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Figure 2: Croome’s Pocahontas Rescuing Captain Smith

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Image 20

In an article titled “The Epochs and Events of American History as Suited to the Purposes of Art in Fiction,” southern literary critic William Gilmore Simms argued that American artists and historians had missed a real opportunity to fashion pictorial and literary tributes to Pocahontas’s 1607 rescue of John Smith, since there was “no better subject for painter or poet” than the dramatic deliverance of the founder of the Jamestown colony by the young Native American maiden [Image 20].[30]

In Simms’s estimation America needed artists to seize upon this  episode as a point of inspiration for conveying the power of early colonial encounters between white explorers and native peoples. In a section of his article subtitled “Pocahontas: A Subject for the Historical Painter,” Simms noted that the artist’s job would be to give concrete form to the emotions inherent in the suspenseful moments just prior to Smith’s imminent execution. Simms believed that the precise moment of greatest artistic potential was when Pocahontas interposed her own body between that of Smith and his executioner. “A jagged rock sustains his head,” Simms wrote of the unfortunate victim. "The executioner stands above him with his mace—a stalwart savage, who has no shrinkings of the heart or muscles—who will be only too happy when bade to strike—who will drink in, with a fierce phrenzy, the groans of the victim—nay, bury his hand within his bosom and pluck the heart from its quivering abode, while life yet speaks in the pulses of the dying man! He waits, he looks with impatience to the savage monarch for the signal when to strike. That signal is made—the word is spoken!—The arm that holds the mace is bending. The heavy stroke of death descending.” Then, as generations of Smith’s General History of the Present State of Virginia know, Pocahontas came to his rescue by dashing in to save him.[31]

Not one to miss the melodramatic potential of such a scene, Walker employed Croome to render it visually [Image 21]. On most levels, the resulting book illustration fails to meet Simms’s high standards. In Croome’s treatment of the episode there is none of the elaborate backdrop of unbroken forest that Simms requested, none of the play of light or preparation of scene. Still worse, there is little of the charged human emotion Simms demanded of pictorial representations of the rescue scene. The executioner does not appear ready to “drink in the groans of the victim” or to pluck his heart from its “quivering abode” as Simms required.

Part of the problem here was the aforementioned difficulty artists faced in depicting “action” and change over time. The real deficiencies were more conceptual rather than mechanical, however, since Croome had chosen the wrong moment to illustrate his subject. He had missed the “crisis in the fortunes of the scene” when “the struggle is at its height” and had failed to capture the “heavy stroke of death” permeating the episode. Once again, the potential use of pictorial art as a strong tool for the conveyance of historical meaning was repudiated in favor of its more modest employment as a crude, two-dimensional scheme that was both literally and figuratively flat. Simms noted with puzzlement that “our artists have shrunk from this subject,” an indictment Croome shared with Frost, since the historian provided only a two sentence description of the scene. Pocahontas “threw her arms around the prisoner, and declared she would save him or die with him,” Frost suggested in an uncharacteristically understated way.[32]

[30] William Gilmore Simms, “The Epochs and Events of American History as Suited to the Purposes of Art in Fiction,” in Views and Reviews in American Literature History and Fiction, ed. C. Hugh Holman (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1962), 112-127.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid., 121-125.