Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Pocahontas, Little Wanton: Myth, Life, and Afterlife • Neil Rennie • London: Quaritch, 2007
Reviewed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University.
The book’s purpose is to tackle two jobs usually done by different scholars in separate venues: recounting what is reliably known about Pocahontas’s life (done by professors of history and/or anthropology) and describing how her life has been twisted, embellished, and frankly rewritten (done by professors of English). The book meets its goal, on the whole.
Chapter one, confusingly named “The Myth,” is a stage-setter. Starting with the pre-Jamestown romanticizing of the New World, Rennie tackles the question of how seriously we should take John Smith as an accurate reporter of Pocahontas’s life, or of his own life, for that matter. After comparing Smith’s 1608, 1612, and 1624 accounts of Jamestown’s early years and consulting other, contemporary reports, the predictable answer is “not very.” Smith increasingly embroidered his accounts, sometimes resorting to outright fabrications. He found more jobs for Pocahontas: she rescues other Englishmen as well as Smith, and she becomes an active negotiator of the 1614 peace. Smith himself battles greater odds and does it with more single-handed heroism. And in his later writings, Pocahontas is one of three high-born women who rescue him during captivity. In a chapter that otherwise treads a well-worn path, Rennie points out that such rescues of fighting heroes by foreign princesses had been a staple of medieval romance literature, therefore Smith was only continuing the tradition. Rennie makes another, more important point: Smith portrays himself as fighting not only the native people but also his fellow Englishmen. In this he becomes the prototype of the frontiersman in American literature.
Chapter two, "The Life," tells us how little was recorded about Pocahontas herself, for the lady was not a celebrity in her own lifetime. Rennie is simply a reporter here; there is little analysis of his own, even of the "rescue" incident. Rennie, a professor of English, seems least at ease in this chapter. And regrettably, like most professors of history, he is more sparing than he needs to be in using early seventeenth-century accounts of Powhatan customs to flesh out Pocahontas's role in her own society.
Chapter three, "The Afterlife," is almost purely descriptive and, of necessity, selective. For more than a century after John Smith’s death, practically no one took any notice of Pocahontas. Then, as the American colonists attempted to construct a unifying mythology in their separation from England, and later as nineteenth-century southern writers sought to promote Virginia’s earlier origin than New England’s, the tales about Pocahontas became ever more fanciful as the authors, poets, playwrights, and painters labored to serve the needs of their time. It has not stopped, either—witness the Disney cartoons. I can corroborate what many suspect: when Disney approached me in 1992 about consulting on the 1995 cartoon, they told me they had already decided that it would have an ecological message. The conservationist in me rejoiced; the scholar in me refused to sign on.
There were two things I missed in this short book. One was more references in the notes to modern analyses for those who want to read more. Nearly all the notes concern primary sources. The other thing was a final summing-up chapter, rather than the two-page epilogue that tell us about the futile hunt for the poor lady’s bones. Without such a chapter, the book feels somehow unfinished.