Argall

Written by William T. Vollmann
Review by Juliet Waldron

If you are on fire to read a 600-page literary historical novel in recreated Jacobean English, then Argall is for you. The additional 146 pages are epilogue, index and detailed notes, useful to a reader who wishes to pursue primary and academic sources. The ornate and circuitous language — a bottomless, sucking swamp for casual interest — is key. Through it, the reader is drawn into a virtually alien mind set, that of the early 17th Century.

The subtitle (“The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith”) is the slight scaffold upon which Vollmann spreads an enormous, heavily worked tapestry. John Smith had no land, no money, and only an imaginary hold upon the name of “gentleman.” He took up soldiering, first on the Continent and later in Jamestown, where he hoped to make his fortune. Like many adventurers, his industry and his practicality, even his greed and deceit, gained him almost nothing, except the time to write his Generall Historie.

The brutal collision of European civilization with the original inhabitants of Virginia is a sorry story, and Vollmann does not shrink from the telling. Europeans, with a slight technical advantage, fell like starving beasts upon America, a rich land with few inhabitants. Conveniently, the Indians were “heathens.” They could be butchered, lied to, and dispossessed without fear of retribution—neither human nor divine.

The girl-child Pocahontas appears during the second hundred pages. Her eventual kidnapping by Captain Argall, her enforced marriage to the planter John Rolfe, her removal to England where she promptly dies, make a dolorous finale. All we are left with is a word of her lost language: Mufkaiuwh (“flower of a fine thing”), as evanescent and evocative as was she.