Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Mystery of John Smith

As the author of The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, published in 1624, Smith has to rank high as “great” on all historians’ lists, not just Virginia’s. Without Smith, the explorer, ethnographer, geographer, and adventurer who lived through much of what he wrote, we would know precious little about England’s earliest colonies in the New World.
         John Smith was no mere chronicler; he used the English language with clarity, wit, and grace. He chose his words with uncanny talent--for one who was a yeoman farmer’s son from Lincolnshire with little formal schooling. “Though I be no scholar,” he wrote, “I am past a schoolboy.”  Indeed he was. Long past.
         Without his writings, Smith would still rank among the greatest as well as the most influential seventeenth-century Virginians for his gritty courage and leadership as president of the Virginia colony in 1608-9. Without him, the little outpost called Jamestown might have withered and died, as came near doing after he left.
         Despite the many books about John Smith, and his own accounts of his adventures, there are still blank spots in the story of his life.
         He left Jamestown in 1609, after he was critically wounded by the exploding bag of gunpowder. What did he do in England? His biographers can only speculate:
         William Gilmore Simms, the 19th-century historian and novelist, wrote a biography of Smith in 1846. Not much read these days, it is still worth the effort. Simms says Smith was probably a long time recovering from his wound.  “. . . his cure was probably a tedious one.” But Simms says that we know little about this period in Smith’s life, of the “comparative repose” and “expenses attending his cure. On this subject we are left wholly to conjecture.”
         To be continued.


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