Pocahontas and the Romantic Tradition
In the woods of Powhattan,
Still ‘tis told by Indian fires,
How a daughter of their sires,
Saved the captive Englishman.
William Makepeace Thackeray, “Pocahontas”
When I think of Pocahontas, I am ready to love Indians.
Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man
Scholars agree that it is after the American Revolutionary War and, more prominently, at the beginning of the 19th century that the mythical dimension of the Pocahontas narrative evolved most powerfully (cf. Young, “Mother” 395; also cf. Tilton, Pocahontas). Thus, it is in the age of Indian removal - an official policy of deportation resulting in the death of thousands of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears - that Pocahontas becomes a full-fledged American icon and myth.
In order to mythologize Pocahontas in the context of profound anti-Native sentiments, a number of discursive strategies had to be employed: first of all, most texts and visual representations cast Pocahontas as the savior of John Smith rather than as the wife of John Rolfe; the second part of the narrative becomes lastingly marginalized in order to avoid the issue of miscegenation - by then an even stronger cultural taboo than in the 17th century. Second, Pocahontas figures somewhat nostalgically as a heroine of the past and of an innocent American beginning. The split between “the peace-loving and Christian Pocahontas” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 127) on the one hand and her allegedly treacherous, violent and uncompromising indigenous male counterparts on the other is continued and deepened. This profound feminization of the narrative avoided the contradictions between racial discourse and foundational mythmaking. Third, the Pocahontas narrative underwent a turn to sentimentalism that further diverts attention from the brutality of colonial politics and that champions her as a romantic symbol of voluntary cultural contact and self-chosen assimilation to the white culture.
It is in 19th-century plays, literature, poetry as well as visual culture that we find manifestations of the gendering of the Pocahontas myth that still echo in contemporary cultural productions. Pocahontas made her first American schoolbook appearance in the 1797 edition of Noah Webster’s An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, yet the first author whose claim to fame the Pocahontas story would become was John Davis, an Englishman who had come to the United States as a visitor at the beginning of the 19th century. Davis quickly realized the potential of this early American legend and first worked it anecdotally and in a somewhat garbled fashion into his Farmer of New Jersey (1800), where he made John Smith an ‘Indian trader’ and Pocahontas a ‘squaw’ who saves him. Three years later, in Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (1803) he expands the anecdote by drawing on Smith’s texts, local lore, and his own imagination to recount the Pocahontas story in a “thirty-seven page segment” (Jenkins, “Princess” 14). Although his book is, strictly speaking, a travel report, Davis presents us here with the first fictionalized treatment of the topic; akin to a short story, the narrative displays markers of fictionality rather than an investment in historicism (cf. ibid.). Davis expands on the Pocahontas story and is credited by many scholars with the fabrication of the love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, a young girl and an older man by 17th-century standards. The manner in which he processed the story can be sensed from the following excerpt, a scene that follows upon Pocahontas bringing food to Smith and the Jamestown settlers:
The acclamations of the crowd affected to tears the sensibility of Pocahontas; but her native modesty was abashed; and it was with delight that she obeyed the invitation of Captain Smith to wander with him, remote from vulgar curiosity, along the banks of the river. It was then she gave loose to all the tumultuous ectasy of love; hanging on his arm and weeping with an eloquence more powerful than words. (Travels 278)
While we may glimpse from this paragraph why Davis’s sentimentalist narrative never became canonical, we cannot overestimate the cultural work his texts performed in the context of an American foundational ideology: he “unearthed” the story of Pocahontas; he “popularized and perpetuated it; but most of all, he romanticized it and made historical fiction of it” (Jenkins, “Princess” 19). Davis further expanded the historical material by adding Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas and The First Settlers of Virginia, a Historical Novel (both 1805) to his oeuvre, paving the way for numerous “romantic reconstructions of the narrative in the nineteenth century” at a time “when Americans had begun to scan the colonial past in search of figures like Pocahontas and Smith who could be rewarded retroactively for their proto-nationalist sentiments” (Tilton, Pocahontas 33). Again, Commager’s phrase of the “search for a usable past” comes to mind. With his timely but now mostly forgotten writings Davis, who is generally considered “a prolific but minor English novelist-poet” (Jenkins, “Princess” 8), secured the enduring popularity of the Pocahontas story as a romance in the post-revolutionary period in the United States. However, Davis also contributed to a major shift in the reception of the story. Davis as well as the writers and poets who followed him focused mostly on the rescue scene, at times all but ignoring the story of her marriage and the fact that she had a mixed-race child with an English husband. As Jenkins puts it somewhat flippantly,
if Smith [...] made Pocahontas a sixteenth-century “cover girl for his come-hither pamphlets,” then Rolfe, perhaps, made her the first of those who might be labelled “American Mother of the Year,” and Davis, by his imaginative treatment of the love interests of the Indian princess, may have qualified her as the first American girl who was worthy of the title of “Miss America.” (ibid. 19)
Following Davis, other American authors would take up the figure of the Native American woman and use recognizable elements of the Pocahontas story in plots of cultural contact, captivity, and love, e.g. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, who in her novel Hope Leslie (1827) uses the character of the Native American woman Magawisca to demythologize the Pocahontas narrative, and James Fenimore Cooper, who in his lesser-known novel The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829) inverts the Pocahontas story by addressing the indigenization of a white captive raised by a Native tribe (cf. Opfermann, “Lydia Maria Child,” and Haselstein, Die Gabe).
