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Why did John Smith from Jamestown speak in third person?

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There is a long tradition of military and political leaders writing memoirs in the third person. The most celebrated example is Julius Caesar, who wrote extensively about his campaigns in Gaul. Caesar's prose style was much admired and imitated in the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and such an illustrious predecessor was bound to appeal to an egotist like Smith. Adopting the style Caesar used to describe the subjugation of Europe and the foundation of the greatest dynasty in the ancient world elevates the importance of Smith's escapades in the new world and casts him as a general (or admiral) rather than an adventurer.

Aside from the association with Caesar and, through him, many centuries of military commanders, the third person account clearly sounds more balanced, as though an historian is judiciously assessing Smith's actions and achievements, lending both weight and verisimilitude to a frequently mendacious narrative.

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Among historians, there are two competing ideas as to why John Smith would write about his travels and exploits in the third person. The first is that it retains an air of objectivity, relegating the narration to a point of observation. From this point of view, it is assumed that Smith wanted simply to record everything exactly as it occurred, without risking the editorializing of history though his own bias.

The other idea is that this was an overwhelming act of self-aggrandizement. This seems a bit more likely, as several passages are dedicated to the moralistic grandstanding of Smith's character, made even more bombastic by the surface-level separation of the narrator. The third person-omniscient narrator from this point of view is an attempt to cement Smith as a mythological figure.

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John Smith likely wrote the account in third person in order to provide a more holistic and accurate representation of the details instead of focusing on his own perspective or any other solitary issue. By opting to speak in third person, he was able to voice an overall view of the occurrences in Jamestown instead of restraining himself to his own observations or assumptions.

In actuality, the details he presents are not all his own, and therefore it would be unfair to represent them from his perspective. Since he would not know all of the intimate details shared in the recollection without the input of others, he does a service to them by speaking in third person to represent the sum totality of the colonists' ideas and knowledge in the situation.

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"Illeism," or referring to oneself in the third person, is sometimes used as a literary device. In John Smith's case, the device would most likely have been used as a means of establishing or conveying his impartiality. By using the third person, he implies his ability to see things objectively and thus to recount things accurately. John Smith the historical persona is not John Smith the historian or chronicler. The two are implied to be distinct.

Why was it important for Smith to convince people of his objectivity? Perhaps he was truly conscientious as a chronicler. Maybe it was very important to him for the audience to put stock in his story and his version of events, not the accounts of others. It is possible that he altered the reality of things out of self-interest or pride. All of these possibilities need to be considered. An examination of the internal evidence in the text, as well as corroboration with other sources, should help provide some insights.

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It was not entirely uncommon for one to speak in third person. In this instance, it is entirely possible that Smith did so because he had an uncommonly large ego and wished to make himself look more important that way. He was known to exaggerate his own importance and gallantry on several occasions. The following quote, taken from wikipedia, indicates the self-importance he ascribed to himself. He is speaking of the Powhatan Indians.

He was friendly toward them, but never let them forget the might of English weapons… Realizing that the very existence of the colony depended on peace, he never thought of trying to exterminate the natives. Only after his departure were there bitter wars and massacres, the natural results of a more hostile policy.

Incidentally, the entire Pocahontas fable was of Smith's creation. There is some evidence that she intervened before an axe fell on his neck, but this was a preplanned performance by the Indians. Pocahontas at the time was about nine years old. Only when she went to England with her husband, John Rolfe, and where she was quite popular, did Smith invent the story of the failed romance.

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