Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

The Captive as Celebrity

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola

FROM THE SEVENTEENTH TO THE NINETEENTH CENTURIES, AT THE HEIGHT of European American expansionism, numerous whites captured by Indians in the clashes between the two cultures achieved celebrity status. Their ascent often coincided with the publication and republication of their experiences in the primarily auto/biographical genre known as the Indian captivity narrative. To explore the complexities of captive celebrity, this article examines four case studies of women captured by Indians (the figures/actors themselves), the texts by and about them (the scripts), the publicity generated about the subjects and texts (the media hype), and the reception of those texts (the readership, the audience, the fans). As the terms “actors,” “scripts,” “media hype,” and “audience” imply, this study uses film criticism and the growing literature on celebrity studies for its major theoretical basis, since much of the analysis of celebrity concerns what has been called “the culture industry.”1 Before considering these theoretical issues more fully, let me briefly identify the four women whose lives, texts, promotion, and reception I will examine individually later on.

One of the earliest examples of a female captive celebrity was Mary Rowlandson (c. 1637–1711), wife of the Puritan minister of Lancaster, Massachusetts, and the most prominent woman in that frontier community even before she was taken hostage in 1676 during Metacom’s (King Philip’s) War.2 Short written and verbal accounts by others kept her captivity in the public eye until 1682, when her own full-length book became one of the earliest American best-sellers.3

In 1697, another Puritan woman, Hannah Dustan (1657–1736), was taken hostage, this time by Abenakis. Dustan became famous—and eventually infamous—after she murdered and scalped ten of her Abenaki captors, apparently hoping to collect a large bounty for the scalps on her return. She was feted in person by the community and in print by Cotton Mather as the subject of three accounts in 1697, 1699, and 1702. Though she soon faded from public attention, her

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