John Smith, First American?


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 2: John Smith, Explorer
Aug. 19-23, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of John Smith.
  • Describe the genre of nonfiction narrative.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Smith’s narratives.
  • Begin drafting your author project.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “John Smith” (103-105), excerpts from The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (105-114), and excerpt from A Description of New England (114-117)


Write a draft of the sidebar for your author project, along with an outline of your essay for this project.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Workshop: On Monday, bring your sources, your notes, and a diskette to Dial 149, where we will work on your author projects.

Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), characterize John Smith.  Consider questions such as these: What matters to him?  What does he represent?  What do you like about him?  What do you dislike about him?

Presentation: John Smith, First American? (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Work: What does Smith say about work?  Why is this theme especially relevant to the early English settlers of America?

Purpose: What seems to be Smith's purpose in writing? How does he seek to achieve his objective? Would you accept his invitation? Why or why not?

Canon: Other Jamestown settlers, including Edward Wingfield, wrote accounts of their experience in Virginia. Why do you suppose Smith's narratives have become the most famous and are the only ones still widely read as "literature"?

Style: Characterize Smith's style of narration. Would you call him objective, subjective, passionate, deadpan, ironic, humorous, serious? Cite examples to support your assessment.

Tall Tale: A popular form of narrative in 19th-century America was the "tall tale," an action-packed story set in the wild and filled with exaggeration, humor, and the boasts of a colorful protagonist. In what ways does Smith's account resemble a tall tale?

Self-creation: At least one literary scholar has pointed out that self-creation is a common theme in American literature. Indeed, the individual's ability to mold his or her self fascinated Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and many other American writers. In what ways is Captain John Smith a self-creator?

Truth: One of the most famous stories in American history is that of Pocahontas's rescue of Smith. Some later readers have questioned the truthfulness of this account, however. It has been noted, for example, that Smith did not even mention the incident in his first narrative, and the writer James Branch Cabell has suggested that Smith borrowed the story from a book the English writer Richard Hakluyt published in 1609 or from any one of many similar stories that are found around the world. Citing details from Smith's writing or his life, argue that the story is totally true, partially true, or totally false.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Is John Smith a “typical American”? Defend your response by referring to both Smith’s work and your own ideas about the American character.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • John Smith
  • Pocahontas
  • genre
  • narrative
  • nonfiction narrative
  • tall tale
  • protagonist
  • antagonist


Make sure you are familiar with the following key date in early American history:


1607: English settle Jamestown, Virginia


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


All American: John Smith features a biographical sketch of Smith, commentary on his literature, and a chronology of his life, along with lists of his major works, family members, homes, and occupations. 

The Dictionary of Literary Biography, a multivolume subject encyclopedia, contains an entry on John Smith. 

Be Your Best: Drafting discusses argument and offers tips on writing a draft.

Updated August 23, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Now that we have briefly surveyed the landscape ahead of us, we are ready to begin our road trip through American literature with a visit to Jamestown, Virginia, and explorer John Smith.  We will look closely at a couple of Smith’s works, discuss the genre of nonfiction narrative, and consider the ways in which Smith may have helped to establish certain aspects of the American character, for better or worse.  Before we get to any of this material, however, we will begin the week with a class devoted to your author projects.  Between now and Monday, you should do some preliminary research on your author.  That is, photocopy, check out, or order sources and begin taking notes on them.  Complete your sidebar and begin outlining your essay.  On Monday, bring some of your sources and your notes, along with a diskette, to Dial 149, where I will help you begin drafting your essay.



Benjamin Franklin once noted that the business of making a nation restricted literary activity in Colonial America.  Franklin seemed to think that people needed a stable government and economy before they could make great advances in cultural pursuits such as literature, music, and painting.  Indeed, between the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and the treaty ending the American Revolution in 1783, Americans did lag behind their English contemporaries in the production of epic poetry, drama, and fiction. Still, Colonial America did produce an impressive body of literature, much of it in the form of nonfiction prose, such as autobiography and sermon.  Some central themes emerge from this literature. Because of the nature of their endeavor, for example, Captain John Smith and other chroniclers of settlement in the 17th century often addressed the subjects of will and work, the relationship between humans and nature, and the differences between European and Native American cultures.

John Smith, 1580-1631

John Smith, an English soldier and explorer, is famous for his role in the founding and settling of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. Along with 100 or so other men hired by the Virginia Company, a corporation of English investors who hoped to profit from industries set up in America, Smith arrived at the mouth of the James River in 1607. Here the settlers built a fort and attempted to survive amidst numerous challenges.  When food shortages, heat, poor leadership, and inadequate preparation threatened to destroy the settlement, Smith came to the rescue by delegating responsibility and motivating his fellow settlers to work. His relationship with Pocahontas, the adolescent daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan, has been celebrated in his own work, later books and plays, and the recent Disney movie Pocahontas. Pocahontas married John Rolfe, however, not Smith, and Smith's accounts leave no reason to think that their relationship was romantic. After being injured in an explosion, Smith left Jamestown in 1609, but later explored New England, whose name he coined.

Smith wrote many accounts of his experience in Virginia and New England, including The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. In these works, especially in his account of fighting off 200 Native Americans while using one as a shield, Smith provided early examples of the tall tale. Furthermore, his discussions of leadership and survival in the Virginia wilderness make him one of the first American writers to explore the themes of self-creation, practicality, industry, self-reliance, and cultural contact. In many ways, he is a precursor to Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain.


In this lesson, we began our road trip through American literature by exploring the world and work of John Smith.  For our next two lessons, we will travel several hundred miles north to visit some of the early Puritan writers, particularly Anne Bradstreet and Mary Rowlandson.  Keep Smith in mind when we read the works of these writers and consider the ways in which Bradstreet’s poetry and Rowlandson’s narrative resembles Smith’s narrative or differs from it.