Captivity Narratives

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David T. Haberly (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Haberly, David T. “Women and Indians: The Last of the Mohicans and the Captivity Tradition.” American Quarterly 28, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 431-44.

[In the essay below, Haberly outlines the influence of captivity narratives on James Fenimore Cooper's creation of The Last of the Mohicans.]

Despite considerable new interest in narratives of Indian captivity, this large genre remains somewhat isolated within American literary history—more interesting to bibliographers and ethnohistorians than to critics.1 Some recent studies of captivity narratives have ably elaborated basic ideas first presented by Roy Harvey Pearce a generation ago; new and highly imaginative approaches to the captivities have also been attempted, but the critics' eagerness to fit one or more narratives into universal mythic structures or into psychosexual theories of American culture has often distracted them from the fundamental question about the captivities—the specific influence of this vast and enormously popular genre upon the development of literature in the United States.2

Yet it is only logical that such influence must have existed. Bibliographers have catalogued more than a thousand separate captivity titles, published fairly steadily from the sixteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth; many of the best-known narratives were reprinted in dozens of editions.3 For roughly a hundred years, from 1750 to 1850, the Indian captivity was one of the chief staples of popular literary culture; as Phillips D. Carleton noted, such narratives “took the place of fiction, of what might be called escape literature now.”4

The frontier between fact and fiction, moreover, was often very vague indeed, and it is sometimes difficult today to separate the authentic accounts of redeemed captives from the works of writers eager to make a quick buck by milking a well-established market—Ann Eliza Bleecker's History of Maria Kittle is a notable example—or dimly conscious of the fictional possibilities inherent in the totally violent and alien reality of Indian captivity—as in the cryptic narrative of “Abraham Panther”5 or Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly.

These fictional captivities, however, are at best of marginal interest. I would suggest, rather, that an important and neglected aspect of the captivity tradition is its influence upon major works of nineteenth-century American fiction.6 And my purpose here is to define and analyze the impact of that tradition upon James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans—for several generations one of the most popular of all American novels and a work which created an idea of America which put down deep and permanent roots in Europe, in Latin America, and in the recesses of our own minds.

I believe, further, that a number of the most controversial aspects of the structure and the thematics of Cooper's novel are only tangentially related, at best, to such generalities as the theory and practice of myth-making or the suggested homoeroticism of American literature. These aspects, rather, flow directly from the very concrete difficulties Cooper faced in adapting the traditional and clearly-defined captivity narrative to his new and very different purposes.

By 1825, Cooper had tried his hand at a range of novelistic genres, seeking to identify his own strengths and weaknesses and to find a way to use fiction to foster America's “mental independence,” a goal he was to describe—in a letter of 1831—as his chief object.7 He had written a novel of manners (Persuasion, 1820); two patriotic historical novels (The Spy, 1821, and Lionel Lincoln, 1825); a sea story (The Pilot, 1824); and a semicomic, semi-autobiographical novel of the local gentry (The Pioneers, 1823). It was natural that, in shuffling through the available genres,...

(This entire section contains 6303 words.)

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he should attempt a fictionalized captivity. A concrete link between parallel incidents in Cooper's fiction and in one authentic captivity has only recently been established,8 but his passionate interest in the American past and the ready availability of such narratives—some dealing specifically with his own area of upstate New York—would inevitably have led him to the captivities.

And The Last of the Mohicans, despite the shift in narration away from the traditional first person, is above all a captivity narrative—more exactly, as we shall see, it is two separate captivity narratives. First, however, it is important to look back at the tradition those narratives had created, the tradition Cooper necessarily inherited when he sought to use the genre.

The purpose of many captivities, by 1825, was often frankly commercial. Rescued captives not infrequently found themselves without family or funds, and their accounts of life in Indian hands served both to bring in a little cash and to advise their neighbors—as well as generous readers throughout America—of their heroism, their suffering, and their present need. There must also have been, for many returned captives, a kind of therapy in the recounting of their adventures, a way to exorcise their darkest memories—particularly by Cooper's time, when the changing stylistic conventions of the narrative had placed a barrier of verbal commonplaces between experience survived and experience described.9

In the early narratives of Puritans like Mary Rowlandson, captivity, suffering, and final redemption were all part of God's plan, and the publication of these events was a Christian duty.10 By the nineteenth century, that sort of easy metaphoric structure had disappeared; what remained, in its essence, was violence—the total and almost incomprehensible violence of captives scalped and beaten, women starved or tortured to death, babies drowned or bashed against blood-spattered rocks, children with faces burned into unrecognizable scars.

The physical environment of the captivity narratives linked all of this violence and suffering to the frontier; one wonders anew that Americans moved westward in the face of these tracts, the most readily obtainable and believable accounts of the fate that might await them there. And the captivity narratives were filled with raw and burning hatred of the Indian—a hatred so intense that the motives and even the reciprocal violence of the Indian-hater seem understandable and even, for a moment, wholly justified.

Cooper's own ideas, as he sat down to write his fictionalized captivity, were very different indeed. He was conditioned by his background and by his nationalism to idealize the frontier—the endless forests that appear in The Last of the Mohicans as the image of all of the American West. As George Dekker has noted, “… in Cooper's mind American nationhood and the Westward Movement … were intimately connected; each new clearing furnished a sign of the increasing temporal greatness of the nation. …”11 Further, Cooper's ethnological readings and a patriotic fervor that transcends chronology and even race both determined him to idealize the American Indian.

Cooper's problem, then, was to reconcile his own ideals—the beauty of the American wilderness, the glory of the Westward Movement, and the native heroism and goodness of at least a part of Indian America—with the powerful captivity tradition of horrendous barbarities committed on the western frontier by Indians unspeakably vile. The key to the fictional resolution of these antitheses, I believe, lay for Cooper in a basic feature of the captivity narratives—the role of women.

A large proportion of the authentic narratives of captivity were written by women; deprived by Indian violence of the protection of husbands or family, female captives were often more pressingly in need of the financial support a successful narrative might provide. But women captives were also central figures in many of the captivities produced by males, and by Cooper's time had become preeminent in the increasingly popular anthologies of captivities and in the fictional offspring of the tradition.

In these works, women suffered the cruelest torments, and it was those torments which most sorrowed and enraged readers. Beyond this, however, female-centered captivity narratives had a special interest for readers—and for potential romancers—because they were inherently more suspenseful than the stories of males taken by Indians. For quite apart from the common perils of torture and death, three important additional dangers might await female captives.

There was, first, the possibility that a white woman captured by Indians might be defeminized; that is, that her suffering and her separation from civilization might lead her into patterns of behavior suitable only for males. This danger had not greatly preoccupied the Puritans, who applauded Hannah Dustin's massacre of her captors, but it did worry nineteenth-century readers. Bravery, quickness of action, mental and physical independence—and even the shedding of blood—were totally at odds with the ideal of the sentimental heroine. Leslie Fiedler has documented the hostile reactions of Hawthorne and Thoreau to Hannah Dustin's heroics; Hawthorne's attitude was the more important and more typical. While Thoreau was concerned that Hannah had axed Indian children, Hawthorne was merely distressed that she had acted as a man, shoving her husband into the background.12

Similar reservations about unfeminine reactions to even the most horrifying situations were expressed by the editors of nineteenth-century captivity anthologies. John Frost, for example, in his Thrilling Adventures among the Indians, criticized and even ridiculed some acts of heroism by white women, since he found such tales “little pleasing or amiable. Woman, as an Amazon, does not appear to advantage. Something seems to be wanting in such a character; or, perhaps, it has something too much.”13

Considerably more frightening for the readers of captivity narratives was the possibility that a white woman might be raped—or, more genteelly, forced into marriage with an Indian. The factual evidence on Indian sexual abuse of captive women in the East is contradictory. Mary Rowlandson declared that during her captivity, “… by night and by day, alone and in company: sleeping all sorts together, and yet not one of them [the Indians] ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me, in word or action.”14 Elizabeth Hanson hedged a little, writing that “… the Indians are seldom guilty of any indecent carriage towards their captive women, unless much overtaken in liquor.”15

Cooper clearly did not believe that Indians were as chaste as was claimed,16 and it is likely that his readers had serious doubts as well. It was hardly to be expected, after all, that redeemed female captives would openly confess the loss of their virtue. And the genteel disclaimers of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century captives are repeated, during a later western expansion, in the accounts of women captured by tribes for whom rape appears to have been an established practice.17 One Mrs. Horn, for example, wrote, “In conclusion, perhaps I ought to say, that with reference to a point, of all others of the most sacred importance to a captive female, (with gratitude to my Maker I record it.) my fears were in no part realized.”18 But, as a modern scholar notes, “… most white women redeemed from captivity in the West charged that sexual abuse of their fellow captives was common but claimed that because of some unusual circumstance they, themselves, had been spared the ordeal.”19

Female captives might not only lose their femininity and their virtue; they might also lose their very whiteness. The Indianization process has been of great interest to twentieth-century anthropologists and psychologists,20 but it also troubled thoughtful students of America, like Franklin, who feared that the rapid Indianization of large numbers of white captives—in sharp contrast to the pitifully few recorded cases of Indians civilized by white society—bore some worrisome lesson about the comparative value and permanence of two very different cultural systems.21

The Indianization of white females, however, posed a particular problem, since it suggested willing acceptance of Indian sexual mores and of an Indian spouse. The chief characters in many of the most popular captivity narratives—Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum, and Cynthia Ann Parker, for example—were Indianized white women who declined to be redeemed and who established enduring relationships with Indian males;22 other captive white females struggled desperately to flee their rescuers and return to their Indian husbands and children.23 The existence of such Indianized female captives did not merely raise doubts about the values of white civilization; it could also imply the far more disturbing possibility that white women might find Indian men sexually superior.

When Cooper began his fictional captivity, therefore, he quite naturally chose to focus the book on the perilous adventures of white women in the wilderness. In order to describe and discuss a full range of possible reactions to captivity, Cooper used the fictional technique that Henry Nash Smith—in his study of the Leatherstocking character—called “doubling.”24 The two sisters, Alice and Cora Munro, represent two very different types of captivity heroine, and two divergent reactions to captivity.

The doubling process, however, is not confined to the Munro sisters; it also defines the structure of the novel, for The Last of the Mohicans is composed of two separate captivity narratives. The first captivity—the happy captivity, to borrow the title of a seventeenth-century Chilean example of the genre25—ends with the safe arrival of Alice and Cora at Fort William Henry, at the close of Chapter XIV; it derives from the simplest and most pleasant of the captivity narratives, those in which the captive or captives return safely to the bosom of family and friends. After two intercalary chapters, the second narrative begins with the Fort Henry Massacre in Chapter XVII; this captivity—the tragic captivity—represents another, grimmer tradition.

The first, happy captivity, as Donald Darnell has pointed out, takes place between forts, within the outer limits of the white world.26 The violence it contains is almost always potential rather than actual—shouted threats, a drop of blood on a leaf, the loss of a few of Alice's tresses. The purpose of this narrative is not to describe blood-baths—those follow later on in the novel; through this recreation of one type of captivity, Cooper sets out to define and differentiate the characters of Cora and Alice, before they enter the second captivity and the dark, alien world that belongs to the Indian alone.

Cooper begins this process when fair Alice and dark Cora first appear, using the established equation of complexion and character as a kind of novelistic shorthand, suggesting to his readers exactly where their fullest sympathies should lie.27 This cosmetic characterization is immediately reinforced as Cooper gets down to the business of defining the disparate “gifts” the sisters possess—“gifts” as different as those of Natty Bumppo and David Gamut. Alice is lighthearted, weak, and innocent; she is the ideal sentimental heroine of a captivity narrative, weeping and fainting as she confronts a series of purely physical dangers. Cora, however, is prey to the three important moral perils—defeminization, rape, and Indianization—and the “gifts” that expose her to these dangers are made clear in her first reactions to Magua. The sudden appearance of the Indian startles Alice, but she quickly recovers to banter coyly with Duncan. Cora, on the other hand, gazes at Magua with “an indescribable look of pity, admiration, and horror, as her dark eye followed the easy motions of the savage.” (21) In Cora's pity lies her “gift” for unwomanly seriousness and strength of character; her horror foreshadows the rape motif; and her admiration for “the easy motions of the savage” reveals a sensuous miscibility that will lead to her relationship with Uncas and the gradual Indianization that relationship implies.

