BEN ROBERTSON: South Carolina Journalist and Author. By Jodie M. Peeler. University of South Carolina Press. 224 pages. $30.
Fame, like glory, is fleeting. Even accomplishment can get buried in the sands of time.
Ben Robertson, who disliked flying, perished in a plane crash in 1943 while in route to a new post as London bureau chief for the New York Herald-Tribune. It was a shocking end to a brief but distinguished career.
While some recall Robertson's evocative memoir, “Red Hills and Cotton” (1942), both a recollection of his youth in Pickens County and a call to fellow Southerners to embrace the future, few remember his considerable achievements as a globe-hopping journalist, especially during World War II. In his day, Robertson was as highly regarded as anyone in the newspaper business.
Robertson wrote two other books: “Travelers' Rest,” a fictionalized account of his ancestors' settling in South Carolina, and “I Saw England,” an account of the Battle of Britain witnessed firsthand.
Recovering his professional life, and presenting it to a wholly new audience is biographer Dr. Jodie Peeler, a professor of journalism and media history at Newberry College. Her's is a biography skillfully rendered, never a mere recitation of events in sequential order, but rather an engrossing narrative that clearly admires its subject but does not fawn.
Peeler does an admirable job of reviving the story of a man whom history has largely forgotten. One may quibble here and there with how far below the surface the author manages to go in revealing Robertson's essential personality, his inner conflicts and so on.
For the most part she digs deeply as she can, interprets sparingly and effectively employs some of the storytelling techniques of good fiction to recreate time and place, situation and the subject's thought processes, insofar as one can ever truly know such things with certitude. This approach produces a narrative that is rich in detail and anecdote, is well paced, highly readable and sometimes moving.
Peeler has unearthed a variety of source materials (earlier books, news reports, interviews, recollections, family records, speculations, etc.) and deployed them expertly. She is meticulous, thoughtful and thorough.
Robertson deserved a biographer of her caliber, and got it.