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Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25, 2011: Not Just Any John Smith

I don't know how much is generally known these days about John Smith, the first famous (English) Virginian with the deeply nondescript name. If anything, our cultural narratives about him probably depend in large part on the Mel Gibson-voiced character in Disney's Pocahontas (1995), or less famously the Colin Farrell version of him in Terence Malick's The New World (2005), about both of which I'll write more tomorrow. But this is one case where the actual historical figure is to my mind significantly more interesting than any Hollywood versions--and where the figure himself had a great deal to do with creating that interest.

Smith's life would already be pretty interesting in its own right, from his early years as a young soldier for hire (ie, mercenary) in Turkey to his ambiguous presence and role on the Virginia expedition (including of course his famous relationship with Pocahontas, about whom more tomorrow as well), and up to his later travels to New England and perspective on that other most prominent English colony and on English America's fledging identity and prospects more generally. But Smith wasn't content to let the details of his life impress posterity on their own terms, and so produced, in his various autobiographical writings--which always represented themselves as broader histories of Virginia and/or the other colonies, but somehow always came back around to Smith himself first and foremost--some of the most overtly and impressively self-aggrandizing texts in American history.

The portrayal of Smith in those texts certainly contributes to those self-aggrandizing efforts, especially in the passages that deal with his many victories of Native Americans, whether military (as when he single-handedly holds off hundreds of angry Natives) or diplomatic (as when, ostensibly a doomed captive, he wows his captors with his compass and then through sheer charisma impels Pocahontas to save him from his fate). But it's actually an even more fundamental narrative choice that really takes the cake here: Smith writes about himself in the third-person, narrating the adventures of Captain John Smith throughout these texts. It's true that he may have had various co-writers at times, but as best I can tell from the evidence--and as certainly lines up with the images of Smith we again get from the texts--it was Smith's choice to write about himself in this way, to make himself the hero of his own narratives in addition to, and in many ways rather than, the author and narrator of them.

Smith's life and identity have a great deal to tell us about not only the Virginia colony but the early settlement era in general, and so I can't recommend these texts enough for their AmericanStudies value. But does the hilarity factor in reading about, for example, the time that Captain Smith used his Native guide as a human shield while fighting off dozens of attackers, hurt my cause? No, no it doesn't. More tomorrow, on two centuries' of images of Smith's eternal narrative counterpart.


PS. Three links to start with:

1) Many links from Smith's autobiographical writings:

2) Perhaps another way that Smith will re-enter our communal consciousness:

3) OPEN: Any surprisingly funny or engaging historical texts you'd share?

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