Cora's unfeminine “gifts” of courage, logic, and self-reliance are more fully developed as the first captivity progresses; even Duncan comes, rather grudgingly, to admire these traits: “… your own fortitude and undisturbed reason,” he tells her, “will teach you all that may become your sex.” (104) By the time the captives reach the security of the fort, Cora actually longs for adventure—like a seasoned trooper. “I sicken at the sight of danger that I cannot share,” she proclaims; Natty welcomes her as an equal, “with a smile of honest and cordial approbation,” and wishes for “a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you!” (179)

Cora is also far more sensual than Alice, as her “rather fuller and more mature” figure suggests (21); Magua's threats to her virtue are the direct result of this “gift.” She is threatened by rape—in Cooper's terms, forced marriage and sexual submission to Magua—in large part because she is conscious of its possibility. Thus, in the cave scene in the first captivity, the two sisters react in very different ways when suddenly awakened by Duncan. Alice murmurs in her sleep: “No, no, dear father, we were not deserted; Duncan was with us!” Cora's dreams, however, are not those of innocence: “… the motion caused Cora to raise her hand as if to repulse him. …” (81-82)

When the captivity begins, Alice and Cora appear “to share equally in the attentions of the young officer” (21), but it gradually becomes clear that Duncan belongs to Alice alone. While some critics have seen Cora as a case of unrequited love, pining after Heyward, this seems a misreading of the novel. Cora is disappointed that she is not Duncan's choice, but she is also increasingly attracted to Indian men, as her thoughtful contemplation of Magua first suggests. In the cave, when the captives first see Uncas in all his glory, Alice's reaction is that of an art student gazing upon a Greek statue; Duncan considers the young brave a remarkable anthropological specimen; but Cora sees Uncas as a man, without consideration for race and color—and that perception embarrasses her white companions (65-66).

And Cora must have a potential mate, as Alice has Duncan. Natty might seem a reasonable candidate, but Cooper clearly felt that the scout—while suited to Cora by character and by color—was too much her social inferior. Natty's dialect would have made this class distinction obvious to contemporary readers, and Cooper drives the point home, towards the end of the book, when he describes the scout's “deference to the superior rank of his companions, that no similarity in the state of their present fortune could induce him to forget.” (373)

Social class, then, is more important than race, and Cooper provides Cora with two suitors of equal rank—a chief of the Mingoes, Magua; and the last prince of the Mohicans. If we ignore, for a moment, the fact that both Uncas and Magua are Indians, a perfectly commonplace sentimental triangle emerges. Cora is sought after by two suitors of her class—one a handsome and good nobleman of long and illustrious ancestry; one a violent and lecherous type, born a chief but more recently a drunken servant. In these terms, it is only natural that Cora should prefer Uncas.

Because Uncas is an Indian, however, the progress of the Cora-Uncas romance necessarily implies her Indianization. It is Cora who adopts the Indian techniques of leaving a trail, and the full development of the relationship with Uncas is symbolized in a passage at the very end of the first captivity; as the party approaches the fort, “Duncan willingly relinquished the support of Cora to the arm of Uncas, and Cora as readily accepted the welcome assistance.” (183)

During the Fort William Henry interlude, Cooper takes pains to reassure readers worried and perplexed by Cora's “gifts.” “Gifts,” in Cooper, are not the result of conscious choices, but are preordained by genetics or by environment; even the satanic Magua's character is the result of his tribal ancestry and his sufferings among the whites. Cora, as we discover in Chapter XVI, is of African descent, the daughter of a West Indian mulattress with whom Colonel Munro formed a connection and whom he later married; the future mother of pure Alice, of course, was still in Scotland, “a suffering angel [who] had remained in the heartless state of celibacy twenty long years. …” (201-02) This background immediately explains Cora's “gifts,” assures us that she is not really a bad person after all, and makes her relationship with Uncas seem both natural and permissible.

The established characters of Cora and Alice are not altered in any important way during the second captivity, deep in the Indian world. Alice is ever more dependent, a tear-stained and insensible bundle dragged from place to place by her male protectors. Cora is still self-reliant, fatally attractive, and increasingly Indianized—as her adoption of Indian oratory shows. In her plea to Tamenund, in fact, Cora strongly identifies the curse of her ancestors—African slavery—with the sufferings of the Indians, like her the victims of white racism (386).

Cooper finally gives Uncas a forced and tightly-structured opportunity to choose between two worlds—between his love for Cora and his respect for Indian traditions. Uncas cannot overcome the force of tradition and environment; he allows Magua to take Cora away once again, and by that choice all hope for a conventional happy ending is destroyed. Cora's Indianization is complete with her death; she receives an Indian burial, beside Uncas, while the native maidens sing prophecies of a marriage consummated in heaven—a standard resolution of the miscegenation issue in novels from other New World cultures.28

Through this juxtaposition of two kinds of captivity narrative and through the development of the different “gifts” of his two captivity heroines, Cooper explores the multiple fictional possibilities of the genre. The deaths of Uncas and Cora, moreover, allow the novelist to make several self-righteous but highly comforting statements about race. First, he can claim to be free from the racial prejudice he describes as a Southern trait, since he admits the possibility of interracial love. Miscegenation, however, is still an impossibility, precluded by unalterable barriers of culture and tradition. This reassured white Americans worried about the development of mixed races and cultures, like those found in other parts of the Americas, and about the possible miscibility of the two victimized races—the Indians and those of African descent.

Cooper's exposition of the disparate “gifts” of his characters explains what happens in the novel; but it does not explain why such things occur. And his fundamental problem remains: how to reconcile his idealized vision of the frontier with the violence implicit in the captivity tradition and explicit in this, the most violent of the Leatherstocking tales.

The gap between idealism and the reality of violence could be bridged only by an explanation based upon immutable “nature,” not upon the deterministic “gifts” of individuals. And Cooper therefore took the central role of white females in the captivity tradition and in his own novel, and subtly changed the focus in order to provide such an explanation. It is not mere chance and coincidence that women appear as the chief objects of captivity violence; that violence does not flow from the realities of frontier life or from the evil lusts of Indian males. White women, rather, are the direct cause of all the violence that surrounds their passage through a world in which they do not belong; it is their “nature.”

Cooper and his contemporaries believed that the power of white women was the result of their powerlessness; as he wrote in The Sea Lions, most of their “… real power and influence … arises from their seeming dependence. …”29 And The Last of the Mohicans is above all a study of the enormous, ironic power of those consistently described as “tender blossoms” and “harmless things.”

This power, while interesting and perhaps amusing in the drawing rooms of civilization, becomes immensely destructive when transferred to the frontier wilderness. White men and red, Cooper believed, could sublimate their different genetic and environmental “gifts” and exist in something approaching harmony in the haven of the American wilderness; the very presence of white women makes such harmony impossible. As Natty says, in one of the novel's most significant speeches, “… it would not be the act of men to leave such harmless things to their fate, even though it breaks up the harboring place for ever.” (55)

White women have this effect because it is their “nature” to excite passion among men—all sorts and kinds of men. No matter how superficially civilized in dress and speech, no matter how sharply their different “gifts” are defined, Cora and Alice are both inherently and potentially sexual, designed above all else for procreation—a point Cooper makes obliquely through his description, in the lines just before our introduction to the sisters in all their finery, of the “low, gaunt, switch-tailed mare,” whose foal is “quietly making its morning repast, …” (20) As soon as Cora and Alice appear, they artlessly exhibit their charms; such is their “nature,” as it is the “nature” of males to react. And such brief moments of exhibitionism in fact become a kind of predictable motif in the novel, inevitably introducing violence.30

This inherent power of attraction upsets the balance between man and nature, between white and Indian. To preserve and to please white females, the harboring places are broken up; horses are trained to ungainly and unnatural paces (154-55); and the decorative creatures of the wilds are slaughtered (378). And men of both races willingly take enormous and totally irrational risks in order to possess or to defend the virtue of white women.

Thus, merely because these “flowers, which, though so sweet, were never made for the wilderness” (55) have presumed against all advice to travel where they do not belong, violence will replace harmony and death will come to Cora, to Magua, and to Uncas—the last of the Mohicans, the last hope in Tamenund's vision for a rebirth of Indian America. No less is the natural culpability of Alice and Cora.

In the first captivity, Alice and Cora are only intuitively conscious of their power. Of the male characters, only Magua fully understands the potential of white women—the power, as he expresses it, to make white men their dogs. He seeks to possess Cora because he is attracted to her, but he also comprehends her importance as a symbol and as a means to control the actions and reactions of other men.

Magua's expectations are realized. Duncan becomes so distraught at the thought of “evils worse than death” (100), of a fate “worse than a thousand deaths” (138), that he is almost incapable of rational thought and action. Uncas too becomes, in Magua's terms, a dog to the women, providing menial services for the two sisters and amazing and amusing the others (69). By the mere presence of white women, Uncas is led to deny “his habits, we had almost said his nature, …” (145); his contact with Cora and Alice has “elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation.” (146) In fact, Natty complains that Uncas' behavior, in his eagerness to rescue the girls, has been “more like that of a curious woman than of a warrior on his scent.” (152)

Once the women are safe within Fort William Henry, Cooper suggests the deep cultural roots of their power. Alice coyly calls Duncan to task—in terms of the chivalric tradition: “… thou truant! thou recreant knight! he who abandons his damsels in the very lists!” (189) She is surprised when Heyward is deeply wounded by the accusation. References to chivalry continue to crop up in these intercalary chapters—and it is this tradition which forms the powerless power of Cora and Alice and all other white women.

Just as the first captivity began with the mare-foal image and with the sisters' artless display of their charms, the tragic captivity begins with women and children—the latter serving as symbols of the sexual nature and purpose of women. An Indian is attracted by a shawl one of the women wears and tries to grab it. “The woman, more in terror than through love of the ornament, wrapped her child in the coveted article, and folded both more closely to her bosom.” The Huron then grabs the child, teases the woman with it, and dashes the head of the infant against a rock; he then kills the mother. At that point the massacre of the innocents and the second captivity commence; once again women appear as the cause of violence as well as its object (221-23).

Magua seizes Alice—“he knew his power, and was determined to maintain it” (225)—and the two girls disappear with him into the forest. Their power remains, however, affecting their rescuers. Uncas is uncharacteristically excited by the discovery of Cora's veil, and begins to act “as impatient as a man in the settlements. …” (235) Duncan embarks on the insane and dangerous adventure as a sham witch doctor: “I too can play the madman, the fool, the hero; in short, any or everything to rescue her that I love,” he declares (288). Natty is amazed by Heyward's irrational daring, but such is the power of the women that the young officer for the first time takes command: “But Duncan, who, in deference to the other's skill and services, had hitherto submitted somewhat implicitly to his dictation, now assumed the superior, with a manner that was not easily resisted.” (288)

Natty continues to ponder this power, and tries to define it. “I have heard,” he muses, “that there is a feeling in youth which binds man to woman closer than the father is tied to the son. It may be so. I have seldom been where women of my color dwell; but such may be the gifts of nature in the settlements. You have risked life, and all that is dear to you, to bring off this gentle one, and I suppose that some such disposition is at the bottom of it all.” (336)

The power of Cora and Alice increases in its scope as the second captivity progresses. Magua loses his cool, cunning appreciation of the symbolic and strategic value of his captives, and begins himself to be controlled. Natty too falls under the influence of the power he cannot explain, and offers Magua an increasingly illogical set of bargains in exchange for Cora. While the scout knows that “… it would be an unequal exchange, to give a warrior, in the prime of his age and usefulness, for the best woman on the frontier,” he is nonetheless prepared to sacrifice himself when all else fails. Magua, with equal irrationality, refuses the trade (397-98). Even David Gamut, the pacifist hymnmaster, is overpowered, and prepares to go to war for Cora, reminded “of the children of Jacob going out to battle against the Shechemites, for wickedly aspiring to wedlock with a woman of a race that was favored of the Lord.” (413)

When the last battle begins, Cora challenges Magua—confident that he too is now her “dog.” He tries to kill her, but cannot: “The form of the Huron trembled in every fibre, and he raised his arm on high, but dropped it again with a bewildered air, like one who doubted. Once more he struggled with himself and lifted the keen weapon again. …” (426) As he hesitates, another Huron kills Cora—and Magua delays his escape and slays one of his own men to avenge her death. Magua and Uncas then struggle; Uncas allows himself to be killed—since Cora is dead. Magua makes a mad, suicidal attempt to escape, and Natty kills him.