Pocahontas is mentioned by American historians from William Stith (cf. History of the First Discovery) and Jeremy Belknap (cf. American Biography) to George Bancroft (cf. History of the Colonization); however, unlike Columbus, she did not have a biographer like Washington Irving to sing her praises. Instead, it is in the dramatic tradition - aside from Davis’s prose - that she is most profoundly commemorated. The so-called Indian plays of the 19th century popularized stories about Pocahontas and similar, fictive figures in a mode of retrospective nostalgia. The Indian hero or heroine is cast as a melancholic figure, doomed to disappear with the advance of ‘civilization;’ Pocahontas’s assimilation into white culture and the trope of the vanishing Indian thus were two dominant modes of representing this disappearance.
In 1808, one year after the bicentennial of the founding of Jamestown, the first play in English about Pocahontas was published: James Nelson Barker’s The Indian Princess, or, La Belle Sauvage. Barker presents the same version as Davis’s texts: one individual act of heroism - Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith - is dramatized as the key moment of American national prehistory (cf. Tilton, Pocahontas 48). The play mentions John Rolfe, yet leaves the marriage unconsummated, a standard feature of most of the 19th-century versions, which did not give a lot of attention to the fact that John Smith was not the only Englishman in Pocahontas’s life.
Throughout the 19th century, Pocahontas plays abounded: “Pocahontas plays, as well as Indian plays in general, became a fixture on the American stage during the first half of the nineteenth century” (Jaroff, “Opposing Forces” 485). Approximately forty plays were performed between 1825 and 1869 (cf. ibid.; Quinn, Exciting Adventures 275). Aside from Barker’s play, antebellum dramatist George Washington Custis’s Pocahontas, or the Settlers of Virginia (1830) is among the most important ones. Custis was a descendant of George Washington; his play fit well into the nationalistic and patriotic spirit of the time and presented one exceptionally popular “Indian drama” (Tilton, Pocahontas 72). And yet, the publication of the play in 1830 also coincided with the Indian Removal Act, which the US Congress passed in the same year. Overall, the seeming paradox between the policy of Indian removal and the popularity of the Indian plays is compelling. As the quotation from Herman Melville’s novel in the epigraph to this chapter illustrates, the idealization of Pocahontas as a foundational figure was in complete opposition to the demonization of Native Americans in 19th-century public discourse. We have already noted how ‘good,’ i.e. acceptable, and ‘bad,’ i.e. unacceptable attributes of the ‘other’ are distributed into complementary stereotypes, such as the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘ignoble savage’ (or ‘evil heathen’): on the one hand, the championing of Native Americans as a marker of difference had a central function in revolutionary discourses that tried to dissociate the US from England: “the figure of the Indian became a convenient base upon which to build a uniquely American character” (Jaroff, “Opposing Forces” 485). Thus, Pocahontas figures in a history and tradition in which white Americans used Native Americans as figures of empowerment: “Pocahontas’s consent gives the chosen people of white Americans a new fictional line of noble Indian ancestry” (Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity 79). Eventually, those white Americans would even dress up as ‘Indians’ in order to protest colonial rule (the transcultural phenomenon of ‘playing Indian’ has been extensively addressed by Philip Deloria; cf. his book of the same title). Yet, on the other hand, in internal negotiations of difference, the indigenous population is anything but representative of America. Carolyn Karcher comments on this paradox: “white Americans win their political freedom at the expense of the Indians they exterminate and [...] they achieve their cultural independence by expropriating the cultures of the peoples they have systematically debased, devalorized, and deprived of an independent identity” (Introduction xxxiii). In this discourse, Pocahontas appears prominently as “the selfless Indian princess” (Jaroff, “Opposing Forces” 486). Custis’s play and the Indian Removal Act thus present two different but related strategies of the same colonial and racist discourse of white hegemony - and “[t]he rarer actual American Indians became in the United States, [...] the more accessible their history became to appropriation by a national culture in search of legitimating traditions of identity” (Loeffelholz, “Miranda” 59).
In contrast to the conventional romanticization of Pocahontas in the popular Indian plays, some dramas avoided the by then predictable racial and gender stereotypes, of which I will briefly mention two. Charlotte Barnes’s The Forest Princess (1844) does not employ the standard repertoire of the Pocahontas narrative, nor does the author center her play on the rescue scene or on any romantic investments; rather, it “subverts popular Indian plays of the day supplying Pocahontas with a voice, granting her political status, and allowing her to reject colonial domination” (Jaroff, “Opposing Forces” 483). Its representational strategies contrast with Custis’s patriotic championing of the national agenda of Indian removal.
John Brougham’s 1855 parody Po-ca-hontas, or the Gentle Savage turns on the dramatic tradition of the Pocahontas play in order to make fun of it. His heroine is referred to as “Pokey,” and Brougham’s play closes with the marriage of Pocahontas and John Smith, leaving Rolfe to complain on the sidelines. Brougham - nicknamed “American Aristophanes” by his contemporaries (Hutton qtd. in Moody, Introduction 402) - ridicules the fashionable mythologizing of Pocahontas, and his play is “a wonderful parody of the archetypal Indian heroines of drama and romance, all of whom were ultimately based primarily on John Smith’s representations of the original Powhatan princess” (Tilton, Pocahontas 75). For decades, Brougham’s play was
the standard burlesque afterpiece in New York and in theatres across the country. It was also popular as a soldier show in Civil War army camps. In the almost thirty years of its stage life no theatrical season in any American city was complete without a few performances of “Pokey.” (Moody, Introduction 401; also cf. Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity)
Both Brougham and Barnes present exceptions to the rule: most of the 19th- century renderings of the Pocahontas narrative focused on its first part because it seemed less problematic and offensive and could be staged as an intercultural encounter based on notions of romantic love (cf. Tilton, Pocahontas). The rescue scene also made a much better “colonial beginning,” in the words of Peter Hulme (Colonial Encounters 141); obviously, the marriage to John Rolfe could not be cast as the happy ending to her aborted relationship with John Smith, if the latter was to be seen as ‘the romance of the republic:’ a fateful, larger-than- life intercultural infatuation.
Illustration 2: Portrait of Pocahontas
Simon van de Passe, Engraving (1616).
In visual culture the rescue scene also figures prominently: “Smith’s rescue by a scantily clad Pocahontas became a favourite topic for a number of popular prints that flooded the market from the 1830s well into the 1870s” (Uhry Abrams qtd. in Tilton, Pocahontas 94). It is the most canonical element of the Pocahontas story throughout the 19th century and beyond, and is to this day used in American schoolbooks to teach an ideologically fraught, orthodox version of American beginnings. In the 19th century many painters tried to visualize this crucial moment in early American history - a moment without which, it was assumed, there would not have been any American history to begin with. These visual representations of Pocahontas range from exoticist/primitivist to classicist, either depicting her as a nude female Native or as a (to all appearances) white young woman. Let me briefly discuss the most prominent examples in American art, portraiture, and painting. The most famous portrait of Pocahontas is probably the 1616 “Matoaka, alias Rebecca” copperplate by Simon van de Passe, which depicts her as an English lady - ‘Lady Rebecca’ is the name given to her by the English in reference to the biblical Rebecca, whom Abraham arranged to be brought to Canaan from his birthplace as a wife for his son Isaac. This portrait is heavily stylized - there is no trace of the Native woman, not even in her features - and follows contemporary conventions of court portraiture in order to affirm the new Christian identity of Powhatan’s daughter as well as her noble background.
In the United States, the memorial culture centering on Pocahontas in the 19th century produced several works of art that particularly in terms of their location are highly important. One of them would be the 1825 relief by Antonio Capel- lano which is located over the west door of the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.: “Its inclusion in the Capitol at this early date makes clear that the rescue of Smith by Pocahontas had long been perceived as a crucial generative moment in the history of the United States” (Tilton, Pocahontas 95). In 1825, Americans had already adopted Pocahontas as a figure of national consensus.
Illustration 3: Pocahontas Becomes a Christian
John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas (1839).
One of the most famous images produced in the 19th century, however, one which also inscribes Pocahontas into American cultural memory and whose importance cannot be stressed enough, is the painting of Pocahontas’s baptism by John G. Chapman (1839), which is exhibited in the rotunda of the US Capitol, at the ‘heart of the nation.’ This painting is remarkable in many ways. First of all, for its topic: it is not the famous rescue scene with John Smith, nor her marriage to John Rolfe, nor Pocahontas and her son, the offspring of this remarkable intercultural union, that we find depicted here; rather the painting shows Pocahontas’s baptism, “shrewdly choosing the moment when European ritual symbolized her rejection of her own culture and her incorporation into the ranks of the saved” (Hulme, Colonial Encounters 170).
As part of a “Jamestown series” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 121), Chapman had commemorated earlier scenes such as The First Ship, The Landing at Jamestown, The Crowning of Powhatan, The Warning of Pocahontas and, of course, also an image of the rescue scene, titled Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith. For his work commissioned by the United States Congress, however, he depicts a different scene: the baptism of Pocahontas. Historicist in the classical sense, Chapman avoids showing Pocahontas’s entire face; rather we see her profile. Tilton suggests that Chapman subordinates Pocahontas to the event that is portrayed, the baptism, and that this kind of depiction later became conventional also for representations of the rescue scene which no longer featured her as the prime actor (cf. Pocahontas 112). From what we do see of her, we can ascertain that “Pocahontas is lighter in skin tone than the other Indians in the painting. [...] This conventional depiction allows Chapman to suggest that a blanching of any distinctively Indian racial features has occurred through this Christianization process” (ibid. 113). Her pose is reminiscent of the kneeling Virgin Mary found in nativity scenes (cf. ibid. 114). Also, she has her back turned to the other Natives, who are traditionally clad; her white gown, by contrast, symbolizes virginity, innocence, and rebirth. The English officials, Thomas Dale and John Rolfe, frame Pocahontas and Reverend Alexander Whitaker. The lighting guides our gaze to the central hierarchy between the kneeling Pocahontas and the upright representative of the English clergy. The scene, faithful to historical fact, does not include John Smith; it does include, however, various other historical figures of the colony’s early history. Pocahontas to this day is the only female foundational figure or ‘founding mother,’ as she is sometimes referred to, enshrined in the rotunda of the US Capitol among an otherwise allmale series of prominent figures.
The choice of Pocahontas’s baptism was not unequivocally accepted by all of Chapman’s contemporaries. Critics such as William Gilmore Simms saw the baptism not as a “foundational scene” related to the founding of the United States (cf. “Pocahontas”). Simms, among others, chided Chapman for not representing the rescue scene. “By placing Pocahontas in the role of the recipient, Chapman reminds his audience that she was, ironically, a heathen at the moment of her most Christian act (the rescue) and puts forward the idea that her baptism can be seen as a type of reward for, or a tangible acknowledgment of, her well- known heroism” (Tilton, Pocahontas 126). The baptism also puts her in a passive role, while she is seen as active in the rescue scene.
John Rolfe had stressed in a letter to Thomas Dale that he wanted to convert and marry Pocahontas not “with the unbridled desire of carnall affection but for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God” (Letter 240). The baptism scene most crucially displays the ideological twist and the central paradox in the making of the Pocahontas myth. Whereas she is seen as the Native ‘other,’ her baptism constitutes - in the way Chapman portrays it, at any rate - a forceful ritual of de-indigenization. The narrative of her baptism, i.e. the narrative of her conversion, creates a new perspective on her experience of captivity as a kind of liberation/emancipation and return:
Pocahontas was removed, literally and spiritually, from her birth parents and was “returned” to her true father, Christ. [...] Pocahontas’s removal from her blood family which began with her capture by Captain Argall was maintained voluntarily because she had been educated by her God-parents to make the correct choice. (Fudge, “Pocahontas’s Baptism” 24)
This was the reasoning of John Smith and others. The version of “conversion as return” appeared to be in accordance with the logic of the Reformed faith adhered to, among others, by Alexander Whitaker himself. With this rendering of events, Chapman and others have lastingly eclipsed Pocahontas’s narrative of captivity in favor of one of conversion.
The painting is a milestone in the making of the Pocahontas myth, but it also points to some ambiguities in the making of the myth in the first half of the 19th century. Uhry Abrams, for instance, suggests that Chapman “seems to have been affected by the Trail of Tears, which had occurred two years before he installed his mural in the Capitol. The reality of that tragic march may explain why he featured the Indians more prominently in the final version of the painting than in the preliminary sketch” (Pilgrims 124), which gave them only a marginal presence. Overall, Chapman’s painting relied on or took up tendencies of commemorating Pocahontas in the realm of narrative fiction, drama, and poetry. Following Chapman’s painting of 1840, William McCarthy’s 1842 edition of patriotic American songs includes three songs on Pocahontas (282-3, 287-8, 370-1), thus affirming her presence in yet another popular American medium.