Captivity Narratives Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.