Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith


In Argall, the newest novel in his Seven Dreams series, William T. Vollmann alternates between extravagant Elizabethan language and gritty realism in an attempt to dig beneath the legend surrounding Pocahontas, John Smith, and the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia-as well as the betrayals, disappointments, and atrocities behind it. With the same panoramic vision, mythic sensibility, and stylistic daring that he brought to the previous novels in the Seven Dreams series-hailed upon its inception as "the ...

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In Argall, the newest novel in his Seven Dreams series, William T. Vollmann alternates between extravagant Elizabethan language and gritty realism in an attempt to dig beneath the legend surrounding Pocahontas, John Smith, and the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia-as well as the betrayals, disappointments, and atrocities behind it. With the same panoramic vision, mythic sensibility, and stylistic daring that he brought to the previous novels in the Seven Dreams series-hailed upon its inception as "the most important literary project of the '90s" (The Washington Post)-Vollmann continues his hugely original fictional history of the clash of Native Americans and Europeans in the New World. In reconstructing America's past as tragedy, nightmare, and bloody spectacle, Vollmann does nothing less than reinvent the American novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Reader Right Honorable; I warn'd you that this Book of mine doth drag me down toward the worst," writes William the Blind, chronicler of this third "dream" of Vollman's projected seven-novel series. The settling of Jamestown, far from being a Disney movie fantasy, prefigured the genocide that was eventually to quell the "Salvage" resistance to the settlement of North America. Vollman's angle on the "romance" of Capt. John Smith and "Pokahuntas" is not pretty. Still, Vollman doesn't connive at rote political correctness, either. Inspired by John Smith's own Generall Historie of Virginia, the novel is a vast fresco unfolding the encounter between the Virginia settlers and Powhatan's "People." Smith is "Sweet John," who like a good Elizabethan has taken Machiavelli as his guide to "Politick." His rise to brief eminence as the governor of the colony over the snobbish objections of the council is a tragicomedy of disappointed expectations, yet his policy of bringing war to the "People" has long-range consequences. When Vollman turns to the enigmatic Pokahuntas, he paints a portrait that is both respectful and moving, much different from the author's usual mannered sexual outrageousness. The eponymous Captain Argall edges into the foreground in the second part, succeeding Smith as Jamestown's leading spirit; he has the sinister bearing of some Jacobean theater devil like Iago, there's menace in his meanings. He kidnaps Pokahuntas and manipulates her assimilation into settler culture. Vollman's ability to write in Smith's English and endow it with a contemporary snap is an extraordinary feat. For readers willing to undertake Vollman's somewhat forbidding oeuvre, this is the book to begin with.(Oct. 1) Forecast: Vollman hides his light under a bushel of huge tomes, which is a shame. If reviews convince readers to take the plunge, this could score big but there's no denying that a 700-page volume three of seven (not to mention the $40 price tag) is inherently daunting. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A novel about the founding of the Virginia colony, this is the third volume in Vollmann's ambitious historical "Seven Dreams" series, which includes The Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows. The book is divided into two sections, the first focusing mainly on John Smith, the second on Pocahontas. Both parts are told in the voice of the dreamer William the Blind, who for this occasion adopts his own weird version of Elizabethan English. Aside from this minor stylistic difficulty, Argall is much more reader-friendly than the other volumes in the series, in part because of the greater familiarity of the material but also because the narrative is completely straightforward, without the intentional dreamlike obscurities of the earlier titles. Vollmann's history emphasizes the paranoia and cruelty of both the English settlers and the indigenous Virginians. Pocahontas's eventual transformation into a God-fearing Englishwoman is a chilling demonstration of 16th-century brainwashing techniques. In William the Blind's summary, the Powhatans lost their princess and their kingdom but gained discount cigarettes and gospel radio. Arguably the best installment in this magnificent series, this is definitely the place for new readers to start. Highly recommended. Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The story of Jamestown Colony and the personal histories of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, among others, take center stage-in this huge and fascinating fourth installment in the indefatigable Vollmann's ongoing serial novel Seven Dreams Argall joins earlier volumes (The Ice-Shirt, 1990; Fathers and Crows, 1992; The Rifles, 1994) in a powerful (sometimes ponderous) indictment of the wrongs committed by colonizers in their encounters with native North American populations. Once again, Vollmann assembles materials gathered from multiple historical sources (here, William the Conqueror's Doomsday Book and the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others), as well as invented ones by the series' omniscient (though not at all objective) narrator "William the Blind" (a concept lifted from the medieval Scottish epic poem Wallace). After a lengthy prologue and somewhat briefer histories of earlier foreign interest in the Virginia territory, and of adventurers who would sail and settle there, the story itself settles into focusing on its several major characters. Chief among them are the powerful tribal leader Powhatan, his impulsive young daughter Amonute (a.k.a. "Pocahontas") and crafty kinsman Opechancanough ("more subtle & redoubtable than Powhatan himself"), the itinerant, weak-willed Englishman (Smith) who is the Indian maiden's unworthy first love, and the eponymous Samuel Argall, the satanic military commander and later deputy governor who introduces slavery and genocide into the pristine Virginia wilderness. Vollmann's tendency to digress and fulminate is kept under firmer control than usual here (though the narrative proper is followed by extensive addenda, glossaries, and source notes).There are longueurs, but the tale picks up speed and clarity as it progresses, graced by arresting figurative language ("Powhatan's greatest palace was long and narrow as a dog's jaws," etc.) and a brilliantly handled ornate period style. And his portrayal of Pocahontas-married off to an English tobacco planter and condemned to outcast status in the two worlds she moves fearfully between-assumes the shape of genuine tragedy. There's no getting around it: this is essential reading. Vollmann's eccentric, impassioned historical dream visions are, despite frequent redundancies and occasional infelicities, slowly carving their niche among the present age's most commanding and illuminating fictions. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142001509
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Series: Seven Dreams Series , #3
  • Pages: 768
  • Sales rank: 1,028,222
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann is the author of eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and Rising Up and Rising Down, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. Vollman's writing has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, Esquire, Conjunctions, Granta, and many other magazines. He lives in California.


Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Table of Contents

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