THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 2)

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Early American Writings: The Pre-literary Period


The first recorded piece of American writing is, by scholarly consensus, considered to be A True Relation of Virginia (1608) which was written by the prolific soldier of fortune and early leader of the Jamestown colony, John Smith (1580-1631). The book, though non-fiction and quite thoroughly English in its style and verbiage, encapsulates the pioneering spirit of the early Americans. In addition to being a keen window into the exploratory fervor and the linguistic peculiarity of the times, Smith’s book also offers a interesting contrast to the modern philosophical and social proclivities of our country; the desire to absent society in part or totality, or to lord one’s ego as a cudgel to cleave away all that intrusive stuff found external to itself, is, in the pages of A True Relation, nowhere to be found. What one will instead find is loyalty (sometimes to a near-hysterical degree), humility, boldness and reverence (which is not to say Smith was without his faults, a wrathful temper, being chief among them) and the impulse to absent only apparent under the aegis of the impulse to conquer unknown spaces. Smith was known as a incorrigible romantic and it is, in part, this very character peculiarity that makes his texts such a joy to read, even were nothing particularly interesting is being recorded, the goodly Captain’s vigor and verbosity make of it a rather colorful bridge to more meaty matters. Rather amusingly and incomprehensibly, various early editions of the text were, for some reason, erroneously attributed to a one “Thomas Watson, Gent. one of said Collony.” It is doubtful if any such person as Thomas Watson even existed, but if he did, he did not pen A True Relation. This error was swiftly corrected and seemed to have left a impression upon the minds of the publisher who issued a public note and apology of the previous confuse in the subsequent prefaces, stating, “Happening vpon this Relation by chance, (as I take it, at the second or third hand) induced thereunto by diuers well willers the action… I thought good to publish it: but the author being absent from the presse, it cannot be doubted that some faults haue escaped in the printing, especially in the names of Countries, Towns, and People, which are somewhat strange vnto us: but most of all , and which is the chief error, (for want of knowledge of the Writer) some of the bookes were printed vnder the name of Thomas Watson, by whose occasion I know not, vnless it were the ouer rashness or mistaking of the workeman, but since hauing learned that the saide discourse was written by Captain John Smith, who is one of the Counsell there in Virginia, I thought good to make the like Apollogie, by shewing the true Author so far as my selfe could learn,” (A True Relation, Preface, pg. 18).

Smith penned many other books after A True Relation, including, A General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624), which is generally regarded as his finest work. Yet, despite his sizable and scribish output, Smith, today, is known primarily for his adventures with the native, Matoaka (or Amonute) who is better recognized along the pop-historical record by a name she took later in life: Pocahontas.

The tale goes that Smith was captured by the Powhatan Confederacy of the Tsenacommacah region and was set to be executed by clubbing. Yet when Powhatan approached to perform the execution Pocahontas threw herself upon Smith, laying her head upon his own as if to declare that should her tribesmen desire his death they would have to do as much to her as well; Powhatan subsequently spared Smith’s life.

What is peculiar to note of Smith is that though he wrote no fiction, he is today known to the broader public almost solely through it; principally, through the immensely popular animated romance-musical and Disney film, Pocahontas wherein Smith is portrayed by voice actor, Mel Gibson. Whist this fact is tangential to the primary content and general thesis of this text, it is noteworthy as a example of the potency of art to instantiate mental images within a collective organism, in this case, American society (and “western civilization” more broadly).

The intrepid Smith was succeeded by John Winthrop, a man no less daring (though considerably less romantic) and certainly no less important to the early development of the Early American Style.


[continued in part 3]

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