Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Author's Corner with Russell Lawson

Russell M. Lawson is Professor of History at Bacone College. This interview is based on his new book, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Exploration of New England (University Press of New England, 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith's Exploration of New England?

RL: I grew up in Oklahoma and moved to New Hampshire to attend the University of New Hampshire; there I fell in love with coastal New England. I began to study the early explorers of the New England coast, and found Captain John Smith to be the most intriguing. Yet no one had ever written at length about Smith's voyage to New England; the focus, rather, had been on Smith's role as a founder of Jamestown. Part of the reason for this omission is that Smith wrote at length about New England, but was vague about the particulars of his voyage. I studied him for so long that I came to know him, as it were, well enough to re-create his voyage.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Sea Mark?

RL: Captain John Smith was a visionary, seeing the northeast coast of America as a place for settlement and English fishing villages, who acted upon his ideas with a voyage in 1614 followed up by numerous books promoting the colonization of the land that he christened, New England. Smith brought all of his beliefs and assumptions—about England, Christianity, colonization, conquest—to bear in his voyage and books; New England was in his mind a reflection of himself; New England was a sea mark for English explorers and colonists.

JF: Why do we need to read The Sea Mark?

RL: After Smith departed Jamestown in 1609 and returned to England, New England became the sine qua non of his existence, the focus of his activities, dreams, plans, existence, and self. After Smith's voyage along the New England coast in 1614, he spent years planning a return, leading a group of adventurers to establish a colony that would be the vanguard of England's activities in America. Yet he never returned. Failure, happenstance, frustration, even pirates, kept Smith from returning to New England. He turned to the pen, writing about what he wished he was doing: journeying, exploring, fighting, fishing, establishing colonies. He became the foremost advocate of English colonization. All of his many books and activities on behalf of English colonization were based on a three month voyage from Maine to Massachusetts in 1614. The Sea Mark shows a side to John Smith, reveals a part of his life, rarely contemplated by historians and their readers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RL: I grew up being fascinating by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and read all of the great classics in high school and college. I earned a Master's degree in Ancient Mediterranean history. But I was also intrigued by Renaissance explorers, and after I met Linda Phillips, whose family came from New England, and we married, and I had the chance to visit and explore New England, I became a committed historian of early America, focusing in particular upon the northeast. So we moved to New Hampshire, where I earned my Ph.D. in early American history at the University of New Hampshire.

JF: What is your next project?

RL: I have signed a contract with Praeger to produce a nonfiction trade book on servants in colonial America. This book will re-create the experiences of English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Spanish, African, and American Indian servants in colonial America. The book will focus not only on indentured servants, English felons transported to America, redemptioners arriving to America from the Rhineland, and apprenticeship, but also on servants in the Caribbean Islands, servants in English Canada, Dutch servants in New Netherlands, and American Indian and African-American servants in the colonies.

JF: Sounds intriguing! Thanks Russell.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner