Gender & Sexuality in Early America

English341, Spring 1998

Professor Laura Arnold


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John Smith: American Heroes & the Romance of Colonization


1. By the time that Catalina de Erauso was writing her memoirs, the British had not only started to colonize the Americas, but also had started to worry about their literary production. Thus, in 1582 Richard Hakluyt began to compile and documents about the Americas and translate them into English. In a sense, Hakluyt's literary venture did with words what he hoped England would do with land: he "captured or stole" the reports and knowledge of the Portuguese, Spanish, and French so that the queen might support and encourage more forays into the "New World." Virginia--and Smith's recollections of it--were an important part of this process. Hakluyt claimed that Virginia was a "'great and ample country...the inland whereof is found of late to be so sweet and wholesome a climate, so rich and abundant in silver mines, so apt and capable of all commodities' that even the Spanish competitions, whose secret map Hakluyt claim[ed] to have just acquired, acknowledged therein that Virginia was 'a better a richer country than Mexico and Nueva Espana itself" (Jehlen 21). Undoubtedly his readers were gratified with this news that they were not to be outdone by their Catholic neighbors!


Increasingly language itself was seen as winning the race again Spain and as a way of controlling and domesticating unknown regions. It is worth pausing a moment to unpack the metaphor of domesticity. To domesticate literally means

(1) to adapt (an animal or plant) to life in an intimate association with or advantage of man

(2) to adopt

(3) to familiarize

Certainly, all three of these meanings were at work in promotional tracts describing the Americas. On another level, though, domestication was a way of creating a homespace--of making what was once "other" part of the family unit. One of the ways Smith familiarizes the land he describes is through naming it: just as Queen Elizabeth named the eastern seaboard of North American Virginia in her own honor, so does Smith plant his own body and the bodies of his rulers upon the landscape he maps. As you read Smith's account, I would like you to pay attention to the various ways he uses language to make Virginia a home for the British.


2. In the foreword to Catalina de Erauso's narrative, Marjorie Garber suggests that transvestite figures are often a sign of "category crisis." One of the categories in crisis in the New World was that of social class and what it meant to be civilized. As you read the selections from the Generall Historie and Leo Lemay's article, I would like you to think both how Smith is defining "masculinity" and to what extent this is related to either class or how civilized one is. For Europeans during the Renaissance, bodily deportment and demeanor were crucial to social status: one's academic and moral achievements were important; however, handbooks on what "made a gentlemen" also paid close attention to the "gentlemanly care and control of the body" (Bryson 136-37). Manners became crucial and grotesque behavior became as much a sign of a lack of worth as an "imperfect" body was. One Italian conduct book (known in translation to the British) argued that "'base people' were ' by nature uncivil, rude, untoward, discourteous, rough, savage, as it were barbarous'" (Bryson 151). As Anna Bryson points out, "A hint of this assumption is, in fact, given in the characterization of [Shakespeare's] Caliban, whose savagery is inscribed on his deformed body and is subjection to passion, as 'a savage and deformed slave,' the last word being a frequent derogatory term for a servant" (Bryson 151). Plebeians were often used as "anti-examples" in these advice manuals: wiping the nose on one's sleeve or displays of other bodily functions was a sign of "commonness" and a lack of civility (Bryson 151).


How does one who is "common" project himself as both civilized and authoritative? Like Cabeza de Vaca, Smith writes his narrative of his journey to America after the fact both to promote colonization and his reputation as an exemplary colonizer. Yet, unlike many of the Spanish explorers and Puritan settlers, Smith came from a working class background. His father was a yeoman farmer, and Smith got his education at a grammar school and as a soldier, rather than at Cambridge. Before he went to America, Smith had already established his reputation as a man of action in Turkey and Hungary. In 1605, Smith went to America with the Virginia Colony as one of the seven councilors. The Virginia Company was heavily influenced by Spain's profit centered mode of colonization, though agriculture not gold was to be the key to riches. Unfortunately, most of the settlers at Jamestown were from the upper classes and refused to do manual labor. When he became president of the colony in 1608, Smith emphasized survival and insisted that "he who does not work shall not eat." Just as the colony was being reorganized in 1609 so as to be more profitable, Smith was wounded by a gunpowder explosion, and he returned to England. He never returned to Virginia (Winans 184-86). How does Smith present himself as "civilized" in his history? You might want to pay particular attention to the preface and dedication as you address this issue.


3. FOR WEDNESDAY: I think that we are all somewhat familiar with Disney's version of the Pocahontas story. I would like you to read Smith's account in light both of the significance of Pocahontas in contemporary American culture and early American culture. For background on the construction of the Pocahontas myth, read for Peter Hulme's article "John Smith and Pocahontas" (On Reserve) and the "Recension" and excerpt on Pocahontas from Book Three of Smith's Generall Historie (in the course reader & Norton). Please bring one Pocahontas cultural artifact to class on Wednesday.



Bryson, Anna, "The Rhetoric of Status: Gesture, Demeanor and the Image of the Gentleman in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England," Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540-1660. London: Reaktion Books, 1990: 136-53.

Jehlen, Myra, "The Literature of Colonization," Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 1: 15690-1820, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994: 11-168.

Amy Winans, "John Smith 1580-1631," The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, ed. Paul Lauter. Lexington., MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1994: 184-86.