The final victory of the Delawares over the Hurons is itself yet another example of Cooper's doubling. Magua consistently refers to the Delaware-Mohican tribes as “women”—a pejorative epithet that Cooper took from Heckewelder's writings, but which fully conforms to his own cultural prejudices. As Paul Wallace has demonstrated, Cooper's use of this epithet was conditioned by a misunderstanding of the complex intertribal relationships of Indian America. The Delawares were defined as “women” in their agreements with the Five Nations; that role, however, was one of honor and of power.31 For Cooper, however, women were necessarily dependent and inferior. But the concept of the natural powerless power of white women is transferred, in the novel, to the Delawares and Mohicans. Like Cora and Alice, they cannot escape violence, and cannot control their own destinies; but they do retain the power to destroy.

The ending Cooper chose for the novel is a direct result of his transmutation of the captivity tradition. White women and their intrusive, destructive power must be removed before the ideal harmony of the frontier can exist once again; Cora is buried, and Alice departs for civilization, sobbing in the seclusion of her litter. With her go her white “dogs,” like her the creatures of the civilized world. Natty and Chingachgook must stay behind, since the harmony of their grief for Uncas represents all that is possible in the absence of white women. The crude woodsman and the drunken Indian of The Pioneers are no longer merely local color, quaintly useful in forcing philosophical discussions about the nature of government; they are the final proof of Cooper's reconciliation of his idealized frontier with the tradition of the captivity narratives. And from this artificial, novelistic pairing—from these “two childless womanless men of opposite races,” in Lawrence's phrase32—issue Huck and Jim, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and all the other offspring, cultured or popular, of The Last of the Mohicans.


  1. Major bibliographical sources for the captivities include: the Newberry Library's list of books in the Edward E. Ayer Collection (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1912) and Clara A. Smith's supplement to that list, Narratives of Captivity among the Indians of North America (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1928); R. W. G. Vail, The Voice of the Old Frontier (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1949); and C. Marius Barbeau, “Indian Captivities,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 (1950), 522-48. Also see Dwight L. Smith, “Shawnee Captivity Ethnography,” Ethnohistory, 2, No. 1 (Winter 1955), 29-41.

  2. To date, by far the most interesting response to this question is Richard Slotkin’s massive and always stimulating study of the captivities, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973).

  3. Four captivity narratives—those of Mary Rowlandson, John Williams, Jonathan Dickinson, and Mary Jemison—are listed among the great best-sellers of American publishing by Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes (New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. 20-22 and 303-05.

  4. Phillips D. Carleton, “The Indian Captivity,” American Literature. 15 (1943-44), 170.

  5. R. W. G. Vail, “The Abraham Panther Indian Captivity,” The American Book Collector 2 (1932), 165-72.

  6. The importance of the captivity tradition in the formation and popularization of the figure of the Indian-hater—in Bird's Nick of the Woods, Melville's Confidence Man, and elsewhere—has not yet been fully studied. The captivity theme also crops up elsewhere within Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, notably in The Deerslayer, and is central to his Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. However, its first and most forceful appearance, in Cooper's works, is in The Last of the Mohicans.

  7. Cited by Robert E. Spiller, James Fenimore Cooper (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1965), p. 8.

  8. Richard VanDerBeets, “Cooper and the ‘Semblance of Reality’: A Source for The DeerslayerAmerican Literature, 40 (1971), 544-46.

  9. See Roy Harvey Pearce, “The Significances of the Captivity Narrative,” American Literature, 19 (1947-48), 4-5; and Richard VanDerBeets, “A Surfeit of Style: The Indian Captivity Narrative as Penny Dreadful,” Research Studies, 39 (1971), 297-306.

  10. Pearce, “The Significances,” pp. 2-3; and David L. Minter, “By Dens of Lions: Notes on Stylization in Early Puritan Captivity Narratives,” American Literature, 45 (1973), 335-47.

  11. George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), p. 65.

  12. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968), pp. 95-108.

  13. John Frost, Thrilling Adventures among the Indians (Philadelphia: J. W. Bradley, 1851), p. 84.

  14. Mary Rowlandson, from The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, in Held Captive by Indians, ed. Richard VanDerBeets (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1973), p. 84.

  15. Samuel Bownas, ed., An Account of the Captivity of Elizabeth Hanson, from the English edition of 1760, in Held Captive by Indians, p. 147.

  16. Natty claims, at one point, that not “even a Mingo would ill-treat a woman, unless it be to tomahawk her,” but this statement is contradicted by Magua's insistence that Cora become his squaw and by the reactions of Heyward and of Natty himself. J. F. Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1859), p. 273. All page references in the text are to this, the Darley edition.

  17. See Dee Alexander Brown, The Gentle Tamers (New York: Putnam, 1958); Carl Coke Rister, Border Captives (Norman, Okla.: Univ of Oklahoma Press, 1940); and J. Norman Heard, White into Red (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973).

  18. From Mrs. Horn's narrative, in Carl Coke Rister, Comanche Bondage (Glendale, Calif.: A. H. Clark, 1955), p. 197. The punctuation is Mrs. Horn's.

  19. J. Norman Heard, White into Red, p. 101.

  20. A. Irving Hallowell, “American Indians, White and Black: The Phenomenon of Transculturalization,” Current Anthropology, 4 (1963), 519-31.

  21. See Franklin's famous letter of May 9, 1753, to Peter Collinson, in Alfred Owen Aldridge, “Franklin's Letter on Indians and Germans,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 94 (1950), 392-93; and J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904), Letter XII, pp. 304-08.

  22. John Williams, The Redeemed Captive (Boston: Printed by B. Green for S. Phillips, 1707); A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (Canandaigua, N.Y.: J. D. Bemis, 1824); John Todd, The Lost Sister of the Wyoming (Northampton, Mass.: J. H. Butler, 1842)—the first account of the Frances Slocum captivity, subsequently retold by a number of other authors; Narrative of the Perilous Adventures, Miraculous Escapes and Sufferings of Rev. James W. Parker (Louisville: Morning Courier, 1844), which includes Cynthia Ann Parker's story.

  23. Heard, White into Red, pp. 2-4.

  24. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950), p. 69.

  25. Francisco Nuñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Cautiverio feliz (Santiago, Chile: Imp. de El Ferrocarril, 1863).

  26. Donald Darnell, “Uncas as Hero: The Ubi Sunt Formula in The Last of the Mohicans.American Literature, 37 (1965), 261-62.

  27. The best general discussion of Cooper's female characters and his use of cosmetic symbolism is Nina Baym's “The Women of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales,” American Quarterly, 23, No. 5 (Dec. 1971), 696-709.

  28. For a very similar example from Brazil, see José de Alencar's O Guarani (Rio de Janeiro. Tip. do Diário do Rio de Janeiro, 1857).

  29. Cited by Kay Seymour House, Cooper's Americans (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1966), p. 27.

  30. See, for example, p. 110.

  31. Paul A. W. Wallace, “Cooper's Indians,” in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown, N.Y.: New York State Historical Association, 1954), pp. 63-77.

  32. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: T. Seltzer, 1923), p. 86.

Gary L. Ebersole (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Ebersole, Gary L. “Capturing the Audience: Sentimental Literature and the New Reading Covenant.” In Captured by Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity, pp. 98-128. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

[In the excerpt below, Ebersole traces the emergence of the sentimental novel format in eighteenth-century captivity narratives, focusing on Edward Kimber's novel The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson.]

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. … By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations.

—Adam Smith

Puritan captivity narratives—part confessional, part meditational text, and part jeremiad—were dominant for two generations. By the early eighteenth century the Puritan divines' monopoly over publication in America had ended, while the American book trade saw ever-increasing imports of works, both nonfictional and fictional, from England and Europe.1 Captivity was to remain a popular literary theme, but it was to be narratively cast in a different fashion and consumed to different effect. The most significant development in terms of literary form was the emergence and tremendous popularity of the sentimental novel.

Most studies have overemphasized the discontinuities between the Puritan works of the seventeenth century and the fictional captivities of the eighteenth century while ignoring important elements of continuity. Drawing upon the recent work of J. Paul Hunter, G. J. Barker-Benfield, and others, I will suggest that the sentimental novel developed out of the increased emphasis in the eighteenth century on the affections of the heart—“sentiments”—as the locus of morality. With the appropriation and adaptation of features of earlier genres, the sentimental novel represented a newly emergent social reality.

The reading practices discussed in the preceding chapters were adapted to new ends. The sentimental novel was both a product and a producer of a new reading community, based on a shared understanding (which I shall call a new “reading covenant”) of epistemology, human nature, and the moral significance of the transaction between author, text, and audience. Only after tracing the outlines of this emergent worldview, with its emphasis on the moral significance of one's affective responses to the existential situations of other human beings in the real world and in literature, will we be able to appreciate the cultural role the captivity topos played at this time.

The sentimental novels that appeared in great numbers from the 1740s onwards, beginning most especially with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, were very different from the earlier sorts of texts we have seen, even as they shared certain elements. The captivity narratives produced in this period were not limited to sentimental works, but a large number were cast in this mode. Moreover, Pamela, the paradigm of virtue-in-distress, was herself a captive of a sort, suggesting an early link between sentimental fiction and the captivity topos.2 In this chapter, two eighteenth-century works—Edward Kimber's The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson (1754) and Ann Eliza Bleeker's The History of Maria Kittle (1797)—will illustrate both the general assumptions operative in sentimental literature and the way scenes of Indian captivity functioned therein. Kimber's is one of the earliest sentimental novels to include a captivity episode, while Bleeker's work represents a famous example of a fictional captivity narrative presented to the reader as a factual account. Not limiting our purview to works written or published in America may also remind us that the book market of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was transatlantic in nature, since many works of fiction published in Europe were readily available in America.

It must be said immediately, however, that the distinction commonly drawn between fictional and nonfictional captivities is problematic. Some of the fictional narratives are based, however loosely, on an actual captivity (e.g., the many stories of Jane MacRea), while many so-called nonfictional works have been embellished (some a little bit, others to a much greater extent) with events and scenes that did not happen. Moreover, narrative stylization in these works often functioned to shape disparate events into similar tales. The intertextual relations among works were complex—works of fiction constantly borrowed descriptions and even whole action scenes from earlier travel or journal accounts, while factual accounts were similarly influenced by fictional descriptions. Many students of the captivity narratives have despaired over the hybrid character of so many of these texts, preferring plain, first-person, historical accounts above all others. Yet as Cathy Davidson has reminded us in a different context, this approach to works of fiction from this period is wrongheaded; works of fiction helped to create events in history through the very act of narrative representation, which always included interpretation.3

Unfortunately, most fictional captivities have received short shrift from literary critics and historians. Some critics have been quick to dismiss many novels as penny dreadfuls, hardly worthy of critical attention. Richard Van Der Beets, voicing a common prejudice, suggests that “for all practical purposes and with few exceptions, the two-hundred-year development of the narratives of Indian captivity culminates in the travesty of the Penny Dreadful.” Thirty-five years earlier Roy Harvey Pearce had stated as an obvious and indisputable fact, “The first, and greatest, of the captivity narratives are simple, direct religious documents,” while many of the later narratives were, to his mind at least, “mainly vulgar, fictional, and pathological.”4 Many other critics have found most of the popular novels to be bad literature and the products of the hack writer gone wild. These novels are characterized as being filled with cardboard characters, impossible plot twists, absurd coincidences, and heavy-handed moralism. Moreover, most modern readers find the plots of sentimental novels to be both predictable and redundant, much as are the story lines of modern romance novels. Such judgments, though, finally tell us more about the different reading structures and expectations of modern readers than they tell us anything of significance about the meaning of these texts in the lives (imaginary and real) of earlier readers.

