Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Richard Beale Davis
Nathalia Wright, Kenneth Curry, Ralph Haskins, Milton Klein
The story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, dating from the early days of the first permanent English settlement in America, is the first American romance. As such, over the centuries it has maintained a prominent place in the American popular tradition and has been recorded repeatedly by historians and creative writers. The aim of this study is to trace and explain the development and utilization of the Pocahontas theme in American literature during a period of three centuries which begins with the rescue--real or purported--of Captain Smith by Pocahontas that occurred in late 1607 or early 1608 and ends with a great number of works treating the story which were inspired by the Jamestown Tricentennial Exposition that began in 1907 and continued well into the following year.
After a short introductory chapter which is devoted to that which one can determine about the history of both John Smith and Pocahontas prior to their first meeting, the focus of the second chapter of this study will be on the Smith accounts of the Pocahontas episodes. It is in these writings of Smith and, to a lesser degree, in those of his contemporaries that the very bases of all ensuing literary treatments of the Pocahontas story--both factual and fictional--are established. With this fact in mind, these early presentations of the Pocahontas episodes are examined in considerable detail.
In Chapter III, the handling of the Pocahontas story by later writers of non-fictional prose are examined. In each case the author's fidelity, or lack of it, to Smith's accounts is noted and any apparent reasons for deviations from that material are analyzed.
Chapter IV considers treatments of the Pocahontas theme which were fashioned by American prose-fiction writers during the period under consideration. Here it is shown that the philosophy of primitivism and the concept of the noble savage played a consistently important role in works of this variety even after these concepts had lost some of their vogue in other literary genres.
Concerned with drama, the fifth chapter shows that this literary type might well serve as a kind of summary of the vicissitudes of Pocahontas's varied career as a subject in American literature. In turn we find her treated in serious drama, melodramaticized, burlesqued, and made the heroine of highly romantic comedies and other light dramatic forms.
The sixth chapter of the study is devoted to a discussion of the numerous verse treatments of episodes from the life of the Indian princess which appeared during the period under consideration. It is shown that, even though they are far more numerous than their counterparts in the novel and the drama, these poetic efforts are certainly of no more intrinsic literary merit. This is true because on the whole, they are hastily done, occasional pieces--the product of versifiers whom the more caustic critics might categorize as "second rate" and whom the more kindly ones might refer to as "minor poets."
From the time that Captain Smith introduced it to the printed page, the Pocahontas story has enjoyed an almost universal appeal. Part of this may derive from the fact that it represents the retelling of a tale that is to be found in the folk tradition of almost every culture, but much of the story's popularity probably arises from its Americanness. Here one finds a heroine who symbolically embodies all of the best qualities of the Aboriginal American--qualities of the "noble savage" which become all the more impressive when presented, as they are, in vivid contrast to the "bad Indian" that is her destroyer father. Also, the story becomes even more American when one remembers that this Indian girl really is the physical ancestress of one of the nation's most prominent families, the proud and prolific Randolphs of Virginia. Finally, in the hands of later writers Pocahontas becomes more than a symbol of the noble savage when, as a sort of "American Earth Mother," she embodies the new race which has sprung into being in the New World and ultimately is elevated to the level of myth in a symbolic affirmation of the hopes and aspirations that make up the American Dream. The vast potential of this theme for artistic development is demonstrated by the almost uninterrupted stream of factual treatments which the Pocahontas story has enjoyed in the hands of American authors who followed Smith. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, controversy has raged over Smith's veracity. But be it truth or be it fiction, the Pocahontas story remains as America's oldest matter of national and cultural romance. As such it has become a basic part of Americana that has made its presence felt whenever a writer has written of early Virginia for readers who possess a taste for a "pretty, romantic story."
Jenkins, William Warren, "Three Centuries in the Development of the Pocahontas Story in American Literature: 1608-1908. " PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 1977.