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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Author Activities

John Smith - Teaching Tips

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  • Your students will probably be anxious to discuss Smith's account of his rescue by Pocahontas since the story has assumed the status of a foundational American myth. (It is no accident a painting of Pocahontas being baptized hangs inside the Rotunda of the Capitol and that a sculpture of Pocahontas saving Smith hangs over the west door to the Rotunda today.) It is important to emphasize that Smith revised his story about his relationship with Pocahontas: in his initial narrative of the episode in his 1608 True Relation he does not mention her role in helping him escape captivity and avoid execution. It is only in the General History, written sixteen years after Smith's encounter with Powhatan, that he celebrates Pocahontas's intervention on his behalf. Some literary critics and historians have argued that Smith's inclusion of Pocahontas in the later narrative represents an effort to capitalize on her status as a celebrity in England. After she had converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe, traveled to England, and been presented at Court, Pocahontas was revered as an assimilated and fully Anglicized Native American--the ideal colonial subject. Thus, Smith's anxiousness to assert a significant relationship with her might be just one more example of his commitment to self-promotion. Ask students to think about what other reasons Smith might have had for revising his account in this way. What assumptions about Indian-European relations, gender, and politics underwrite this story? Why has the story achieved archetypal status? You might ask your class to generate a list of other examples of this trope of an attractive young woman intervening on behalf of her colonizer (for example, La Malinche, Sacajawea, and even contemporary news stories about women who defect from China, the Middle East, and other countries to be with American men). Why is this story continually repeated and celebrated? What kind of fantasy about American power does it represent?

  • Ask your class to analyze the role of literacy in Smith's relations with the Native Americans of Virginia. You might look, in particular, at his account of the native peoples' wonder at his "talking paper" when he demonstrates his ability to communicate with other colonists through writing. How do writing and literacy become emblems of European power for Smith? How might this status impact his relationship to his own text?

  • Ask your class to analyze the role of technology in colonization and in Smith's relations with the Native Americans of Virginia as presented in his narrative. For example, you might have students focus on Smith's description of his demonstration of a compass:
    Much they marveled at the playing of the fly and needle, which they could see so plainly and yet not touch it because of the glass that covered them. But when he demonstrated by that globelike jewel the roundness of the earth and skies, the sphere of the sun, moon, and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round about the world continually, the greatness of the land and sea, the diversity of nations, variety of complexions, and how we were to them antipodes and many other such like matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration.

    Here Smith indulges in a fantasy of the Indians' simultaneous bewilderment and understanding--they are awestruck by the unfamiliar instrument and do not understand the physical structure of glass, yet they seem to grasp Smith's complicated explanation of the cosmos. You might play up the unintentional humor of this moment. One wonders what exactly the Indians thought of Smith's operations with the compass, and what kind of response they were really expressing when Smith took them to be "amazed with admiration." Ask your students to think about why Smith is so invested in attributing the experience of wonder to the natives and why he problematizes that wonder with an assertion of transparency and communication.

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