In 1794 Susanna Haswell Rowson, one of the most successful American novelists of her generation, wrote, “I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told in different ways.”5 While Rowson was speaking of the sentimental novel, the genre in which she worked, her comment is equally relevant to captivity narratives. Rowson's puzzlement is instructive, for she rightly sees that the fact that a familiar plot remains popular over time is a problem requiring explanation. To her credit, unlike some modern scholars, she does not take the shared general plot to be an adequate explanation of the popularity of the texts. The pleasure readers found (and find) in reading basically the same story again and again was (and is) a function of the specific reading practices and expectations readers bring to them. In this regard, we may recall that many types of narrative, from myths and folktales to children's bedtime stories, are consumed not for their novelty but for their familiarity. As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has rightly noted, “People listen to the stories not merely to learn something new (communication), but to relive, together, the stories that they already know, stories about themselves (communion). Where communication is effective, communion is evocative.”6

The consequences of failing to reconstruct the reading practices of earlier generations while projecting one's own back onto texts are evident in many studies. For example, in a generally excellent study of the literary representations of the American Indian, Louise K. Barnett's discussion of fictional captivities is marred by her uncritical acceptance of the long-standing negative evaluation of sentimental and romantic fiction. “Although the captivity narrative continued to be published successfully during the first three quarters of the nineteenth century,” she writes, “by 1800, according to Roy Harvey Pearce, it ‘had all but completed its decline and fall.’ Its vitality passed at this time into overt fiction in which the horrors and travails of the frontier experience were combined with a complicated romantic plot of English origin. In this amalgam, a set of foreign and artificial conventions was superimposed on the basically real and indigenous captivity events.” Jay Fliegelman, in his masterful study Prodigals and Pilgrims, slips into this same characterization of the history of captivity narratives as one of progressive degeneration.7

This evaluation of the history of the captivity narrative is unacceptable for a number of reasons. First, by privileging the plain first-person Puritan accounts as the paradigm and norm against which all other captivities are to be measured, the fictional narratives inevitably emerge as distorted or corrupt. Moreover, the assumption that the Puritan first-person accounts were objective reports, uncolored by any stylistic or genre conventions is untenable. Barnett mistakenly assumes that at this time in history English literature and American literature were neatly and meaningfully separated. This allows her to assume that romantic conventions were alien to America, while American writers had ready at hand their own separate cultural idioms and conventions with which they could narratively represent “the basically real and indigenous captivity events.” She implies that while it may be acceptable that romantic conventions were imposed on the historical reality of captivity from a distance by foreign writers, this is unforgivable in American literature, which, in order to be authentic, should capture and represent the historical reality. To put this another way, Barnett shares the broadly held assumption that early American literature—or at least the best of it—is realistic. Yet for readers in the eighteenth century, Pamela, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, and other similar works were all held to be realistic. Indeed, realism was understood to be one of the hallmarks of the novel.

For their part, historians of religions have tended to focus their attention almost exclusively on those texts that are explicitly religious, ignoring others that are not. Thus, Puritan captivity narratives, with their informing theological interpretive frame and explicit biblical citations, have been considered appropriate objects of study, while works of fiction (and most especially sentimental novels) have not. Yet we can learn something about the social function of religion and of the history of religion in Europe and America by paying attention to what replaced an explicitly religious interpretive frame in the narration and reception of essentially the same event or existential situation. Thus, if we find that the Puritan interpretive frame had largely disappeared from most captivity narratives by the mid-eighteenth century while captivity tales continued to be generated in great numbers, then we need to explore the significance of this fact and to investigate what replaced the earlier interpretive frame and see how this shift affected the reception of the captivity story line. Moreover, we need to understand the continuing attraction of captivity as a narrative topos in different types or genres of literature, as well as to understand the new questions and concerns that people brought to these texts. In pursuing this task, we will once again explore issues of generative occasion and authorial intention, as well as the reading practices and expectations brought to bear on captivities.


An appreciation of the socioeconomic and historical developments contributing to the emergence of a “culture of sensibility” in the eighteenth century, of the reading structures brought to the sentimental novel, and of the horizon of expectations of the readers of such texts will prove much more important in increasing our understanding of the cultural work of the captivities from this period than will a facile appeal to the congenial nature of the theme or to archetypalism. We ignore to our peril the significance of what some scholars have called a paradigm shift in cultural discourse in the decades following the publication of Mary Rowlandson's narrative in 1682, resulting from a convergence of developments in science, physiology, epistemology, and religion.

A number of recent studies have greatly increased our knowledge of the origins and development of sentimental literature. Several important cultural developments in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries deserve mention here, since they led to the emergence of new epistemological assumptions and new compositional and reading practices. Newton's Principia (1687) and his Opticks (1704) changed the scientific view of the world. Newton's work had an important impact on the religious worldview of many and affected the literary sphere as well. For our immediate purposes, it is enough to recall that Newton's great intellectual prestige led many to take his work on sensory perception seriously.8

In his research into how human beings come to know anything about the world around them, Newton argued for the existence of an organ in the body called the sensorium, the node of all the nerves in the brain. Already in 1675 he had argued that the nerves were solid, rather than hollow, and transmitted sense impressions through vibrations carried to the brain, where they were registered by the sensorium. Significantly, Newton's sensational psychology was promulgated along with an implicit religious worldview. He argued that the human sensorium was a part of God's “boundless uniform Sensorium.” Linking these two was to have important consequences. For Newton, the world was a divine book to be read by man, who could know God and his grandeur by discovering the laws at the foundation of the universe. By identifying the sensorium in each individual with the boundless uniform sensorium of God—and by invoking the metaphor of reading nature—Newton was to open the way for a revisioning of human nature, divine providence, and the significance of human affective responses to external stimuli.

The Puritan literature of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was replete with reports of the great variety of wonders, miracles, and instances of God's direct intervention in the world known as “special providences.” The Puritans also spoke of God's “general providence,” which ordered and structured the universe and maintained its regularity and, thus, functionally was roughly equivalent to Newton's natural laws. In general, however, the Puritans were more interested in appealing to the agency of special providence in order to explain events in history than in proving God's general providence through scientific experimentation. While many seventeenth-century texts besides the captivity narratives regularly invoked special providence as an interpretive frame, such appeals declined noticeably in the literature of the early eighteenth century, the writings of Cotton Mather notwithstanding.

Moreover, at the same time—first among the Cambridge Platonists and then more broadly—the predominant conception of God shifted from that of the excoriating and afflicting God of the Old Testament to that of a more benevolent God. Concomitantly, human nature was also reconceptualized from the earlier emphasis on the fallen and corrupt state of humanity to a more positive view of humans as innately compassionate beings.9 For our purposes it is most important to note that the new sensational psychology led to a revaluation of the moral significance of human emotional and somatic responses and, by extension, to a revaluation of audience responses to nature, art, and narrative activity.

While this history cannot be rehearsed in any detail here, we can say that Newton's ideas were quickly picked up and extended by many others, including Locke, whom Newton christened “the first Newtonian philosopher.” In his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke dismissed Descartes's idea that humans were born with innate ideas; instead, he characterized the infant as a tabula rasa. All human knowledge, Locke maintained, was gained through sensory perceptions. This sensationalist epistemology was then translated into a pedagogical program by Locke in Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693), “a volume whose influence on eighteenth-century English culture and especially eighteenth-century English literature can hardly be overemphasized.”10 Other thinkers and authors soon accepted Locke's views in whole or in part, either extending his ideas or challenging them, but no one could ignore them. Many of the major questions that were to occupy thinkers in the eighteenth century came to cluster around the status and implications of Newtonian-Lockean thought, most especially on the relationship of reason and affect. Discussions of human understanding necessarily led to reconsiderations of human nature, human faculties, the bases of moral systems, and issues related to religious experience.

The major shift in cultural episteme that occurred in the first half of the eighteenth century involved not only a reconceptualization of divinity but also of human nature, familial relations, and education. All of these developments were tied together by a focus on models of sensory perception and the relationship of human sentiments, reason, and morals. George Cheyne (1671-1743), a well-known English physician, is typical of the general acceptance among men of science of Locke's argument that all knowledge was based on experience of the world and, most especially—building on Newton's corpuscular theory of light—that sensory experience was based on motion caused by objects. In 1733 Cheyne wrote, “Feeling is nothing but the Impulse, Motion or Action of Bodies, gently or violently impressing the Extremeties or Sides of the Nerves, of the Skin, or other parts of the Body, which … convey Motion to the Sentient Principle in the Brain.”11

Cheyne is a historically significant figure insofar as he served as an intermediary between the medical and the literary worlds. As Richardson's physician and confidant, he made the latest medical and physiological knowledge immediately available to this novelist. Most importantly, this knowledge informed the early novel, which became a major means of transmitting to the general public an epistemology and moral system based primarily on affect rather than reason. In this cultural milieu, “sentimental fiction, next to the religion with which it overlapped, was to become the most powerful medium for the spread of popular knowledge of sensational psychology.”12

The Scottish commonsense movement, which I will return to later, represented at once an extension and a challenge to Lockean thought. The figures associated with this school, including Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson, and Thomas Reid, shared Locke's views concerning the moral necessity for parents to educate their children in a proper manner. They differed from Locke, however, insofar as they denied that the newborn child was a complete tabula rasa. Rather, they believed that humans were born with an innate moral sense or affection. As the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica said in defining the subject matter and goal of moral philosophy, “Its object is to shew whence our obligations arise and where they terminate. Moral philosophy is concerned not with what he may be, by education, habit or foreign influence come to be or do, but what by his nature or original constituent principles he is formed to be and do, what conduct he is obliged to pursue.”13

This is a crucial difference between Locke and the Scottish philosophers. Locke emphasizes the agency of early education as determinative in forming an individual's moral character, whereas the Scottish commonsense philosophers assume a moral sense to be a part of human nature. Yet by accepting Locke's sensational psychology, these philosophers were driven to posit a sixth sense in human beings, the affections, but now with an innate, if undeveloped, moral component. This linkage of morality, first with the affective rather than the rational side of humans, had important implications. Among other things, it meant that moral education was to be realized through the affections rather than through reason alone. It is this implication that the writers of the eighteenth century were to take up and run with. The novel was to emerge as a vehicle of rational entertainment and moral edification in two ways—first, by illustrating the cultivation of the main characters' sensibilities in a variety of difficult and trying situations and, second, by evoking a sympathetic affective response in the reader.14 (This latter fact helps to explain the prevalence of the term pathetic in so many titles of the day.)

A few names and titles will suggest the extent to which “sensibility,” “sentiment,” and “affection” characterized the discourse of the eighteenth century: Francis Hutcheson, An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728); David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40); Richardson, Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa (1744); Edmund Burke, The Philosophical Origins of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757); Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, (vol. 1, 1759) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768); Albrech von Haller, De Partibus Corporis Humani Sensibilus et Irritabilius (1753), published in English in 1775 as A Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals; Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759); Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloise (1761); and Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (1771).

