Captain John Smith: Contribution to American Literature

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      The hero of the Jamestown colony, and its savior during the first two years, was Captain John Smith, born in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, in 1580, 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

      John Smith was also known as ‘Captain John Smith’. This iron-handed, quick-witted, and zestful soldier of a great fortune was not from the British aristocracy but from a poor British family. Being a young boy, he ran away from Home at Lincolnshire at the age of fifteen. In fact, he soldiered in France and the Low countries. In Europe, Turkey and the near East, he had engaged in war all the time. In 1609, he returned to England only to sail back to the ‘new world’ for trips of geographical exploration of the coast of the New England via the Cape Cod to the Penobscot River. For the first time, it is he who diligently made the maps of the several places on the eastern coastal America as he had keen observation and the retentive memory. It is he who, for the first time, gave the places, English names.

      In 1608, Smith virtually became the president of the settlement in 1608. He, being dynamic and diplomatic, not only explored the new lands but also sent his men to live with the natives to learn their language, customs, and systems of agriculture. As recognition of his work, the Virginia Company replaced him in 1609. When he found the land of New England he named it as New England. Afterward, he went back to England and wrote some important books of his colonial experience.

      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, main writing A Description of New England (1616) is the reflection the fervent imperialistic colonialism that motivated his propagandistic presentation of the new World as the most rugged place. His other important writings are - The Generali New England and the Summer Isles (1624) and The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630). His journalistic writing stimulated the growth of ‘national literature’ of the America. His ‘historical’ writings were embellished with sense of novelty. At the age of twenty-seven, he seemed to leam the art of transforming ‘facts into fiction’. He wrote some interesting stories also. Again, being nostalgic, he sailed back from England to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

      During the latter half of the 17th century of ‘geographical’ exploration, he, with all hard work, made up diaries, letters, travel journals, ships’ logs, and reports to the explorers’ financial backers - the European rulers or, in mercantile England and Holland, the joint stock companies - gradually was supplanted by records of the settled colonies. Because of England’s eventual taking possession of the North American colonies, the best-known and most-anthologized colonial literature continues to flower in the 20th century too. Owing to the internal migration and the gradual assimilation of the people of different cultures the American life becomes increasingly multi-cultural. The scholars are now rediscovering the importance of the continent’s mixed ethnic heritage. Although the story of literature now turns to the English accounts, it is important to recognize its richly ‘cosmopolitan’ beginnings.

      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.

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