maryland State Archivist Edward Papenfuse confirmed, the missing documents were returned from the estate of our author. “Kennedy had the status and was in a position where it’s quite possible these ancient documents were loaned to him,” noted Hurry.
John P. Kennedy was the son of an Irish immigrant and a member of the Virginia aristocracy. He studied law, became an author, and then a politician serving in Congress, the Maryland House of Delegates, and as Secretary of the Navy. Kennedy maintained strong roots in Baltimore throughout his life. As Kennedy’s political star rose, his dedication to writing turned to public issues. Rob, published when Kennedy was 43 years old, was the last of his three novels. In a letter to a friend, Kennedy wrote that this book was his favorite as “it required more antiquarian labor.” Where Scarlet Letter became a classic, contemporary reviews criticized Rob’s “quaint and stilted language,” “archaisms in dialogue,” and lack of plot. Haugaard speculated, “I think Kennedy was so in love with the phraseology of the old documents that he lost all sense of the reader.” In writing the novel, Kennedy saw his challenge as instilling life into “the dry timbers of a vast old edifice.” Indirectly, with the institution of the St. Mary’s Female Seminary, he accomplished his goal.
Plugging Rob into your brain is a badge of honor for the highest level of St. Mary’s scholar. Still, if you are interested in St. Mary’s history, you might do better to head straight for the primary documents with lower expectations of being entertained or emotionally involved. “I have never been a fan of Cliff Notes,” Janet commented, “but it would be a great service to humanity for someone to “Cliff” this!”