Captain John Smith: Contribution to American Literature

Also Read

      The hero of the Jamestown colony, and its savior during the first two years, was Captain John Smith, born in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, in 1579, twenty-four years before the death of Elizabeth and thirty-seven before the death of Shakespeare. Smith was a man of Elizabethan stamp,—active, ingenious, imaginative, craving new experiences. While a mere boy, he could not stand the tediousness of ordinary life, and so betook himself to the forest where he could hunt and play knight.

Captain John Smith

      In the first part of his young manhood he crossed the Channel, voyaged in the Mediterranean, fought the Turks, killing three of them in single combat, was taken prisoner and enslaved by the Tartars, killed his inhuman master, escaped into Russia, went thence through Europe to Africa, was in desperate naval battles, returned to England, sailing thence for Virginia, which he reached at the age of twenty-eight.

      He soon became president of the Jamestown colony and labored strenuously for its preservation. The first product of his pen in America was A True Relation of Virginia, written in 1608, the year in which John Milton was born. The last work written by Smith in America is entitled: A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Country, the Commodities, People, Government, and Religion. His description of the Indians shows his capacity for quickly noting their traits:—

"They are inconstant in everything, but what fear constrained them to keep. Crafty, timorous, quick of apprehension and very ingenious. Some are of disposition fearful, some bold, most cautious, all savage. Generally covetous of copper, beads, and such like trash. They are soon moved to anger, and so malicious that they seldom forget an injury: they seldom steal one from another, lest their conjurors should reveal it, and so they be pursued and punished. That they are thus feared is certain, but that any can reveal their offences by conjuration I am doubtful."

      Smith has often been accused of boasting, and some have said that he was guilty of great exaggeration or something worse, but it is certain that he repeatedly braved hardships, extreme dangers, and captivity among the Indians to provide food for the colony and to survey Virginia. After carefully editing Captain John Smith's Works in a volume of 983 pages, Professor Edwin Arber says: "For [our] own part, beginning with doubtfulness and wariness we have gradually come to the unhesitating conviction, not only of Smith's truthfulness, but also that, in regard to all personal matters, he systematically understates rather than exaggerates anything he did."

      Although by far the greater part of Smith's literary work was done after he returned to England, yet his two booklets written in America entitle him to a place in colonial literature. He had the Elizabethan love of achievement, and he records his admiration for those whose 'pens writ what their swords did.' He was not an artist with his pen, but our early colonial literature is the richer for his rough narrative and for the description of Virginia and the Indians.

      In one sense he gave the Indian to literature, and that is his greatest achievement in literary history. Who has not heard the story of his capture by the Indians, of his rescue from torture and death, by the beautiful Indian maiden, Pocahontas, of her risking her life to save him a second time from Indian treachery, of her bringing corn and preserving the colony from famine, of her visit to England in 1616, a few weeks after the death of Shakespeare, of her royal reception as a princess, the daughter of an Indian king, of Smith's meeting her again in London, where their romantic story aroused the admiration of the court and the citizens for the brown-eyed princess? It would be difficult to say how many tales of Indian adventure this romantic story of Pocahontas has suggested. It has the honor of being the first of its kind written in the English tongue.

      Did Pocahontas actually rescue Captain Smith? In his account of his adventures, written in Virginia in 1608, he does not mention this rescue, but in his later writings he relates it as an actual occurrence. When Pocahontas visited London, this story was current, and there is no evidence that she denied it. Professor Arber says, "To deny the truth of the Pocahontas incident is to create more difficulties than are involved in its acceptance." But literature does not need to ask whether the story of Hamlet or of Pocahontas is true. If this unique story of American adventure is a product of Captain Smith's creative imagination, the literary critic must admit the captain's superior ability in producing a tale of such vitality. If the story is true, then our literature does well to remember whose pen made this truth one of the most persistent of our early romantic heritages. He is as well known for the story of Pocahontas as for all of his other achievements. The man who saved the Virginia colony and who first suggested a new field to the writer of American romance is rightly considered one of the most striking figures in our early history, even if he did return to England in less than three years and end his days there in 1631.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions