Why I Read It: Reviewed it for Sea History magazine for the National Maritime Historical Society.
Summary: A scrutinizing look at what John Smith, adventurer, said about his journey to New England in 1614, and not what critics have said since.
My Thoughts: John Smith certainly left a paper trail, but unfortunately, most of it was written with audiences in mind. His journals were meant for public consumption, for future funders to consider backing one of his excursions or his proposed settlements; for future adventurers to think about joining him in the New World; and for other men of what he believed to be his class to sweat when mulling their comparison to his manliness. He wrote with technical skill where needed, he grovelled before kings and princes when necessary, and, most of all he boasted.
Not every boast was self-directed. Smith boasted widely about the lands and waters of New England, beckoning others to come across the Atlantic and see for themselves the potential for fortunes to be made in fishing, whaling and mining. It must have been hard to sit by in England and not make at least one journey to the New World, for the adventurous spirited. I know that given the right circumstances, I might have been swayed.
Consider it! An entire continent of open space. We today try to find nooks and crannies of nature on which to walk for a half an hour (ask me about my books on the topic), and so it was in early seventeenth century London. There may have not been an environmentalist ethos in those days, but there was overcrowding. And plague. And pestilence. And lack of opportunity.
So, when we read his work, says author Russell Lawson, we should read his words only and take them for what they are. Critics have had 400 unfettered years to jab at him, and have piled on each others' words. Give John Smith a chance to speak for himself.
That said, try to think about a few things. He campaigned for the job that went to Myles Standish, to be the military escort of the Pilgrims in 1620. How different a world would that have been? Would relations with the Native American have been different at the start, with Smith already having years of good rapport? Consider the depths to which he had explored the New England region. If he had been on the journey to Boston Harbor in 1621, he would have been going back to Boston Harbor. But the Pilgrims turned him down for a military man who came with less personal fanfare.
Then again, there is the skirmish with the natives at what became the town of Cohasset, north of Plymouth. Lawson reports on the confrontation and says that there were no casualties; locals have always believed that Smith's men killed one of the Natives attacking them on the way out of the harbor. As Lawson states, Smith was a violent man in a violent age.
Lawson's book reopens the story of John Smith in New England by starting us back at page 1. We see the rocky coast of Maine through only Smith's eyes, and live only in his world. We are not jaded by what naysayers, both contemporary and modern, have had to say. It's a refreshing way to look at an four century old tale.