For many people in the early eighteenth century, physiological sensibility and moral sensibility were intertwined or one-and-the-same. This was so because they assumed that the sensorium or the human faculties, however these were understood, had been created by God precisely so that humans might be morally responsible for their behavior. After the Restoration, the Cambridge Platonists had sought to soften various aspects of Puritan theology and thought. Rather than stressing man's sinful nature, they began with the assumption that humans were essentially benevolent beings. These thinkers influenced in turn the Latitudinarians, who also argued that human nature was instinctively sympathetic and that humans were, thus, naturally inclined to virtuous actions. This nature was to be reinforced by self-discipline, however, or refined through education and cultivation. Even Hume, the supreme skeptic, held that all human virtues flowed from sympathy.

Eighteenth-century thinkers and writers differed in their precise evaluations of human moral capabilities and of human nature in general, of course. They also had to address the issues of the great differences that were evident among individuals and peoples; in addition, many people began to address gender differences and in so doing sought to naturalize these. In general, these explanations ascribed differences to environmental factors or innate differences, or to some combination of these. On the one hand, some writers, following Locke, stressed that education and training in morals from an early age was essential. Other persons, however, proffered their own varieties of Calvinist determinism by suggesting, for instance, that individual differences were in large part the results of the endowments God had given each person at birth. Cheyne belonged to the latter camp. He wrote:

There are as many and as different Degrees of Sensibility or of Feeling as there are Degrees of Intelligence and Perception in human Creatures; and the Principle of both may be perhaps one and the same. One shall suffer more from the Prick of a Pin, or Needle, from their extreme Sensibility, than others from being run thro' the Body; and the first sort, seem to be of the Class of these Quick-Thinkers I have formerly mentioned; and as none have it in their Option to choose for themselves their own particular Frame of Mind nor Constitution of Body; so none can choose his own Degree of Sensibility. That is given him by the Author of his Nature, and is already determined.15

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the new sensational physiologies and moral philosophies could be (and were) extended to the social sphere and used to justify and legitimate social hierarchies, class distinctions, gender roles, and even racism. Yet the significance of the scientific evidence was unclear, so that the same fact could be used to argue for both sides of a question. For instance, reports of the ability of American Indians to bear great pain and deprivation were cited by some authors as proof of their relative inhumanity; others, however, used the same reports to cast the Indians as stoics with a developed moral sense.

It is in light of these developments that we can better understand the tremendous upsurge in interest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in recording the manners, customs, and beliefs of peoples around the world, including the American Indians. Gathering and ordering these objective facts, it was believed, would allow one to determine the degree of humanity these people possessed (or lacked). Moreover, the diverse societies provided case studies of the effects of different environmental situations and educational practices on human development. When the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), often called “the father of sentimental ethics,” published a collection of his essays as Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, he was participating in a broad-based discourse of moral philosophy that included subject matter we would now divide among psychology, anthropology, sociology, pedagogy, and politics.

Such investigations into human nature, however, were not limited to works of science, theology, or philosophy. Works of literature also imaginatively (yet realistically) explored the nature of men and women, familial and sexual relations, and the consequences of different socioeconomic systems and situations, and in so doing served as vehicles of moral instruction. For many persons in the eighteenth century, sentimental literature functioned as an adjunct of these fields. Pamela, for instance, was sometimes read from the pulpit; others report that people who would never have deigned to read mere novels read Clarissa with the same care and in the same contexts that they read the Bible.16 Richardson's works served as moral guides for generations of readers. In 1755, no doubt in response to market demands, he published a handbook entitled A Collection of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Cautions and Reflections Contained in the Histories of “Pamela,” “Clarissa,” and “Sir Charles Grandison,” Digested under Proper Heads. This instructional manual was extremely influential in the second half of the century. Similar works appeared during the century drawing from the novels of Sterne, Fielding, and others. In fact, Sterne's fictional character Parson Yorick became so popular that Sterne took to publishing volumes of his own sermons under the guise of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick.

Because sentimental novels were consumed in this way, informing the religious lives of many persons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they are important documents for the work of historians of religions, as well as literary critics. In the following pages we will work toward understanding how a work like Pamela came to be read from church pulpits and how tears and sighs came to be viewed as “natural revelations” of God's moral expectations for human beings. It was no accident that the sentimental novel, John Wesley's “heart religion,” and the Great Awakening in America all appeared in the same decade; all of these developments were a result of, and further contributed to, the heightened value placed on the religious or moral affections.17

In chapter 1 we saw how tears and affliction worked in Mary Rowlandson's text. By comparing these and related phenomena with those found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental works dealing with Indian captivity, we will be able to glimpse an important aspect of cultural change. Admittedly, sentimental novels do not speak to modern readers; they do not easily give pleasure to us. Instead, the characters and plots seem to be overwrought (both narratively and emotionally), if not impossible to believe as realistic. Writing about these novels in general, Jane Tompkins notes, “What all of these texts share, from the perspective of modern criticism, is a certain set of defects that excludes them from the ranks of the great masterpieces: an absence of finely delineated characters, a lack of verisimilitude in the story line, an excessive reliance on plot, and a certain sensationalism in the events portrayed.”18 Rather than accepting these modern values as normative and then imposing them on these texts, Tompkins has made a concerted effort to recover the aims and practices informing the literary activity of sentimental authors, as well as the perspectives, expectations, and reading practices the nineteenth-century audience brought to these texts. As a result of this and other recent studies, it is clear that many (though not all) works of sentimental literature functioned didactically, conveying a moral message to readers and helping them to evaluate their lives.


The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson. Containing His Strange Varieties of Fortune in Europe and America (1754), a novel by the English writer Edward Kimber (1719-1769), may serve as an entrée into the heated cultural debate about the social responsibilities of authorship, the operative understanding of the power of narrative representation, the didacticism of sentimental literature, the role of imagination in the reader's creation of the meaning of the text, the role of the cult of sensibility or cultivated emotions in the composition and reception of the novel, and the topos of Indian captivity as an instance of virtue-in-distress.

With this mid-eighteenth-century work, we find the form of the sentimental novel fully developed. (Pamela had been published several years earlier, in 1740, and was brought out in an American edition by Benjamin Franklin in 1744.) The title page, however, is similar in layout and appearance to most of the earlier captivity narratives we have seen, thus linking it, at least visually, to those nonfictional texts. Below the title and between two heavy rules, one finds the words “Compiled from his Own Papers”—an epistolary ruse used to suggest that the work is nonfiction. Below this is an excerpt from a verse by Addison:

—If there is a Power above us,
And that there is, all Nature cries aloud,
Thro' all her Works, he must delight in Virtue,
And that which he delights in must be happy.(19)

This verse encapsulates the informing religious and moral world-view of the sentimental novel: the virtuous will be rewarded with happiness in the end, even though they suffer terribly beforehand, because divine providence has so ordered the world. At the same time, then, that Kimber's work is linked to the earlier tradition of captivity narratives, this verse marks it as also belonging to the newer genre of sentimental literature.

The title page represents this text to prospective readers through a number of key words—“history,” “life and adventures,” “strange varieties of fortune,” “Power,” “Nature,” and “Virtue”—all which combine to suggest a true story of the adventures and vicissitudes in the protagonist's life in Europe and America, which, of course, ends happily. At the same time it suggests links to other forms of literature. The word strange, for instance, would have evoked a connection with the wide variety of popular works of surprising happenings in the world, such as Defoe's immensely popular The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.20

The title page also implies that when read, this story of virtue triumphing in the end will lead the reader to a heightened appreciation of God's goodness and providence. Absent, though, is the Puritan emphasis on the fallen, sinful nature of humankind; instead, one finds an optimism concerning the innate goodness of human beings—at least those “of the better sort.” This is characteristic of sentimental literature at large and marks a significant change from the religious anthropology of the Puritans, for, as Herbert Ross Brown rightly noted, “A favorite article in the sentimental creed is the belief in the innate goodness of the heart.”21

The eighteenth century saw a broad-based reaction against both the Puritan anthropology and that found in Hobbes. The Cambridge Platonists, Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Henry More, and others argued that spontaneous affections were the true locus of all knowledge and morality. Shaftesbury, for instance, in his Inquiry concerning Virtue (1699) had argued, “We cannot doubt of what passes within ourselves. Our passions and affections are known to us. They are certain, whatever the objects may be on which they are employed.”22 He assumed that the sense of right and wrong was “implanted in our heart,” but it had to be cultivated, as did the natural recognition of beauty and the odious. Aesthetic taste and moral sensibility were natural capacities, but they had to be cultivated through a disciplined regimen of training involving “labour and pains.” More, the Cambridge Platonist, was representative of the age (and in complete agreement with Addison) when he argued that we “relish and savour what is absolutely best and rejoice in it.” Moreover, he maintained that natural expressions of human emotion, such as a “lamenting tone of Voice, the dejection of the Eyes and Countenances, Groaning, Howling, Sighs, and Tears” have the power to move others to compassion and sympathy. More himself was to influence John Wesley's theology and “religion of the heart.” The Great Awakening and the sentimental novel may both be seen as expressions of the increased cultural attention to the affective side of human life and religiosity.23

For persons of sensibility, affective exchanges participated in a moral economy within which the exchange of a shared currency of tears, sighs, swoons, and shudders created value and social relations. Moreover, since spontaneous emotive and physical responses were understood to be natural revelations of God's moral expectations of human beings, they were also signals to persons for action. In the sentimental novel, the innate potential of individuals for making proper value judgments and acting virtuously is realized through a process of education, training, and testing through adversity.

It is the last of these—the testing through a reversal of fortune or unmerited suffering—that both shares some aspects with the Puritan representation of affliction and marks a radical difference. The Puritans employed the metaphor of refining gold in a crucible to represent the positive spiritual transformation that could result if instances of divine affliction were experienced and accepted in the proper attitude of humility. In the sentimental novel, however, the characters are not radically transformed through their experience of affliction; rather, the trying experience, be it captivity or whatever, serves to bring out more clearly or to heighten their innate goodness and virtue. In the sentimental novel, the character of the protagonists is never in doubt and, consequently, neither is the final result. Adversity is an occasion for displaying one's virtue and sensibility to the world and to oneself.

The opening of Kimber's novel confirms the reader's expectations, generated by the title page, of the type of narrative one is about to enter into, even as the author apologizes for necessarily breaking with one of the conventions of biography: he cannot provide much detail concerning the hero's parents and family because as a child he had been “plunged into the deepest calamities of life” and denied this knowledge himself. Nevertheless, the reader is assured, Mr. Anderson's experiences proved “equally capable of affecting the head and improving the heart.” The narrator then announces the purpose of this work of fiction, masquerading as historical biography:

If the narrative I am about to present to the public, insensibly, under the guise of a rational entertainment, steals instruction upon the peruser, and produces benefit to the mind; if it should draw the hard bound tear from the eye of inhumanity; if whilst the souls “that bleed for others woes, that feel for suffering merit's deep distress,” lend an attentive ear, or eye, to this strange story; it serves to mollify unfeeling, obdurate cruelty, I shall have my wish, and the trouble I have been at to fashion my friends memoirs, will be well repayed; for I am of the poet's opinion, that

“One moral, or a mere well natur'd deed,
Does all desert in sciences exceed.”

(Garland 7:1-2)

In the world of the sentimental novel (that is, among authors, readers, and the characters populating the texts), one finds a supreme confidence in both the revelatory power of emotions and the power of narrative representation to [steal moral] “instruction upon the peruser” by “affecting the head and improving the heart.” Kimber's belief—that if he is successful in moving his readers, in drawing “the hard bound tear from the eye of inhumanity” through his narration, then acts of human cruelty in the world will decrease—was widely shared in the culture of sensibility. The stated goal of the act of narration is to effect a moral change in society through affecting individual readers. This authorial intention, based on this understanding of the power of literature to alter the real world, was, significantly enough, still found a century later in sentimental works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin.24

Kimber's confidence in the power of literature is such that, like Richardson, he implies that it is more efficacious than even sermons. Whereas many persons might experience the message of theological writing or preaching as heavy handed and thus resist it at some level, with fiction (“a rational entertainment”) the ethical message is artfully and painlessly transmitted.

