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Third Dream: Argall
Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes
William T. Vollmann
Penguin, 746 pages

William T. Vollmann
William Vollmann was born in Los Angeles in 1959. He attended Deep Springs College, UC Berkeley, and Cornell University, where he graduated Summa cum lauda in comparative literature. To write his fiction, he immerses himself in his subjects' lives; he has lived among prostitutes and street people -- smoking crack, having unprotected sex, and getting burned by lit cigarettes -- in San Francisco, New York, and Southeast Asia.

For Fathers and Crows, Vollman spent two weeks alone at the North Pole, the better to empathize with an ill-fated 19th-century Franklin expedition. Vollmann's novels include You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), Whores for Gloria (1991), The Butterfly Stories (1993), The Royal Family, and four of a projected series of seven novels dealing with the repeated collisions between Native Americans and their European colonizers and oppressors: The Ice Shirt (1990), Fathers and Crows (1992), The Rifles (1994), and Argall (2002). Vollmann is also the author of three short story collections: The Rainbow Stories (1989), Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs (1991), and The Atlas (1997), winner of the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction. He is also the author of a non-fiction work: An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World (1992) which describes his crossing into Afghanistan with a group of Islamic commandos in 1982, and Rising Up and Rising Down, a treatise on violence. Vollmann won a 1988 Whiting Award and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Award in 1989. His journalism and fiction have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, Outside, Spin, Gear, Granta, Grand Street, and Conjunctions. His own press -- CoTangent Press -- produces ornate, limited-edition art books that are made from such materials as steel and marble and feature illustrations and etchings by the author. He lives in San Francisco, California.

AUTHOR'S HOMEPAGE: (with links to reviews, interviews and e-texts)


The Virtual Jamestown Project

John Smith (1579-1631)

Biographical: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


  • A true relation of such occurrences and accidents of noate as hath hapned in Virginia since the first planting of that collony, which is now resident in the south part thereof, till the last returne from thence (1608): text, facsimile
  • The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624): facsimile
  • The true travels, adventures, and observations of Captaine John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America, from anno Domini 1593 to 1629 (1630): facsimile

Matoaka, a.k.a Pokahontas (1594-1616)

Biographical: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

"Did Pocahontas save Captain John Smith" by Stan Birchfield

Samuel Argall (1572-1639)

Biographical: 1


Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Argall Where Disney's 1995 Pocahontas further mythologized the story of the meeting between an early 17th century Native American "princess" and the adventurer and leader of the Jamestown colony, John Smith -- who depending on who you listen to may or may not have made up himself the dramatic story of their meeting out of self-aggrandizement -- Vollmann, while he admits to writing "an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth" tells the story with all its blood, gore, infighting and nastiness, closely following original sources.

Arguably, Argall, if anything, is an anti-fantasy or anti-myth, a telling look at the brutality and general incompetence and laziness of the early British settlers at Jamestown, Virginia. Centered first on John Smith, it paints him as a seasoned adventurer, a man not afraid to steal from or slaughter the natives indiscriminately when he deems it necessary, and a man hated by his peers because in his own individualistic and self-aggrandizing way, he's the only one to get off his butt and work tirelessly towards feeding and protecting the fledgling colony. Upon his return to England, the colony implodes, and the story shifts to Pocahontas, and the more minor character of the ruthless and draconian governor Samuel Argall, whose sole purpose in leading the colony is to enrich himself, and whose massacres of the natives and French Acadians make Smith look like a mischievous schoolboy. Argall has Pocahontas kidnapped as leverage with chief Powhatan, her father; however, upon wise Powhatan's refusal to deal, Argall sees her married off to John Rolfe, an early tobacco breeder, then christianized into Lady Rebecca, and hauled off to England to be paraded about court.

So why then is this not simply a biographical or "docu-adventure" novel? First perhaps, because Vollman "pens" the novel as William the Blind, a chronicler and philosopher contemporaneous with the events, but able to glimpse and draw from the present. Remember the likes of the prose in E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros or William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land? Well this is the sort of prose Vollman uses for nigh unto 700 pages -- and, all in all, it works. The introduction is a bit dense and heavy on convoluted and arcane philosophizing, being a sort of mission statement to the rest of the work, but once Vollman gets down to the business of telling the story, the prose gets easier and the story goes on apace. This isn't to say that it's entirely free of the author's musings and comments, but the fascinating picture of the cutthroat politicking -- not to mention the cutthroat massacres on either side of the native-settler front -- truly make the times and its heroes and cads come to life. It's this setting of the genius loci of the era and place through the author's archaic diction and orthography, that like the prose of an Eddison or Tolkien involves one in the story and sets the mood.

This being said, I've read, in the recent past, a number of 17th and early 18th English texts for a publishing project I'm involved in, so my saying that Argall is easy to read should be taken with a grain of salt. It's certainly not the sort of book even I could finish in a couple of days -- that's partly that it doesn't read with the ease of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, and partly that it is the sort of prose that lends itself to savouring rather than skimming. Could the book have gained with some trimming by a judicious editor? Probably. Is it just the ramblings of an unrestrained or self-absorbed author gone wild? No, or if so, it's done well enough that one can ignore it.

Another element that stands out, regardless of how one views the author's point of view regarding the native-settler interactions, or his writing style, is the clearly meticulous research he has done in bringing the story to life. The book, while it draws significantly on Smith's own accounts, includes a lengthy bibliography of original sources, and later commentary which the author has also mined. This sort of book is the kind of work that makes one want to look up the original accounts of Smith (see sidebar) and his contemporaries and read them for oneself. It is partly because the John Smith portrayed in Argall presents an interesting duality. He is clearly a lone heroic figure as physically hearty and unstoppable as a Conan or Tarzan, but also very much politically incorrect by today's standards in terms of his overly zealous and Machiavellian handling of native relations. He's also interesting in that, while he drags the colony kicking and screaming towards survival, he's unappreciated, even loathed by his peers, with his life one of seemingly endless frustration. The portion of the book dealing with Pocahontas, reads somewhat like a latter day ethnic cleansing, performed on a single individual, with Argall, the colony governor, looking very much like a latter day Milosevich.

Is Argall an easy read either mechanically or emotionally? No. It's the sort of book which, regardless of its arcane orthography or endlessly mythologized subject matter, tells it like it is (or was). If you want to feel good about the founding of the Virginia colony, rent the Disney version... If you want to know who the characters really were, warts and all, then read Argall, and if after you feel up to it, by all means read John Smith's own accounts (see sidebar).

Copyright © 2003 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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