Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who was Pocahontas?

A self-guided lesson in the myth-making of America's first heroine

Watch my first Google Hangout for an introduction to this lesson:

Inspired by the new textbook, Conversations in American Literature, published by Bedford St. Martin's in 2015, I ask this question:

Why does this mythical woman still "grip the American imagination" (305)?

Below I have curated a multistep self-guided lesson including films, images, essays, primary sources, and two poems.

Be sure to:
1. Post your list of 10 questions and
2. 10 observations of the images
3. plus initial notes and thoughts towards a final essay.

STEP 1: Journal: Prewriting exercise
What do you already know about Pocahontas? 

Have you seen the 1995 Disney film (or the 1998 sequel)?

Pocahontas Trailer on Disney Video

STEP 2: Research and inquiry: 
Consider the sources below as well as ones you discover in your own reading and Google research.

Be sure to site your sources (links) as you post to your own blog.

The objective: 
While answering the primary question, "Who was Pocahontas?"
Create a list of at least 10 additional questions 
that arise in your exploration.

  1. Post these questions to your blog post. 
  2. Begin to make your case through your questions.
  3. Be specific in questioning the texts - use quotes within your question.

The goal: 
Read, explore, and learn to ask specific questions of the text.

For example:
In his chapter "Living with Europeans," Richter quotes John Smith (supposedly) directly quoting Pocahontas, and argues "at least three powerful messages emerge": what are these three messages and how are they significant? 
STEP 3. Looking Closely, Thinking Critically

Click: Timeline for Pocahontas. 
How does the myth (and image) of Pocahontas evolve? Why? 

Examine the following 5 images: 
Compare and contrast the images.
Create a list of 10 observations for class discussion.
Post this list to your blog.

Feel free to read the linked essays.

Image 1:

Simon van de Passe's "Matoaka als Rebecca" (1616)

Essay: "The Assimilated Pocahontas: Simon van de Passe's 'Matoaka als Rebecca'"
Edward J. Gallagher, Dept. of English, Lehigh University

Image 2: 

 How is this painting significant?
John Gadsby Chapman (1839)
Click: Baptism of Pocahontas

Image 3:

An 1850s painting:
John Ralfe Marries Pocahontas, 1613

Image 4:
Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith (1870).
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Image 5:

Howard Chandler Christy's (1911) Pocahontas

Maryann Pasda DiEdwardo, Dept. of English, Lehigh University

STEP 4. Critical reading:
Consider the three unique narratives as told by Captain John Smith - note the year.
How does Smith's story of Pocahontas change? 
Why? Consider the audience.
  1. Captain John Smith, Letter to Queen Anne of Great Britain (1616)
  2. Captain John Smith,  "Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608" (1624)
  3. Captain John Smith, "Fate of Pocahontas" (1616) (in her own words... if we believe Smith). Focus on the passage of three paragraphs that begins: "Being about this time..." and ends "and know the truth, because your countrymen will lie much"(20-21).

Above from Ebook Colonial Prose and Poetry

STEP 5. Pocahontas in Poetry
Consider the poetic devices at play;
Note the tone, figurative language, juxtaposition, and irony.

What questions arise? Again, who is Pocahontas? 

  1. Read the poem to yourself once.
  2. Then listen to my recording - see video of Google Hangout:
    • I read the first poem at minute 4:10.
    • I read the second poem at minute 5:20.
  3. Reread the poem aloud to yourself.

by George P. Morris (1840)
A ballad put to music by Henry Russell

Upon the barren sand

A single captive stood;
Around him came, with bow and brand,
The red-men of the wood.
Like him of old, his doom he hears,
Rock-bound on ocean's rim:
The chieftain's daughter knelt in tears,
And breathed a prayer for him.

Above his head in air
The savage war-club swung:
The frantic girl, in wild despair,
Her arms about him flung.
Then shook the warriors of the shade,
Like leaves on aspen limb--
Subdued by that heroic maid
Who breathed a prayer for him.

'Unbind him!' gasped the chief--
'Obey your king's decree!'
He kissed away her tears of grief,
And set the captive free.
'Tis ever thus, when, in life's storm,
Hope's star to man grows dim,
An angel kneels in woman's form,
And breathes a prayer for him.

by Paula Gunn Allen (1988)

Had I not cradled you in my arms,
Oh beloved perfidious one,
you would have died.
And how many times did I pluck you
from certain death in the wilderness-
my world through which you stumbled
as though blind?
Had I not set you tasks,
Your masters far across the sea
Would have abandoned you-
did abandon you, as many times
they left you
to reap the harvest of their lies.
Still you survived, oh my fair husband,
and brought them gold
wrung from a harvest I taught you
to plant. Tobacco.
It is not without irony that by this crop
your descendants die, for other
powers than you know
take part in this as in all things.
And indeed I did rescue you
not once but a thousand times
and in my arms you slept, a foolish child,
and under my protecting gaze you played,
chattering nonsense about a god
you had not wit to name. I'm sure
you wondered at my silence, saying I was
a simple wanton, a savage maid,
dusky daughter of heathen sires
who cartwheeled naked through the muddy towns
learning the ways of grace only
by your firm guidance, thought
your husbandly rule:
no doubt, no doubt.
I spoke little, you said.
And you listened less,
but played with your gaudy dreams
and sent ponderous missives to the throne
striving thereby to curry favor
with your king.
I saw you well. I
understood your ploys and still
protected you, going so far as to die
in your keeping-a wasting
putrefying Christian death - and you,
deceiver, whiteman, father of my son,
survived, reaping wealth greater
than any you had ever dreamed
from what I taught you and
from the wasting of my bones.


1. Paula Gunn Allen on C-SPAN talking about her book:

"Context is everything... whose story is this?" 
                         - Professor, writer, poet Paula Gunn Allen on C-SPAN 
2. You may want to watch the trailer for Terrence Malick's 
The New World (PG-13), starring Colin Farrell.

NOTE regarding Wikipedia:
After reading the essays above, you may compare and contrast your research with the Pocahontas Wikipedia entry, but be sure to read other sources first. You should discover discrepancies (and shortcomings) if you read the Wikipedia entry last.
Also you may want to explore the works sited links from that entry.

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