Writers of sentimental fiction played an important cultural role in promulgating this new epistemology, which privileged feeling over reason as a guide in discerning virtue and making moral decisions. Sentimental authors shared the view of Adam Smith and others that the imagination played an important role in the moral life, for only through imagining oneself into the situation of another was sympathy fully activated. The pleasure to be derived from the exercise of the sympathetic imagination, however, was twofold. On the one hand, there was the pleasure to be had in aiding another person in distress and in knowing that one had done some good. However, while the operation of the sympathetic imagination involved an element of identification with the suffering of another, at the same time (and somewhat paradoxically) it also involved an element of distancing and of contrasting one's own situation with that of the person in distress. This second pleasure was found especially in the act of reading moving tales, where leisure allowed the requisite time for comparative reflection, even if it was largely unconscious. The Spectator put this clearly, noting that “when we read of torments, wounds, deaths and the like dismal accidents, our pleasure does not flow so properly from the grief which such melancholy description gives us, as from the secret comparison which we make between ourselves and the person who suffers. Such representations teach us to set a just value upon our own condition, and make us prize our good fortune, which exempts us from the like calamities.”25

We have already seen Per Amicum direct the reader of Mary Rowlandson's narrative to “read therefore, peruse, ponder, and from hence lay up something from the experience of another, against thine own turn comes.” What is new here is the heightened attention to be paid to one's visceral responses to narrated scenes. In one sense, of course, this aspect of the reading practices brought to bear on works of sentimental literature was an extension and application of the imaginal activity implied in the Golden Rule. To “do onto others as you would have them do onto you” requires one to project oneself imaginatively into the situation of the other person and then to act out of that assumed position. At the same time, part of the pleasure to be found in the reflective activity the Spectator speaks of is a result of the recognition that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Most moral philosophers and sentimental writers concurred that morality and moral action originated in feeling rather than reason. Hume, for instance, maintained, “All morality depends upon our sentiments,” not upon reason.26 What philosophers sought to demonstrate through logical argument the writers of fiction sought to represent through the lives of the characters in their novels. It is important to recognize how developments in philosophy, theology, physiology, and psychology were brought into the real world through works of fiction. Along with sentimentally colored historical pieces, novels helped to shape the expressions of feeling of historical agents. Such works helped to locate affective responses within a moral economy. This fact was recognized by authors throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Adam Bede (1859), for instance, George Eliot says of one of her characters, “Hetty had never read a novel … how then could she find a shape for her expectations?”27

Today we assume that an individual can (and must) learn to control and modulate his or her emotional responses, such as laughter or words spoken in anger, in ways appropriate to the specific time, place, and circumstance. Our ancestors believed the same thing, although they assumed that it was the sensorium, or the moral sense, that needed to be trained or, better, refined, so that the affective and physiological responses (tears, sighs, tremors, fainting) to specific stimuli and situations could be controlled. Once this was assumed, it was a natural next step to suggest that the emotional responses of a person to a given situation were an immediate and accurate expression of moral character.

In claiming for literature the role of inculcating moral values, Kimber participated in an increasingly influential cultural discourse in the eighteenth century that privileged examples from real life in the contemporary world over those from antiquity as effective vehicles in this exercise. Novels, as well as biographies, provided paradigmatic figures for emulation by readers seeking both entertainment and self-improvement. Just as the third generation of New England Puritans had come to accept funeral sermons, eulogies, and even biographies of members of the founding generation as vehicles for instructing others, especially youth, so too many eighteenth-century readers and commentators were willing to acknowledge factual accounts as, potentially at least, morally uplifting.

Vociferous resistance surfaced, however, when some people argued that explicitly fictional tales could also serve proper didactic purposes. They argued that the novel could serve as a vehicle of moral instruction precisely because this form was based on everyday life, not fantasy. The trials and situations faced by the characters in novels were similar, even if heightened, to those readers would encounter in their own lives. Such arguments, however, did not convince many others. One commentator, writing in the Weekly Magazine in 1789, expressed a concern he shared with many of his contemporaries:

I have heard it said in favour of novels that there are many good sentiments dispersed in them. I maintain, that good sentiments being found scattered in loose novels, render them the more dangerous, since, when they are mixed with seducing arguments, it requires more discernment than is to be found in youth to separate the evil from the good … and when a young lady finds principles of religion and virtue inculcated in a book, she is naturally thrown off her guard by taking it for granted that such a work can contain no harm; and of course the evil steals imperceptibly into her heart.28

The presumption behind the “of course” here clearly demarcates the critical point on which these two camps differed: either readers could be trusted to discern the good and the moral from the seductive or seemingly good and the immoral or they could not be so trusted. Either moral instruction stole upon the reader's mind and heart in the reading of novels, or “seducing arguments” and evil did. It is clear that issues of class and gender lay behind the fears of many of those who were suspicious of the novel and other forms of popular literature. Yet both camps shared the belief that literature had the power to affect the moral fiber of the readers, even if they differed radically in their valuation of this power.

Kimber, like many of his fellow fiction writers, sought to evade the critical arrows flung at him by adversaries of fiction by assuming the pose of being merely the editor of the papers of an actual individual. Though a work of out-and-out fiction, Mr. Anderson was presented to the reading public as a factual account. Similarly, Bleeker's The History of Maria Kittle employed the same epistolary ruse. This may be merely an artful (or clumsily obvious) dodge. On the other hand, this appeal to historicity may also have been a literary device used to justify the act of narration itself, to create a narrative voice, and to heighten the reader's sense of engagement with the story by facilitating the willing suspension of disbelief or tempering skepticism.29

In Kimber's novel, however, unlike the Puritan texts we saw earlier, no program of ritual humiliation and spiritual reformation is offered, nor is there a heavy emphasis on the involvement of divine providence in the protagonist's captivity. Rather, the emphasis is on releasing and developing the innate goodness and powers of moral discrimination found in persons of sensibility through their encounters with both virtuous and villainous characters. At the same time, the earlier confidence, epitomized by Cotton Mather, that the deep meaning of the text of history could be spelled by human beings, is absent. Instead, Kimber cautions his reader, “We must not expect that all seeing Providence should, according to our expectations, always punish even the most degrading and abominable crimes” (Garland 7:9-10).

Significantly, the authoritative texts appealed to by Kimber are inevitably poetic texts, not Scripture. Moreover, the proper locus of moral attention here is the individual human heart, not the community or society at large. Through the act of reading, an increasingly private practice, the narrative “steals instruction upon the peruser, and produces benefit to the mind” by providing paradigmatic existential situations of conflict or real-life problems and their resolutions. For the modern reader, this understanding of the spiritual and moral impact of the expected narrative transaction (indeed, almost a pact) between author, text, and reader must be taken seriously in order to appreciate the cultural work such texts performed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Davidson has noted, “Psychologically, the early novel embraced a new relationship between art and audience, writer and reader, a relationship that replaced the authority of the sermon or Bible with the enthusiasms of sentiment, horror, or adventure, all of which relocate authority in the individual response of the reading self.”30 Not surprisingly, this democratization, if you will, of the ability to interpret texts and to judge affect was perceived by many to be a threat to the patriarchal social order and moral values.

Most important, perhaps, for the authors and readers of sentimental literature, the moral authority and the power of a text were to be measured and verified through the affective responses it elicited in readers. Given that reading was usually done individually and in private, only the reader would be in a position to note and then to evaluate these responses. This situation is in sharp contrast to that associated with the Puritan confessional narrative. There not only was the narrative of the applicant's spiritual responses to specific existential situations in the past subjected to scrutiny by an examining committee from the church, but the individual's oral responses to questions posed by this group were also judged as to their appropriateness. Although there were shaded differences in Puritan conversion narratives at different times and places, as Caldwell has demonstrated, there was nevertheless a communal consensus as to what constituted proper and improper responses to specific types of situations or scenes in life. This consensus was worked out and then reinforced through ritualized public performances as well as through the improvements of such narratives offered by the clergy in the oral delivery of sermons and in print. Both the Rowlandson and the Swarton narratives were, as we saw, circulated with accompanying texts that framed and guided their reception and proper usage.

Yet it must always be borne in mind that the sentimental author had designs on his reader, too. The author assumed that readers would learn about the proper affective responses to specific sorts of situations from his novel and then act on and out of these. Through the act of reading, readers would refine their own sensibilities and display these in their reactions to similar situations as these were encountered in their own lives. And even if many of the wildest episodes were unlikely to be found in the lives of most readers, there was still moral good to be gained through imaginatively entering into and contemplating such scenes. Here the sentimental novel clearly shares a direct continuity with Puritan assumptions and reading practices, as we saw in both Per Amicum's preface, the Rowlandson narrative proper, and the sermons of Mather. This understanding of the didactic value of narrative representation was to continue to be held by many persons down through the late nineteenth century.

In an important sense, though, the sentimental novel represented a significant challenge to the earlier cultural status quo by shifting the ultimate locus of moral authority from the clergy as a group to the individual lay person and from the Bible to secular works of rational entertainment and wisdom. This shift was in part a result of the implicit drive of Protestant understandings of the status and power of the Bible, of religious epistemology, and hermeneutics. Insofar as Protestant thought and practice stressed both the necessity and the efficacy of the individual's immediate encounter with the written revealed word of God, the relationships of reader to text and reader to author (or “Author” in the case of the Bible) were already culturally available for extension to other sorts of texts, including didactic works of fiction.

This is not to say, however, that readers were left to their own devices in reading these sorts of texts. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Readers were given explicit guidance in the novels themselves as to what constituted the proper reactions to specific scenes in real life and in narrative representations. There were, as well, negative examples, which illustrated uncultured, out-of-place, and otherwise improper responses.

The following passage from Maria Kittle has frequently evoked derisive comment precisely because modern readers have failed to appreciate the active manner in which the author, as part of her role as instructor and guide in moral sensibility, involved her original audience in imaginatively composing a scene and then empathetically entering into the emotional life of the characters. The husband, Henry Kittle, is returning to his frontier home, where he had left his beloved wife, Maria, and two small children, only to discover that they have fallen victim to an Indian attack:

As he approached his late happy dwelling, his bosom dilated with the pleasing hope of soon extricating his beloved family from danger; he chid the slowness of the carriages, and felt impatient to dissipate the apprehensions of Maria, to kiss the pendant tear from her eye, and press his sportive innocents to his bosom. While these bright ideas played round his soul, he lifted up his eyes, and through an opening of the woods, beheld his farm: but what language can express his surprise and consternation at seeing his habitation so suddenly desolated! a loud exclamation of amaze burst from the whole company at so unexpected a view—the blood revolted from Mr. Kittle's cheek—his heart throbbed under the big emotion, and all aghast, spurring on his horse, he entered the inclosure with full speed.—Stop here unhappy man! here let the fibres of thy heart crack with excruciating misery—let the cruel view of mangled wretches, so nearly allied to thee, extort drops of blood from thy cleaving bosom! It did—it did. Uttering a deep groan, he fell insensible from his horse.

