Academic journal article Early American Studies

Charles Lenox Sargent's Life of Alexander Smith: Imagining Indian Removal in the South Pacific

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Charles Lenox Sargent's Life of Alexander Smith: Imagining Indian Removal in the South Pacific

Article excerpt

"Christian fell a sacrifice to the jealousy ofan Otaheitan man, within three or four years after their arrival on the island.-They were accompanied thither by six Otaheitan men, and twelve women; the former were all swept away by desperate contentions between them and the Englishmen, and five of the latter have died at different periods, leaving at present only one man and seven women of the original settlers. "

-Captain Thomas Staines, after visiting Pitcairn Island on September 17, 1814

*September the 17th, 1814. The whole number of souls on the island at this date, as appears by the records, were one hundred and six, men, women and children."

-Charles Lenox Sargent, The Life of Alexander Smith, 1819


In 1819 the New England sea captain Charles Lenox Sargent published his first and only novel, The Life of Alexander Smith, Captain of the Island of Pitcairn; one of the mutineers on board his Majesty's ship Bounty; commanded by Lieut. William B/igh. Written by SMITH Himself, on the above Island, and bringing the accounts from Pitcairn, down to the year 1815. Somehow, despite this catchy title, the novel has failed to capture the attention of historians and literary scholars. The title indicates the notorious events that Sargent hoped would draw publicity to the supposed autobiography, which purports to be the journal of a Bounty mutineer living on Pitcairn, stolen from the island by a Spanish seaman, then inherited by a sailor from Maine and finally purchased by Sargent. But though Sargent's account adds booklength detail to the fragments of letters, ship logs, and rumors that were circulating in the popular press, it failed to attract enough attention to merit a second printing-very likely because of Sargent's strange decision to contradict entirely the version of the tale familiar to the public. His contradictions of the accepted narrative, however, make the novel valuable to scholars of the early United States: they provide insight into early American thinking about population management and illuminate the parallels between American expansionism on the continent and imperialism abroad.1

Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on April 18, 1778, to Epes and Dorcas Sargent, Charles Lenox Sargent was related to the protofeminist author Judith Sargent Murray, the Federalist politician Winthrop Sargent, and the popular temperance writer Lucius Manlius Sargent, but he did not ascend to the same heights of fame as his relatives.2 He spent much of his life at sea: he was the first mate on the Eliza, a Boston merchant ship captained by James Odell that was seized by French privateers on February 13, 1798, and ransomed by its owner, Francis Amory.3 In 1817 he took out a patent for an improved way of making and laying cordage, recorded but did not publish some eyewitness accounts of the fabled Gloucester sea serpent, and published a short treatise about ship signaling techniques.4 He died in 1820, shortly after the publication of his only novel.

The Life of Alexander Smith's lack of sales can be explained somewhat straightforwardly. Alexander Smith had been referred to in most contemporary accounts by his real name, John Adams, rather than his pseudonym, Alexander Smith,5 so Sargent's audience may not have recognized his novel, listed only as The Life of Alexander Smith in some publication announcements,6 as a contributor to the Pitcairn archive. Furthermore, the only review of the novel I could locate made litde mention of Pitcairn or the Bounty, but instead emphasized the novel's first half, which fabricated Smith's pre-Bounty adventures.* * 7 Finally, since Sargent died shordy after the novel's publication, he would have been unable to promote the book personally, either by privately distributing copies or by enhancing his name recognition with further writings.

Though it is easy to understand how early Americans overlooked it, early Americanists' lack of interest in this fascinating novel, which the literary historian Thomas Philbrick calls "the most successful extended treatment of nautical subjects in American prose fiction before the appearance of [Cooper's] The Pilot," is somewhat more difficult to account for. …

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