Captivity Narratives Essay - Critical Essays

Captivity Narratives


Captivity Narratives

Captivity narratives emerged with the settlement of North America and continued as a significant genre in American literature until the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. The first captivity narratives may have been created by Native Americans who were captured by early Spanish explorers. However, the genre commonly refers to the accounts written by European settlers who were abducted by Native Americans.

Many scholars cite Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) as containing the first American captivity narrative. The genre began to take on greater significance in Puritan society, where fiction, plays, and poetry were prohibited. Captivity narratives served the community as a form of entertainment as well as a means of promoting the Puritan theology. Early Puritan captivity narratives, such as Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God Together, with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed (1682) and John Williams's The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion (1707), were written in the first person by the victims of the abduction. The authors focused on details of the attack, forced marches, torture, life among the Native Americans, and return to Puritan society. Increasingly, the authors framed their narratives around the ideology that God was punishing a wayward people through capture, and showing his ultimate forgiveness and mercy to the faithful through rescue and return. Such writers as Cotton Mather made use of the narratives to urge social conformity. As the genre developed, first-hand victim accounts were replaced by professional authors' renderings and stock material about the practices of Native Americans, thus decreasing the immediacy and accuracy of the accounts. During times of war against the French and Native Americans, the captivity narratives increased in popularity; many works were reprinted dozens of times. As popular tastes in the United States shifted and sentimental fiction became more popular, captivity narratives began to reflect these changes. The moral tone of the novels and the anti-Native American themes remained prominent, but the stories became more sensational. Authors focused on male heroes who were bringing society to the frontier and building a nation, and women played less of a role. By the nineteenth century, the popular dime novel created a forum for the captivity narrative.

Literary scholars largely ignored the popular genre of captivity narratives until the mid-twentieth century. In the late 1940s Roy Harvey Pearce undertook the first significant study, in which he argued that the body of captivity narratives spread over three centuries was too fragmented and disparate to be classified as a single genre. He posited that captivity narratives were significant, not because they provided historical fact about Native American practices, as earlier scholars had implied, but because the accounts provided modern readers with a window on changes in popular mass culture. Unlike Pearce, Richard Vanderbeets has claimed that captivity narratives comprise a unified, single genre; and later scholars have emphasized the continuity in the genre, particularly the demonization and villainization of Native Americans. Gary L. Ebersole has explored the relationship between captivity narratives and the sentimental novel, while David T. Haberly has considered the influence of captivity narratives on literary works such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Critics including Alden T. Vaughan, Edward W. Clark and Lorrayne Carroll have explored the connections between Puritanism and captivity narratives; and Colin Ramsey has analyzed the influence of Puritanism on the demonization of Native Americans in captivity narratives.

Representative Works

Ann Eliza Bleeker
The History of Maria Kittle (1790)

Charles Brockden Brown
Edgar Huntly (1799)

Thomas Brown
A Plain Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Remarkable Deliverance of Thomas Brown, of Charleston, in New England (1760)

Jonathan Dickenson
God's Protecting Providence Man's Surest Help and Defense (1699)

John Gyles
Memoirs of the Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances, etc., in the Captivity of John Gyles, Esq. (1736)

Elizabeth Hanson
God's Mercy Surmounting Man's Cruelty, Exemplified in the Captivity and Redemption of Elizabeth Hanson (1728)

Edward Kimber
The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson. Containing His Strange Varieties of Fortune in Europe and America (1754)

Cotton Mather
Humiliations Follow'd with Deliverances (1697)

John Norton
The Redeemed Captive (1748)

Mary Rowlandson
The Sovereignty and Goodness of God Together, with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682)

John Gilmary Shea, editor
Captivity of Father Isaac Jogues, of the Society of Jesus, among the Mohawks (1697)

James Smith
An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, during His Captivity with the Indians (1799)

Captain John Smith
Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624)

John Williams
The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion: or a Faithful History of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Captivity and the Deliverance of Mr. John Williams (1707)

Peter Williamson
French and Indian Cruelty; Exemplified in the Life and Various Vicissitudes of Fortune, of Peter Williamson, a Disbanded Soldier (1757)

Criticism: Overviews

Roy Harvey Pearce (essay date 1947-48)

SOURCE: Pearce, Roy Harvey. “The Significances of the Captivity Narrative.” American Literature 19 (1947-48): 1-20.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines the evolution of the style and intent of captivity narratives, from religious confessional to pulp thriller, and argues that they provide a window into American popular culture.]

The narrative of Indian captivity has long been recognized for its usefulness in the study of our history and, moreover, has even achieved a kind of literary status. Generally it has been taken as a sort of “saga,” something which somehow is to be understood as expressive of the Frontier Mind—whatever that may be.1 But...

(The entire section is 8157 words.)

Richard Vanderbeets (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Vanderbeets, Richard. “The Indian Captivity Narrative as Ritual.” American Literature 43, no. 4 (January 1972): 548-62.

[In the essay below, Vanderbeets urges readers to view captivity narratives as a unified genre built upon common rituals.]

All civilized peoples have recognized the value of tempering their joys with a play or story chronicling the misfortunes and tragedies of others. Because the earliest Americans countenanced neither play-acting nor the unhealthy influences of the novel, they wrote and read true tales of tragedy and horror in the form of disasters, plagues, and shipwrecks—and of Indian massacres and captivities. As the frontier pushed...

(The entire section is 6145 words.)

David L. Minter (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Minter, David L. “By Dens of Lions: Notes on Stylization in Early Puritan Captivity Narratives.” American Literature 45, no. 3 (November 1973): 335-47.

[In the following essay, Minter considers changes in the purpose and tone of captivity narratives over time, particularly focusing on the narrative of Mary Rowlandson.]

The “Indian Captivities” of the New England Puritans were, during the first several years of their existence, deeply devout. Born as they were, however, in the late seventeenth century, in what was for the Puritan way an era of fundamental transformation, the captivity narratives soon changed drastically. First, they became instruments of...

(The entire section is 5232 words.)

June Namias (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Namias, June. “White Men Held Captive.” In White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier, pp. 49-83. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Namias explores the changing images of males in captivity narratives from 1608 through the nineteenth century.]

In the first and most famous captive story of an Englishman on the North American continent, Captain John Smith spent a month among the native people of tidewater Virginia. Admitting to some difficulties, Smith wrote of his experiences: “Yet hee so demeaned himselfe amongst them, as he not only diverted them from surprising the Fort: but procured...

(The entire section is 13732 words.)