Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Roanoke Voyages in Literature

After a pleasant visit to the Outer Banks, Ralegh's reconnaissance party under Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe returned to England in September 1584. Almost immediately chroniclers, spies, gossips, and dilettantes seized on reports of the Edenic land of Wingandacon — which turned out to be not the name of the place, but a garbled Algonquian reference to trees or to English clothing. Ever since, writers of many interests and attainments have occasionally taken on the first English attempts to colonize what is now the United States; most have paid special attention to the 1587 lost colony.

The Roanoke colonies pose several challenging questions: Who were the colonists? Who were their backers? How did they get along with one another? Why did they let relations with the Indians descend into open warfare? Where was their settlement? Was there more than one settlement? Does the restored sconce at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site make up Lane's New Fort in Virginia in toto? Is it the only substantial fortification the colonists built? What happened to the 1587 Lost Colony? Were the colonists failures? What does the whole exercise mean? Writers dealing with the Roanoke colonies have necessarily grappled with most of these questions. Even the most amateurish and tendentious of the answers they have assayed have stimulated lively, sometimes productive public debate over the scanty physical and documentary evidence the colonists left behind and over the place in history that the Roanoke colonies warrant.

Most works about the Roanoke colonies fit, seldom neatly, into one of four categories. There is no compelling reason to segregate them further, according to whether they seem predominantly factual or imaginative. Most nonfiction writers are heavily influenced by their own or their sources' imaginations. The indispensable contemporary accounts of the Roanoke colonies are by turns discursive, fictional, poetic, and dramatic. Not even Thomas Harriot's Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), the first fundamentally scientific description of the peoples and resources of North America, is untainted by the author's imagination. The best fiction, poetry, and drama is solidly founded in historical research, if not in historical fact, and it engenders discussion and spreads information (correct or not) as few scholarly works could do. The reader should measure the ratio of fact to imagination in each work for himself.

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