William Carman Roberts

William Carman Roberts, 1897Photo: UNB Class Composite & Group Photographs Database
William Carman Roberts, 1897
Photo: UNB Class Composite & Group Photographs Database

William Carman Roberts (poet, editor, professor of politics at New York University) was born on 6 December 1874 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in an old rectory that was his family’s home. Roberts was an editor for The Literary Digest in New York where he spent the majority of his working career.

Roberts came from the distinguished Roberts family. His older brother was Charles G.D. Roberts. His father was Reverend George Goodridge. Before Roberts was born, his father was an Anglican rector for fourteen years in Westcock, Westmorland County, near Sackville, New Brunswick. Shortly after the family moved to Fredericton, William was born. Roberts’ mother was the former Emma Wetmore Bliss, the daughter of the Hon. George Pidgeon, Receiver General of New Brunswick. She was also the great-great granddaughter of Rev. Daniel Bliss, who was the first pastor of Concord, Massachusetts. Roberts had five siblings: Charles, Fanny (who died when she was four months), Jane, Goodridge Bliss, and Theodore. Another distinguished family member was his cousin, Bliss Carman.

Roberts attended the Collegiate School in Fredericton, then the University of New Brunswick, but left in the spring of 1896 because of poor health. He spent some time living with the family of his cousin Bliss Carman in Washington D.C. to recover. In 1897, Roberts moved to New York City to live in a boarding house on 123 East Fifty-Eighth Street—home, writes Nicholas Mount, to a few Canadian writers: his brother Charles, cousin Bliss, and actress Madge de Wolf.

On 14 December 1906, Roberts married Mary Fanton. She was a journalist and editor for several magazines throughout New York, some of which included the New Idea Woman’s Magazine, The Craftsman, and Arts and Decoration, which she edited for seventeen years. For the majority of their marriage they lived at 142 East Eighteenth Street in New York, which is now one of the oldest apartment buildings in that city.

Roberts began writing poetry from a young age; his first published poems appeared in the Dominion Illustrated when he was sixteen. Though widely published, he was never as successful as his brothers Charles and Theodore. Some of his poems include “History,” “An Easter Memory,” “To Lilith,” and “My Comrade Canoe”. He also appeared in the collection of poetry that members of his family compiled, entitled Northland Lyrics.

Roberts’ poetry focussed on romance and loss. There is a pervading loneliness in his work. Though his work is rather heavy with emotion, his poems often turn toward the light at the end. His poem “His Toy,” for example, speaks about a poor girl who does not see a bright future; however, at the end of the poem, he adds that no man would forget her:

Her elbow on her knee was set,
Her strong hand propt her chin, and yet
No man might name that look she wore,
Nor any man forget. (Rand 313)

When Roberts was twenty-three years old his brother Charles found him a job working with The Illustrated American. After only working there for a few months, he moved to The Literary Digest, where he remained for the rest of his career, holding the position of managing editor for thirty years. In 1899, Roberts spent most of the year in England working on an unidentified assignment for the magazine. He was accompanied by his brother Charles.

Throughout the late 1890s Roberts published several poems in New York magazines. In the fall of 1899 these poems, along with his earlier ones, were published in Northland Lyrics, a family collection. Shortly after, he began to focus on prose, publishing articles on the North-West Mounted Police and Wilfrid Laurier. He also wrote a few political articles for The Craftsman, which his wife Mary Fanton edited. Of significance were the articles “Vitality of the Monroe Doctrine” and “Are we Becoming Civilized too Rapidly?”

“Are we Becoming Civilized too Rapidly?” questions technological advance, suggesting that, in leisure, we are destroying ourselves and the world around us. “Vitality of the Monroe Doctrine” speaks of the importance of the Doctrine for not only being a “controlling factor in our foreign relations, but [in] providing its vitality by constant growth in meaning and scope” (314).

Roberts was sometimes discouraged about being the least famous and accomplished of the three brothers. He never won the literary awards that his brothers and cousin Carman had; however, he did manage to maintain financial security throughout his life. In fact he supported his two brothers from time to time when they needed help. In this regard, he was integral to their success.

In the mid-1930s, The Literary Digest’s circulation started to decline. Newsweek and Time eventually took over in 1938. Roberts left The Digest just before the last issue was published. He and his wife retired to an estate in Oswegatchie, Connecticut in 1940.

On 21 November 1941 William Carman Roberts was found lying on a road near his estate suffering from a heart attack. He died shortly after in New London, Connecticut.

Although he spent most of his years outside New Brunswick, his ties always remained close to home. Despite his lack of literary success, his financial successes were instrumental to the achievements of the other Roberts writers.

Kelsey Boone, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Roberts, William Carman. “Are we Becoming Civilized too Rapidly?” The Craftsman 17.4 (1910): 355-359.

---. “Vitality of the Monroe Doctrine.” The Craftsman 25.4 (1914): 311-314.

Roberts, William Carman, Theodore Roberts, and Elizabeth MacDonald Roberts. Northland Lyrics. Boston: Everett Press, 1899.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Adams, John C. Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.

Mount, Nicholas J. When Canadian Literature Moved to New York. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

Rand, Theodore H., ed. A Treasury of Canadian Verse. Toronto: William Briggs, 1900.

Roberts, Lloyd. The Book of Roberts. Toronto: Ryerson, 1923.

Scobie, Charles H.H. Roberts Country: Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and the Tantramar. Sackville: Taylor Printing Group Inc., 2008.