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White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Author:Nancy Isenberg

If Roanoke is a tantalizing curio of a lost world, Jamestown, its more permanent offspring, grew to represent the Virginia colony’s origins in a way that could compete with the uplifting story of the Pilgrims. The 1607 founding of Jamestown may lack a national holiday, but it does claim a far sexier fable in the dramatic rescue of John Smith by the “Indian princess” Pocahontas. As the story goes, in the middle of an elaborate ceremony, the eleven-year-old “beloved daughter” of “King” Powhatan rushed forward and placed her head over Smith, stopping tribesmen from smashing his skull with their clubs. A magical bond formed between the proud Englishman and the young na?f, cutting through all the linguistic and cultural barriers that separated the Old and New Worlds.

This brave girl has fascinated poets, playwrights, artists, and filmmakers. She has been called the “patron deity” of Jamestown and the “mother” of both Virginia and America. A writer in 1908 dubiously claimed that Pocahontas was actually the daughter of Virginia Dare, the youngest member of the Roanoke colony, making the Indian princess a child of European descent lost in the wilderness, much like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes, published three years later.9

The best-known, most recent version of the story is the 1995 Walt Disney animated film. Strikingly beautiful, unnervingly buxom, and more like a pop culture diva than a member of the Tsenacommacah tribe, Disney’s Pocahontas fabulously communes with nature, befriending a raccoon, talking to a tree; she is nearly identical to other Disney heroines Snow White and Cinderella, who also boast a menagerie of animal friends. Why? Communing with nature draws upon the potent romantic image of the New World as a prelapsarian classless society. Old tropes meld seamlessly with new cinematic forms: women in Western culture have been consistently portrayed as closer to Mother Nature, lushness and abundance, Edenic tranquility and fertility. There is no rancid swamp, no foul diseases and starvation, in this Jamestown re-creation.10

Scholars have debated whether the rescue of Smith ever took place, since only his account exists and its most elaborate version was published years after Pocahontas’s death. Smith was a military adventurer, a self-promoter, a commoner, who had the annoying habit of exaggerating his exploits. His rescue story perfectly mimicked a popular Scottish ballad of the day in which the beautiful daughter of a Turkish prince rescues an English adventurer who is about to lose his head. Though an Anglican minister presided over Princess Pocahontas’s marriage to the planter John Rolfe, one member of the Jamestown council dismissed her as the heathen spawn of a “cursed generation” and labeled her a “barbarous[ly] mannered” girl. Even Rolfe considered the union a convenient political alliance rather than a love match.11

We should not expect Disney to get that right when the fundamental principle of the classless American identity—sympathetic communion—is at stake. The film builds on another mythic strand of the oft-told tale: it is John Smith (blond and brawny in his animated form), not Rolfe, who takes on the role of Pocahontas’s lover. Exaggerating her beauty and highlighting her choice to save Smith and become an ally of the English is not new. When a less-than-flattering portrait appeared in 1842, making her plump and ungainly, and not the lovely and petite Indian princess, there was a storm of protest over what one critic called a “coarse and unpoetical” rendering. Her Anglicized beauty is nonnegotiable; her primitive elegance makes her assimilation tolerable. Indeed, it is all that makes acceptance of the Indian maiden possible.12

The Pocahontas story requires the princess to reject her own people and culture. This powerful theme has persisted, as the historian Nancy Shoemaker observes, because it contributes to the larger national rationale of the Indians’ willing participation in their own demise. Yet this young girl did not willingly live at Jamestown; she was taken captive. In the garden paradise of early Virginia that never was, war and suffering, greed and colonial conquest are conveniently missing. Class and cultural dissonance magically fade from view in order to remake American origins into a utopian love story.13

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Can we handle the truth? In the early days of settlement, in the profit-driven minds of well-connected men in charge of a few prominent joint-stock companies, America was conceived of in paradoxical terms: at once a land of fertility and possibility and a place of outstanding wastes, “ranke” and weedy backwaters, dank and sorry swamps. Here was England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population. Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process. In that sense, the “first comers,” as they were known before the magical “Pilgrims” took hold, were something less than an inspired lot. Dozens who disembarked from the Mayflower succumbed that first year to starvation and disease linked to vitamin deficiency; scurvy rotted their gums, and they bled from different orifices. By the 1630s, New Englanders reinvented a hierarchical society of “stations,” from ruling elite to household servants. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. Some were religious, but they were in the minority among the waves of migrants that followed Winthrop’s Arbella. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child laborers. Even the church reflected class relations: designated seating affirmed class station.14

Virginia was even less a place of hope. Here were England’s rowdy and undisciplined, men willing to gamble their lives away but not ready to work for a living. England perceived them as “manure” for a marginal land. All that these idle men understood was a cruel discipline when it was imposed upon them in the manner of the mercenary John Smith, and the last thing they wanted was to work to improve the land. All that would keep the fledgling colony alive was a military-style labor camp meant to protect England’s interests in the country’s ongoing competition with the equally designing Spanish, French, and Dutch governments. That a small fraction of colonists survived the first twenty years of settlement came as no surprise back home—nor did London’s elite much care. The investment was not in people, whose already unrefined habits declined over time, whose rudeness magnified in relation to their brutal encounters with Indians. The colonists were meant to find gold, and to line the pockets of the investor class back in England. The people sent to accomplish this task were by definition expendable.15