(Garland 20:27-28)

Brown assigns most of the end of this passage to Kittle as a soliloquy, although the punctuation of the 1797 text does not justify this reading. According to him, “Henry Kittle's outburst was too self-conscious to be indicative of anything more than his own egoism.”31

In Brown's misreading, the text seems very awkward, while the characters come off as pretentious poseurs. Yet the reading practices brought by late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers to texts such as this would have made this scene very effective. Brown himself seems to have sensed something of what was involved in the transaction between author, text, and reader in the sentimental novel, although he never put the various clues or pieces together and, as a result, was never able to appreciate the cultural work of such texts or to transcend a condescending bemusement with the seeming silliness of the genre. Only a few pages earlier, he had perceptively noted (although he quickly trivialized his own insight) that sentimental novels often portrayed specific emotional responses in given situations (“swoons, trances, visions, languishings, ecstasies, and a variety of emotional delirium tremens”) as proof of the character's sensibility and even spiritual election, a situation not unlike that found in Puritan conversion testimonies and written accounts.32

Passages such as that above can only be understood if we take seriously the extent to which the early novel, in many ways seemingly so different from Puritan texts, nevertheless shared a deeper identity, for the sentimental novel developed out of the exploitation of certain shared reading structures and practices. If, for example, one recalls the meditative practice of “the composition of place”—a practice first popularized in Ignatian meditation manuals but widely adopted and adapted in Protestant circles as well in the form of “Occasional Meditation”—one can better appreciate how and why Bleeker composed this scene as she did, confident that her readers would share reading practices which would make it work. In the First Exercise of St. Ignatius's spiritual exercises, the meditator is directed to use his imagination to conjure up “a mental image of the place … where the object that we wish to contemplate is present.” After “seeing” this place or scene “with the mind's eye,” the meditator next seeks to share the “pain, tears, and suffering” of Christ in the Passion, or other emotions from the specific biblical scene. In the sentimental novel, this spiritual exercise is simply applied to nonbiblical scenes and narratives. If Bleeker knew her audience, as any successful author must, then she was cognizant of the expectations and reading practices that the reader would most probably bring to her text.33

After having assisted the audience in conjuring up the scene of devastation and death, one that would have been well known to most readers already from acquaintance with earlier captivity narratives and their accompanying illustrations, Bleeker then invites the reader to pause before it, to hold the scene before one's gaze, precisely in order to feel the emotional response of Henry Kittle in one's own body. Brown was more correct than he realized when he suggested that the affective response of the reader was taken to be evidence of one's spiritual condition in much the same way as in Calvinist practice.

In order to demonstrate the tradition that immediately links captivity in the sentimental novel with Puritan captivities, let us recall that a century earlier Per Amicum had also conjured up the scene of a husband (there the Rev. Joseph Rowlandson) returning to the site of his former domestic happiness, only to find it a scene of death and destruction: “At his return, he found the Town in flames, or smoke, his own house being set on fire by the Enemy … and all in it consumed: His precious yoke-fellow, and dear Children, wounded and captivated (as the issue evidenced, and following Narrative declares) by these cruel and barbarous Salvages. A sad Catastrophe!” Let us recall, too, Per Amicum's claim that “the works of the Lord … are great, sought out of all those that have pleasure therein.”

Over a century before Bleeker composed her novel, the affective power of the idyllic domestic scene suddenly shattered by Indian attack and captivity had been fully realized and employed as a didactic device by the Puritans. If Per Amicum and his friends had found the Rowlandson narrative “worthy to be exhibited to, and viewed, and pondered by all, that disdain not to consider the operation of [God's] hand,” this was because they were convinced that, “forasmuch as not the general but particular knowledge of things makes deepest impression upon the affections,” “those of a true Christian spirit” would necessarily find themselves moved by the account and the scenes recalled therein. That is, Per Amicum also recommended scrutinizing reader responses as a way of evaluating the spiritual condition of individuals (Garland 1:A2, A3, A4). The continuity in the understanding of the narrative and reading processes and the transaction between author, text, and reader found in these works by Per Amicum and Bleeker is undeniable, although the obvious differences in genre and style have heretofore kept us from realizing the full nature of this continuity. These differences, however, now appear to be less significant than the continuity in the reading structures and practices brought to bear on these texts.

The theme of captivity was widely employed in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in diverse literary genres because it represented a striking instance of sudden reversal of fortune, whether this was understood to be divine affliction or not. The theme of the sudden reversal of fortune of the good and apparently blameless was, of course, as old as the story of Job. Yet if it was seemingly guaranteed to evoke a response, the shape and meaning of the response was determined by the then-operative reading practices, narrative conventions, and communal valuations of the expression of specific emotions in specific contexts.

Such an empathetic emotional response by the reader was the goal of sentimental authors. In a letter to one of his own readers, Laurence Sterne, a doyen of the genre, explicitly pointed to the role of the reader in generating the pleasure to be found in novels, such as his Tristram Shandy: “A true feeler always brings half the entertainment along with him … and the vibrations in him so entirely correspond with those excited [in the novel's characters], it is like reading himself and not the book.”34 Sterne understood full well that the author could only do so much in order to elicit a given response; the reader played an equally important role in bringing certain reading structures to bear on the text.

As a result of this situation, the sentimental novel worked only so long as the author and the audience shared the same practices and expectations. If such novels do not work for us today, it is because we no longer identify with the emotional lives of the characters, not because Kimber and Bleeker were bad writers. The words on the page have not changed, but reading practices have. Puritan readers—who had already affirmed the moral imperative of observing the movements of their souls, participated in the tradition of writing spiritual autobiographies and journals, and learned to read themselves through devotional practices of intense self-scrutiny—would have readily understood the assumptions shared by the authors and readers of sentimental novels even if they finally could not have embraced them.

The sentimental novel, then, no less than the Puritan captivity narrative, provided rational entertainment insofar as the emotional responses evoked in the reader were subjected to intense scrutiny as a part of a practice of self-examination. Reading done in this manner was an efficacious path, it was held, leading to the cultivation of one's sensibilities and powers of moral discrimination. Not everyone shared this understanding of the moral benefits of novel reading, as we have already had occasion to note. Many commentators (not all of them male) doubted that the young and female readers would have the wherewithal, the reading skills, and powers of discrimination needed to distinguish corrupting literature from morally uplifting works. We have also alluded to the beginnings of a significant shift in epistemology and ethical thought in the English-speaking world related to the intellectual movement that came to be known as Scottish commonsense philosophy. This involved a shift from an explicitly Calvinist providential view of history to an increased emphasis on natural religion.

Many of those who doubted the claims made for literature as a vehicle of moral education feared that works of fiction threatened to seduce or captivate the hearts and minds of the “weaker sex” and youth. The common usage of terms such as captivate and captivating in the ongoing, sometimes boisterous, cultural discourse over the relative merits or demerits of fiction in general is worth noting in passing. In railing against novels and other forms of fiction, some opponents had appeal to imagery redolent of the Puritan rhetoric on the dangers of temptations and sin. One editor argued, for instance, that novels “are written with an intent to captivate the feelings, and do in fact lead many on to the path of vice, from an idea that they are within the pale of gallantry.” Another male opponent of fiction, wrote in the Massachusetts Magazine, “But too many [readers], especially persons of warm passions and tender feelings [i.e., females], are too apt to be captivated with everything which drops from [Sterne's] descriptive, though loose and unguarded pen, and, in swallowing the nectar, to swallow what is enflaming and poisonous.” This writer employed, no doubt unconsciously, phallic images that would seem to invite a Freudian analysis themselves, even as they hint at the sexual politics involved in this debate, often just below the surface.

Richardson presented a standard counterargument by suggesting that because the new novel was rooted in the everyday world it represented reality in ways other forms of fiction, such as romance, had not. He called the novel “a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a source of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvelous with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.” The contest between these positions was not settled quickly, however. Over a century later, in 1853, Margaret Fuller concurred with the critics who found fiction to be seductive and captivating, although she was willing to accept it if certain conditions were met. “But it is only when some effort at human improvement is robed in its captivating garb that fiction should be tolerated,” she wrote.35

With this general introduction, let us look more closely at our two selected novels. The protagonist of Kimber's Mr. Anderson is Tom(my) Anderson. The novel is told in the third-person past tense, with an omniscient narrator. It opens with the editor-narrator recalling that Tommy's parents had been “above the common rank.” In May 1697, as Tommy (then aged seven) waited on a doorstep in London for his father, who had gone inside on business, he was abducted by a sea captain. With this incident, Kimber invoked the fairly widespread and highly publicized incidents of child abduction in the British Isles earlier in the century. The kidnapping functions as a device to get his protagonist to America;36 at the time it would have represented a realistic touch.

Kimber then proceeds to tell a typical sentimental tale of class and virtue denied yet triumphing in the end. We learn that onboard the ship, a slaver headed for America, Tommy was sexually abused by the captain. When they arrived in Maryland, Tommy was immediately sold to a planter, Mr. Barlow, a mean-spirited, abusive man in his own right. Mrs. Barlow, on the other hand, was “a woman of sense and humanity, of many extraordinary endowments, and a mother” (Garland 7:1-2).

As in so many sentimental novels, one finds maternal love, virtue, warmth, gentleness, and a nurturing nature counterposed to male brutality, insensibility, and baseness. Equally sharp contrasts are drawn between virtuous individuals and dastardly reprobates throughout the novel. Of special note, however, is the moral anthropology shared by the sentimental novelists and readers, including the belief that the character and moral fiber of individuals were ultimately a matter of temperament. The character, or mettle, of individuals was tested and tempered on the anvil of adversity and suffering. If temperament was inherited, however, it was so along lines distinct from genetic inheritance (e.g., we are told that the sweet daughter, Fanny, had her mother's temperament and nothing of her father's). Moreover, innate goodness had the power to establish bonds of affection that transcended biological relationships—Mrs. Barlow cannot help but feel maternal toward Tommy, who naturally reciprocates, while Fanny and Tommy recognize each other to be soulmates, not merely playmates. Indeed, we are told that all those with any sensibility readily discerned that Fanny and Tommy were almost “twins from the same womb,” while the crude and uncultured Mr. Barlow was oblivious to any elective affinities.

The moral anthropology of the sentimental novel owed something to the Calvinist belief in predestination but was not limited to this theological understanding. Like the Calvinists, sentimental novelists and readers believed that a person's innate virtue would necessarily attract the attention of the divine (even if this was often delayed) and ultimately lead to the virtuous being blessed. Some, but by no means all, sentimental novels promised that virtue might well be rewarded in this world, rather than being withheld until the afterlife. Indeed, as we shall see shortly, Kimber claims that the natural activities of the virtuous would prove to be not only economically viable but profitable. There was an inherent economic rationality, then, in virtuous activity—men of good character and sensibility got the goods and the girl.

Persons of sensibility naturally resonated to each other, producing or evoking mutually recognizable physiological and emotional responses. Both their speech and actions disclosed their true nature, their innate goodness and virtue, to others of a similar temper or nature, while those who did not share these qualities were blind to their existence in others. As a consequence, persons of the latter sort rarely recognized the true character and value of persons of refined sensibility. As was to be expected, then, in a woman of refined sensibility and cultivated mind, Mrs. Barlow immediately recognized Tommy's “promising genius, and a softness and good nature of disposition, that would have melted any heart, but that of the villain who had him in his power.” Kimber repeatedly emphasizes the innate goodness of his main character, Tommy, and then proceeds to create scenes in which this goodness is readily recognized by others of refined sensibility, no matter how low Tommy's present station or how wretched his material conditions.

We must note, though, the importance attached in the novel to literacy and education in cultivating innate qualities of mind and moral discrimination. Mrs. Barlow, for instance, ignores the express commands of her brutish husband and secretly teaches little Fanny, her daughter, and Tommy to read “prettily.” After they had quickly exhausted her “female collection of the politest authors,” a more substantial library was supplied by a family friend, a Scottish clergyman. The children studied with a neighbor, another Scottsman, Mr. Ferguson. In time Tom “became a proficient in the Latin and French, in all the useful branches of the mathematics, spoke and wrote correctly and elegantly, and acquired such additions to his native dignity of soul and sentiment” that everyone “stood amazed at him” (Garland 7:10, 26).

