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Secret Histories: The Jamestown Colony in Postmodern Fiction

By posted at 7:21 pm on March 29, 2007 0

coverIn this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a bemused consideration (not available online) of the Library of America’s new edition of John Smith’s works. Collected fact, or collected fiction? she asks. In True Travels alone,

Smith [claims] to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses – and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States.

Putting aside, for the time being, questions of veracity (not to mention morality – “outwitted heathens?”), the quadricentennial seems like a good time to touch upon the wonderful (and growing) body of fiction inspired by Captain Smith’s exploits.

coverJohn Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is surely a leading exemplar of the subgenre – as well as being one of the finest novels of the 1960s. Into the hilarious and strangely affecting story of one Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Barth drops passages from Smith’s “secret [read: invented] histories.” Smith emerges as a liar and braggart of the first rank. But Cooke’s intrepid tutor Henry Burlingame, undaunted, seems to model himself on the Captain. In the course of the novel, he “hunts treasure [and] wooes princesses,” while bewildered Ebenezer blunders along in his wake. If you want a black comedy of high adventure (or if you want to see where Pynchon got the language for Mason & Dixon) look no further.

coverIn the 1990s, William T. Vollmann revisited the Jamestown story with Argall. Here, we get Barth’s pastiche of colonial Queen’s English filtered through Vollmann’s distinctive authorial temperament. Like Barth, Vollmann is fascinated by the violence of the early English colonists and the slaughter endured by the American Indians (a fascination he indulges throughout his unfinished Seven Dreams series). Unlike his metafictionist predecessor, however, Vollmann blurs the lines between fiction and journalism, between fact and legend… Sound familiar?

We’ll pass over Disney’s Pocahontas (IMDb) in silence, but Terence Malick’s astonishing movie The New World (IMDb) certainly merits inclusion in the Jamestown canon. Malick takes a characteristically earnest approach to his subject. Even as his colonists descend into evil, Malick unabashedly evokes the romantic pull of the virgin land. He portrays the Powhatan tribe as innocents, much as the settlers did – but without the condescension that enabled so much slaughter. This movie is resolutely un-PC, and for that reason its condemnation of European conquest breaks through the familiar litany of post-colonial pieties. It is devastating, as any account of the origins of the U.S.A. should be.

coverNow Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father, has come along to toss his buckler into the ring. His new novel, published by Soft Skull, is called, simply Jamestown. I have not read it, but I can say that I like Sharpe’s writing a lot. Here he reimagines the Jamestown colony as a postmodern battleground, pitting settlers who travel by bus against indigenous people unskilled in the use of sunscreen. This appears to be an “ahistorical fantasia,” along the lines of Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! or Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! It’s notable that younger American writers are fleeing the good government of the historical novel in an era that has itself started to seem dystopic…that has, as Frederic Jameson puts it, forgotten how “to think the present historically.” But Sharpe’s choice of setting seems propitious. For as the Vollmann and Barth books show, there’s nothing novel about these wild new novels. They’re part of a grand tradition of American craziness that, Jill Lepore points out, stretches back to John Smith himself – “Who told his glorious deeds to many, / But never was believ’d of any.”

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