Robertson was a respected and well-traveled journalist and war correspondent and the author of three books, including a memoir of his youth in the South Carolina upcountry.
Journalist, memoirist. Ben Robertson was born on June 22, 1903, in Clemson, South Carolina. His father, a member of the first graduating class of Clemson College, was a chemist for the Agricultural Extension Service. His mother, Mary Bowen, died when he was ten years old, and his stepmother, Hattie Boggs, died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Robertson was a respected and well-traveled journalist and war correspondent and the author of three books, including a memoir of his youth in the South Carolina upcountry.
After graduating in 1923 from Clemson, where he edited the student newspaper, Robertson attended the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and, after a year with the Charleston News and Courier, took his second bachelor’s degree in 1926. That same year he landed a job with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, leaving soon afterward to write for the News in Adelaide, Australia. After a few months with the U.S. Consulate in Java, he returned home to South Carolina by way of India and Europe.
In 1929 Robertson became a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1934 to cover the New Deal for the Associated Press but resigned after two years. He then returned to Pickens County to write a novel. Travelers’ Rest, published privately in 1938, was neither a critical nor a popular success, and Robertson went back to journalism, covering South Carolina politics for the Anderson Independent. In 1940 he was hired by PM, an innovative left-liberal newspaper published by the former Fortune editor Ralph Ingersoll, as its London correspondent during the Battle of Britain. During a two-month furlough in early 1941, he wrote I Saw England, a well-received account of British resolve in the face of constant bombardment by the German Luftwaffe that reached a wide audience after being condensed by Reader’s Digest.
After another stint in London, Robertson returned to Clemson in August 1941 and began work on Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory, which he finished in January 1942. A celebration of Scots-Irish folkways and the agrarian lifestyle, Red Hills and Cotton evokes a simpler time in rural South Carolina through a nostalgic portrayal of several generations of Robertson kin. While proudly asserting his heritage–“Honor is at the base of our personal attitude toward life”–he also looks to the future: “The South is our South and it must progress.” An outspoken, if idiosyncratic, liberal during the 1930s, Robertson, who once said, “What we need is a man with the heart and mind of Jefferson and the tactics of Huey Long,” may have softened his politics in Red Hills and Cotton in anticipation of a run for public office.
Over the course of 1942 Robertson covered World War II from Libya, the Soviet Union, and India for PM. In January 1943 he was hired again by the New York Herald-Tribune, this time to run its London Bureau. He never made it back to England. On February 22, 1943, the flying boat Yankee Clipper crashed into the Tagus River on its approach to Lisbon, Portugal, killing Robertson at the age of thirty-nine. His remains were returned to South Carolina and buried in the family burial plot near Liberty in Pickens County. The Liberty Ship SS Ben Robertson was launched in Savannah, Georgia, in January 1944 and supported the invasion of Normandy later that year. Robertson was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1992.
Ford, Lacy K., Jr. “The Affable Journalist as Social Critic: Ben Robertson and the Early Twentieth-Century South.” Southern Cultures 2 (Winter 1996): 353–73.
Robertson, Ben. Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory. 1942. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.