Education, then, was of value in developing and refining one's “native dignity of soul and sentiment.” We may assume that the reading of novels of rational entertainment also was felt to contribute to this end. The seemingly minor detail of these educated gentlemen being Scottish is in fact significant, since it suggests (albeit anachronistically within the time frame or historical setting of the novel) Kimber's endorsement of Scottish commonsense philosophy. The influence of Lord Kames, whose Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751) had appeared three years before the publication of Kimber's novel, can clearly be sensed informing the moral of this tale.37

Kimber occasionally uses his novel as a vehicle for criticizing the moral hypocrisy of England and many Christians. For instance, in speeches by Mrs. Barlow, Tommy, Mr. Ferguson and others, he repeatedly rehearses the theme that a person's worth and character are not to be measured by financial or social status but by integrity and industry. After Tom and Fanny have grown into young adulthood, a different love appropriate to their age develops between them. Because they have been raised almost as brother and sister, they realize that they need to know how Tom came into the family and what their true relationship to each other is. They implore Mr. Ferguson to enlighten them. Instead of immediately complying, Ferguson tells the history of his own fall from a high estate into poverty and even serfdom in order to criticize those who judge people by exterior trappings rather than on their merits. He also instructs them on the morally deadening effects of the hurried life in the cities, as people scramble to make ends meet. Finally, Ferguson tells Tommy and Fanny of his father-in-law, who, through no fault of his own, had been cast into debtor's prison “through the merciless principles of revenge, of a few creditors, who yet were church goers, and every day repeated, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’” (Garland 7:36).

This pathetic tale leaves everyone in tears. When Mrs. Barlow happens upon this scene and finds the participants all weeping, Ferguson hastens to inform her that it had been “their sensibility … which had cast them into such disorder.” Mrs. Barlow's response reflects the shared assumption in the cult of sensibility that affective responses revealed one's character: “‘I'm glad of it, cry'd the excellent woman; shedding tears for others woes, betokens a goodness and nobleness of nature, that I hope my children will never be deficient in.’”

Then a series of sudden reversals of fortune are introduced, which are each in turn turned completely around as the force of Tom's goodness overcomes all adversity. Mr. Barlow is intent on marrying his daughter to the doltish and uncouth son of a wealthy neighbor, a plan that throws everyone into the depths of despair, although he is oblivious to the entreaties and tears of his wife and daughter. Tom is exiled to a distant plantation as an overseer, but ever true to himself—hardworking, honest, diligent, kind, and considerate—the plantation is soon more profitable than it had ever been, since even the slaves love to serve him (Garland 7:40).

Tom is then sold to an Indian trader and seems doomed to a life in the distant wilderness, separated from Fanny and civilization. As Tom and the trader, named Matthewson, leave the plantation on horseback, he has Tom recount his life story. Matthewson is deeply affected by it (and, thus, the reader learns he is a man of sensibility), sets Tom free, and adopts him as his own son. Tom's narrative of his sad history—like the novel itself—evokes the sentimental cycle of emotional responses that witness to the character and temper of each character. As a result, Tom wins a new relation, patron, and friend. Like Ferguson before him, Matthewson sees that Tom's innate goodness and character will ultimately lead him to success.

Sentimental characters are inevitably captivated by each other, as they are enmeshed in a social—even cosmic—world of affect, a world spun out of emotive webs of signification. Kimber expresses as much in the following passage:

There is a certain somewhat, in certain countenances, that prepossesses us in the favour of the wearers at first sight, an openness, and ingenuity, and an amiableness, that immediately strikes the beholder—such was Tom's, and that and the many noble instances he had given of his sentiments and his fortitude, had quite captivated his master, so that he really began to look upon him as a son. The mingled starts of joy, gratitude, and love towards this generous man, which inspired Tom's breast, at the conclusion of this speech, no words can paint—it actuated his whole person, it heaved his bosom—it flushed his face, and deprived him of utterance.

(Garland 7:99)38

Predictably, when Matthewson is killed, Tom inherits all of his property and quickly becomes the most successful Indian trader in the country. Indian captivity is introduced into the novel as yet another (though certainly not the last) sudden reversal of fortune precisely when the tide seems to be turning in his favor. The reader is addressed directly at this point: “Thus behold a reserve of fortune—he, who but a small space of time before, was happy, and employed in making others so, is now strip'd naked, bound with thongs, and a spectacle of triumph and reproach to a barbarous gang of savages!” (Garland 7:140-41).

This familiar scene of the captive being carried off to an unknown fate functions in this sentimental novel as one of many reversals that the protagonist undergoes in the course of the tale on the way to his reward—economic security, social status and respect, and domestic bliss. It is impossible to rehearse all of the vicissitudes of the hero's life thereafter as they are played out over the next hundred pages. Suffice it to say that they all follow the same pattern. One incident bears mention in passing, however, since the introduction of divine providence here is representative of its function in many works of sentimental literature. At one point, after a battle with pirates on the Atlantic, Tom discovers that one of the prisoners he has taken is none other than the man who had kidnapped him as a child years before. As Tom recounts his history to the crew, the sailors' “resentment at so base, so wicked an action, carry'd them out into exclamations against the villain, and the captain added—how just is providence—who has permitted you to see the miserable death of your persecutor! I am convinced that, in crimes of an enormous nature, heaven most commonly punishes the criminal even in this life” (Garland 7:156-57).

Tom eventually wins his Fanny, rescues the long-suffering Mrs. Barlow from her life with her abusive husband, and they all return to England. The novel ends with the reader being assured that “Mr. Anderson and his lovely Fanny are still living, and, tho' now in the decline of life, experience that love founded on good sense and virtue can never know decay, and that providence ever showers down blessings on truth and constancy. “Oh! never let a virtuous mind despair; / For heaven makes virtue its peculiar care” (Garland 7:287-88).


  1. For a summary of the publishing situation, see Davidson, Revolution and the Word, p. 11. For background on the history of the book in America at this time, including publication, distribution, and consumption of texts, see Lehmann-Haupt, Book in America; Berthold, American Colonial Printing; Oswald, Printing in the Americas; Shepard, History of Street Literature; Hall and Hench, Needs and Opportunities; Resnick, Literacy; Joyce et al., Printing and Society; Hall, Worlds of Wonder; and J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels. American booksellers imported most of the fictional reading materials available in North America well into the eighteenth century or, alternatively, brought out American editions (frequently pirated) of English and European fiction. At the same time, there was a ready market in England and on the Continent for some types of American works, which were quickly reprinted there. An instance of the latter case is A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson (Walpole, N.H.: David Carlisle, Jr., 1796), which was brought out in a pirated edition the following year in Glasgow. The pirated edition included the following notice: “The Publishers of this Narrative bought it of an American Gentleman who arrived at Greenock in the Bark Hope, a few weeks ago; and as he assured them that there was not a copy of it to be procured in Europe, and that it sold in America for four shillings and sixpence, they deemed it worthy of reprinting” (Garland 23: n.p.).

  2. This linkage of Pamela and captivity narratives has recently been made by Armstrong and Tennenhouse, Imaginary Puritan, pp. 200-216.

  3. See Davidson, Revolution and the Word, p. 260.

  4. Van Der Beets, Indian Captivity Narrative, p. 36; Pearce, “Significances,” pp. 2, 9.

  5. Rowson, The Inquisitor, cited in Herbert Ross Brown, Sentimental Novel, p. 166. Two useful studies of the female domestic novel and the modern romance novel are Papashvily, All the Happy Endings; and Radway, Reading the Romance.

  6. O'Flaherty, Other People's Myths, p. 148.

  7. Barnett, Ignoble Savage, p. 48; Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims, p. 144.

  8. I have found the following works useful in understanding the emergence of the Newtonian-Lockean sensory psychology and epistemology, as well as the attendant developments over the next century and a half, especially the rise of a culture of sensibility: Todd, Sensibility; Proby, English Fiction; Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability; Brissenden, Virtue in Distress; Beasley, Novels of the 1740's; Sambrook, Eighteenth Century; Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims; McKeon, Origins of the English Novel; Gillian Brown, Domestic Individualism; Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility; Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse; Samuels, Culture of Sentiment; Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility; Bredvold, Natural History of Sensibility; and Gura, Wisdom of Words.

  9. Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility, p. 69. See also Fiering, “Irresistible Compassion.”

  10. Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims, p. 12.

  11. Cited in Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, p. 42, n. 60.

  12. Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility, p. 6. This form of the transmission of knowledge should not surprise us, nor should the fact that developments in science quickly affected literary forms. It is well known, for instance, that secondhand information on Einstein's theories of relativity, which Virginia Woolf gained from acquaintances at Oxford, affected the form of her novels and inspired aspects of her narrative manipulation of time.

  13. “Moral Philosophy” (unsigned), Encyclopaedia Britannica.

  14. As Brissenden has noted, concerning Richardson's works, “The sentiments in his novels were indeed ‘moral and instructive’ and they were intended to provide comfort as much for the reader as for the heroine during her trials” (Virtue in Distress, p. 100).

  15. Cited in Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility, p. 9.

  16. Dr. Benjamin Slocock read Pamela to his congregation from the pulpit. See Beasley, Novels of the 1740's, pp. 134, 138.

  17. For an introduction to the culture of sentiment and the moral economy of tears in France, see Vincent-Buffault, History of Tears.

  18. Tompkins, Sensational Designs, p. xii.

  19. Garland 7. The source of these lines is not cited on the title page, but we may assume that most contemporary readers would have readily recognized them as from Addison's Cato, 5.2.15-18.

  20. In Before Novels, J. Paul Hunter convincingly argues that the early novel is indebted to the diverse literature of wonders and remarkable occurrences, including the works of Puritans such as Cotton Mather, while eschewing the earlier reliance on supernatural intervention in history because of the increasing acceptability of rational scientific explanations of the world and of causality.

  21. Herbert Ross Brown, Sentimental Novel, p. 38.

  22. Shaftsbury, cited in Humphreys, “‘The Friend of Mankind,’” p. 205.

  23. See Fiering, “Irresistible Compassion”; Crane, “Suggestions”; and Donald Greene, “Latitudinarianism and Sensibility.”

  24. Stowe felt that social reformation would come about only through a spiritual conversion in the individual, which would be marked by correct emotional responses to specific situations: “There is one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?” (Uncle Tom's Cabin, p. 448).

    For more on the ways in which Uncle Tom's Cabin participated in the cultural work of the sentimental novel, see Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” in Sensational Designs, pp. 122-46. In the following pages, however, I will suggest by example that the sentimental novel was not exclusively a female literary form but was a culturally available form appropriated by female authors for their own soteriological or religiopolitical purposes.

  25. The Spectator, No. 418, cited in Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility, pp. 62-63.

  26. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, p. 569.

  27. Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 116.

  28. Cited in Davidson, Revolution and the Word, p. 43.

  29. Thomas Berger followed in this tradition of the fictional ruse of an editor retelling “remarkable” tales in his 1964 best-selling novel Little Big Man, a modern fictional captivity.

  30. Davidson, Revolution and the Word, p. 14.

  31. Herbert Ross Brown, Sentimental Novel, pp. 86-87.

  32. Ibid., p. 78.

  33. On the popularization of Ignation and other meditative practices in Protestant circles, see Martz, Poetry of Meditation, as well as the more recent work of J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels, which links these practices to the novel.

  34. Cited in Herbert Ross Brown, Sentimental Novel, p. 85. In an important sense, Sterne's understanding of the complicity of the author and the reader in the construction of meaning (more precisely, shared meaning) would have helped modern critics to avoid the major weakness of early reader-response and audience-oriented criticism—an overemphasis on the author's ability to channel or structure the reader's response. The reader was represented as largely passive, while the text, as an autonomous object, had the power to generate specific responses.

  35. Brown notes that some sentimental authors even claimed that medical autopsies, then a new scientific advance, “proved” the refined sensibility of certain characters by revealing the delicate lines of his or her sensorium, the organ of sensibility (ibid., pp. 78-79).

  36. Cited ibid., pp. 9, 76.

  37. On the kidnapping of children for sale into indentured servantship, see Coldham, “‘Spiriting’ of London Children,” and Robert C. Johnson, “Transportation of Vagrant Children.”

  38. On the influence of Scottish commonsense philosophy on Americans, including Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and American fiction, see Terence Martin, Instructed Vision, Gura, Wisdom of Words, and Fiering, Moral Philosophy.


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Criticism: Captivity Narratives And Native Americans


Further Reading