Thanksgiving, a holiday that ought to start us thinking about the early history of our country, is upon us this week, and to put us in the holiday spirit, or at least my quirky version of it, I'd like to remember Captain John Smith, or at least a passage in one of his books, for Smith is sometimes called "the first American hero," though A. L. Rowse has observed that he earned this status not simple for his deeds but for his ability to "write himself up. This," Rowse continues, "he did to great effect; no one can say that he did not impose upon posterity. An acutely personal writer, he is a much better known figure than many who were far more important in his day and accomplished more; he provides us with an outstanding example that the pen can be mightier than the sword." Rowse's comment, oddly, prefaces not a book Smith wrote in its entirety but appears in a booklet accompanying a facsimile edition of Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), which is mostly a compilation of others' writings about the Americas, along with accounts of Smith's adventures in Virginia and New England.

 

The Generall Historie, nonetheless, is an important document, in part, because of Smith's imposition of himself upon the material. Without Smith, it would just be another anthology, easily forgotten as researchers pursued their interests using the books from which Smith draws his material. Still, I find Smith's recounting of his own adventures, especially those involving Pocahontas, of lesser interest--perhaps because Disney took the Pocahontas story and made it its own--than a brief comment that John Brierton makes at the close of his account of the Elizabeth Isle:

 

"The wholesomenesse and temperature of this climate," Brierton writes, "doth not onely argue the people to be answerable to this description, but also of a perfect constitution of body, active, strong, healthfull, and very witty, as the sundry toyes by them so cunningly wrought may well testifie. For our selves, we found our selves rather increase in health and strength then otherwise; for all our toyle, bad dyet and lodging; yet not one of us was touched with sicknesse."

 

Here we have articulated one of the methods used by adventurers of the period to enjoin their contemporaries to take part in colonizing the region, for the discussion of the island's qualities draws on the idea, current in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, that the Americas were a kind of second Eden. After all, according to Brierton, the very climate fosters not only good health--an idea that will not strike us as very odd--but also intelligence, the aspect of humans that most closely makes us resemble God. (The latter idea can be found, among other places, in The Book Named the Governor [1531] by Sir Thomas Elyot, who writes, "understanding is the most excellent gift that man can receive in his creation, whereby he does approach most nigh unto the similitude of God [which understanding is the principle part of the soul].") Coming to the new world then has, or perhaps I should say had, the ability to bring us, or the early modern English, closer to the original perfection of humans.

 

The "had" seems more appropriate in this context because  Brierton's use of the idea that a good climate leads both to good health and higher intelligence suggests that we are in the presence of a unmodern way of thinking about how the laws of nature work. Brierton's observations, in fact, seem to draw on Renaissance beliefs not only about the effect of the climate on one's body. The idea seems to also bring to mind beliefs about the effect of one's culture on one's biological make up, a notion that is discussed in the fifteenth-century Neo-Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino's Book of Life (1489). Ficino remarks, using the "of course" of common sense, in what seems to me the same spirit as Brierton that "differences in . . . customs, of course, are seen in the fact that what is poison to a Persian is good for the heart in Egypt."

 

The ideas expressed by Brierton and Ficino have not been explored very diligently by post-colonial critics of the Renaissance, though much good work has been written about the Edenic view of the Americas. Here I'd like to suggest, in a very small way, how such ideas could aid our reading of Renaissance texts that explore issues of colonization by offering a quick sketch of a reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest.  

 

Traditionally interpretations of The Tempest have opposed Caliban to Prospero as nature is opposed to art, but Prospero's infamous complaint that Caliban is a creature "on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick" may refer not to Caliban's intractable nature but to his cultural difference. His having a culture, and the knowledge a cultural background would imply, would make it more difficult for Prospero to impose a new one on him, something that Giordano Bruno argues in Of Bonds in General, a treatise that deals, in part, with one's ability to impose ones will on a people. Bruno writes, "It is all the easier to enchain (vincire) people who have less knowledge. In them the soul opens in such a way that it makes room for the passage of impressions aroused by the performer's techniques, opening wide windows which, in others, are always closed." Prospero's error then might be his failure to see that Caliban possesses a culture. Shakespeare, by contrast, does not seem to have made the same error, for he gives, as Brian Vickers notes, "Caliban the higher register of verse," which decorum dictated should only be given to aristocratic characters. According to this reading then, Caliban is not a creature without culture, but a man whose culture prevents him from being made into the European that Prospero wants him to become.   

 

 

Comments
by Author BearMountainBooks-Maria on ‎11-24-2009 11:23 AM

I am so glad that Thanksgiving is ALL ABOUT THE FOOD!!!!!

 

It's my favorite.  You can probably tell that.

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎11-26-2009 06:24 PM

By the way, they played with the idea of an environment being able to improve one's health in one of the Star Trek Next Generation movies. I forget which one.

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎11-29-2009 01:52 AM

It was Star Trek: Insurrection - Worf gets Klingon acne.

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎11-29-2009 08:33 PM

Thanks Melissa.

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