In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Smith

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Databases
  • Smith and Other Jamestown Narratives
  • Drama
  • Poetry
  • Film

American Literature John Smith
William Boelhower
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0065


Captain John Smith (b. 1580–d. 1631) won honors and experience as a volunteer soldier on the continent before joining the first group of Virginia colonists who founded James Fort in 1607. If this colony survived to become England’s first permanent settlement in the Americas, it was largely due to the initiative, cunning, and military discipline of Smith, who became president of the colony, its major author, and a legendary figure of early modern letters. Although his achievements as “cape merchant” (trader) at James Fort and diplomatic liaison between Powhatan and the colony are universally acknowledged, his self-fashioned and contested reputation is due in large part to his own writings and rewritings, beginning with the autobiographical letter A True Relation (1608), written in Jamestown, and followed by later works such as Map of Virginia (1612), New England’s Trials (1620), the ambitious magnum opus The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), and the comprehensive autobiographical True Travels published a year before his death in 1631. Smith filled many roles and played many parts in his enterprising lifetime: soldier of fortune, slave, world traveler, sailor, adventurer, president of the Jamestown colony, diplomat to the Algonquian tribes in Tidewater Virginia, historian, geographer/cartographer, ethnographer, linguist, promoter of colonization to New England, compiler, and autobiographer. Such a rich and complex life has led scholars and critics to portray him in contradictory ways: epic hero versus romantic failure, exemplary Elizabethan versus prototypical American, or soldier and man of action versus thinker and fabulator.

General Overviews

Smith is a complex and contested figure, and his deeds and writings have stimulated a steady flow of commentary from historians, literary critics, cultural studies scholars, filmmakers, poets, and novelists. His observations concerning the Chesapeake Tidewater Indians are unanimously considered invaluable, and his maps of Virginia and New England are crucial documents for historians, ethnographers, archaeologists, and geographers. In addition, he has been used as a political football by Northern historians (Brown 1890) to denigrate a set of values that Southern historians and writers attributed to him as a cultural exemplar. The contributions in this section appropriately suggest the comprehensive range of commentary that Smith has generated in multiple disciplinary areas. Kupperman 2000 discusses such topics as Indian politics, religion, village life, gender roles, clothing, nudity, body marks, hair dressing, cooperative agriculture, housing, and food preparation. Whereas Morse 1935 (cited under Reference Works and Bibliographies) covers the salient moments of Smith’s career, Striker and Smith 1962 provides important new research on Smith’s early experiences as a soldier in southeastern Europe.

  • Brown, Alexander, ed. The Genesis of the United States. 2 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.

    In his important documentary anthology, Brown considers Smith’s writings—especially Generall Historie and True Travels—unreliable, fallacious, and self-indulgent. He singles out the Pocahontas episode and Smith’s adventures in Hungary and Turkey, respectively. A totally negative appreciation. See, in particular, Volume 2, pp. 784–778 and pp. 1006–1010.

  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

    Relying on early firsthand reports from the Virginia and New England colonists and John White’s Virginia drawings, the author reviews and compares English perceptions of Native American life and beliefs. Smith scholars are given a chance to appreciate the similarities and differences of perception among a number of eyewitness texts. This is ethno-history at its best.

  • Striker, Laura Polanyi, and Bradford Smith. “The Rehabilitation of Captain John Smith.” Journal of Southern History 28.4 (November 1962): 474–481.

    DOI: 10.2307/2205411

    After the Civil War, among a number of Northern historians (for example, Henry Adams and John Gorham Palfrey) Smith became a symbol of the Southern code of honor and was used as a conduit to attack the South itself. The authors review Smith’s soldiering experiences in southeastern Europe, pointing out that the primary sources in England and Hungary confirm his account.

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