Puritan Daughters and "Wild" Indians: Elizabeth Oakes Smith's Narratives of Domestic Captivity

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She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest.... Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter 217)

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's critical reputation has suffered the fate of many of those "scribbling" women writers Hawthorne disparaged whose prolific publications were well received by a vast audience yet rejected by later critics as too didactic or sentimental. [1] Today Oakes Smith is remembered primarily for her essays on the topic of women's rights, collected in Woman and Her Needs (1851); her notoriety as a feminist reformer seems to have eclipsed her achievements as a writer of poetry and fiction. [2] It may seem surprising, then, that in The Prose Writers of America (1847) Rufus W. Griswold described Oakes Smith as "a woman of a most original and poetical mind, who has succeeded, perhaps better than any other person, in appreciating and developing the fitness of aboriginal tradition and mythology for the purposes of romantic fiction" (38). Oakes Smith was in fact widely recognized for her representations of Native Americans. Her work was included in Henry R. Schoolcraft's The American Indians, Their Histor y, Condition and Prospects, from Original Notes and Manuscripts (1851), and she was believed to have influenced writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. [3] But the "purposes" of white writers' romantic portrayals of Native Americans to which Griswold alludes are varied and complex, and thus Oakes Smith's Indian fiction offers an opportunity both to explore her feminist ideas in a new context and to expand our understanding of the genre of nineteenth-century "Indian" fiction itself.

In choosing this form, Oakes Smith recognizes the captivity tale's power to place readers in what Gary L. Ebersole describes as "an ultimate boundary situation where human existence, identity, and ultimate meaning are called into question as the captive's world is turned topsy-turvy" (7). Use of the word "captivity" implies a state from which someone in this boundary situation would seek to be liberated, yet many authors were intrigued by the potential freedoms that white women could discover by assuming the perspective of "wild" Indians. In contrast to Mary Rowlandson's struggle for her physical and spiritual redemption in America's first published captivity narrative (1682), stories of transculturated women such as James Seaver's A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison (1824) challenged authors and readers to consider the appeal of Indian life to once "proper" Christian women. Captive Mary Jemison actively chose not to return to "civilized" life, and this loyalty to her Indian husband and adopted culture se emed an affront to white society. Oakes Smith uses this familiar captivity narrative form subversively, creating novels that are "exploratory" in the way that Susan K. Harris has interpreted mid-nineteenth-century women's fiction. By allowing her heroines to make Indian territory their home, Oakes Smith's narratives illustrate the function that Harris describes in texts where women venture beyond the domestic sphere: "Exploratory novels undermine cultural ideologies, expanding readers' horizons of acceptable female behavior as they posit alternatives to conventional roles" (200). For nineteenth-century fiction writers, captivity provided a testing ground to reevaluate the place of white women in a society grappling with issues of human rights: feminism, abolitionism, and Indian removal. …