Female Captivity and the Deployment of Race in Three Early American Texts

By Woodard, Maureen L. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Female Captivity and the Deployment of Race in Three Early American Texts


Woodard, Maureen L., Papers on Language & Literature


In any discussion of early American literature, the captivity narrative stands out as one of the most interesting, and often troubling, forms of Puritan writing. While these tales of Indian attack and entrapment were often embedded in the rhetoric of Protestant spirituality, their graphic language and images invoked both terror and titillation in at least two centuries of readers. Focusing most often on female victims, captivity stories directly addressed the fears of colonists who felt threatened by the power of the vast American wilderness and its indigenous population. Of these, The True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) provides one of the best expressions of the type of emotions and tensions early European settlers experienced in confrontations with dark "others" in the New World. Through her tale of captivity with a band of Indians, along with the transformation she seems to experience as a result, Rowlandson's text reflects the anxieties of an entire community. Her use of racialized language or distinctions also demonstrates one of the ways that these narratives sought to control or interpret the threats to social order implied by the protagonists' experiences. Even as the wilderness gave way to white "civilization," and real encounters with the Indians declined, these narratives and the constructions of race they employed continued to have a powerful influence on growing American fiction. Those texts that chose an urban, instead of a wilderness, setting still often invoked elements of the captivity theme along with the dangers of transformation and confrontation it involved. This continuous popularity suggests one of the ways that anxieties about the influence of dark "otherness," and the captivating or transformative power it represented for the developing society, remained a part of the American imagination and literature long after Rowlandson.

Two early American novels illustrate this continued use of the captivity theme and the fears or anxieties it explores are Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland; or the Transformation.(1) Published over 100 years after Rowlandson, both worm invoke the image of female entrapment and transformation. Susanna Rowson, for example, explores the plight of a young girl held physically and emotionally captive by her seduction at the hands of a young British officer. Brown's Wieland also explores the power of psychological captivity through his story of a family destroyed by an outsider's deception. In both works, a young heroine confronts dark others who are distinguished through racialized language as foreign, dangerous, and even demonic. The similarities between these later representations of dark villains, and Rowlandson's construction of her Indian captors suggests that all share a common symbolic role in relation to the traditional form of the captivity narrative. The urban settings of Rowson's and Brown's texts further demonstrate that the uncertainty and danger early colonists experienced in New England did not disappear simply because the literal wilderness no longer existed. The uncivilized chaos and brutality the Indians seemed to embody for Rowlandson and her readers continued to be attributed to any figure of dark otherness that remained (most notably African slaves, and all those who did not fit the white European Protestant norm). However, the ambiguous and often contradictory messages found in the later texts also begin to imply that these threats to social order are inherent in the dominant white culture as it attempts to define itself against the various marginalized or "othered" groups in its midst.

In order to examine the construction of captivity and the representations and fears surrounding the dark others in each of these texts, my analysis focuses on not only the historical situation that influenced these authors, but also on the cultural work performed by these representations. …

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