American Heroes, Myth and Reality

By Marshall W. Fishwick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
O Brave New World: John Smith

"'Tis ever thus, when in life's storm Hope's star to man grows dim, An angel kneels, in woman's form And breathes a prayer for him." --George Morris, Pocahontas.

On the threshold of American history stands one of our most controversial heroes. Although he barely had a toe hold on the New World, he has not been budged by the heaviest scholarly attacks. So enmeshed was colonial America in European folkways that we could hardly have expected an enduring hero before Plymouth Rock was settled. Yet we have Captain John Smith. One of the most fascinating American heroines, Pocahontas, comes with him.

Subjugator of nine-and-thirty kings, by his own say-so, John Smith aroused derision as easily as he made legends. "It soundeth much to the dimunition of his deeds," Thomas Fuller wryly complained, "that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them." More recently, Professor Walter Blair irreverently noted that " Smith could hardly go for a walk without saving a beautiful damsel, or having one fall head over heels in love with him." But Smith's admirers have not been fazed. "To set him down as an arrant braggadocio would seem to some critics," observed historian John Fiske, "essential to their reputation for sound sense." A. G. Bradley found in the Smith saga "nothing to strain the credulity of anyone with a tolerable grasp of historical and social progress." Hero or faker, Captain John Smith has held the popular imagination so firmly that he and Pocahontas are our best known colonial couple.

-25-

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