Mary Rowlandson Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Mary Rowlandson 1637?-1711

American autobiographer.

Rowlandson was the author of a single work, The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), a chronicle of her eleven-week captivity by Algonquian Indians. This account—generally referred to simply as Rowlandson's Narrative— was one of the earliest autobiographical works published by an Anglo-American woman and was arguably the first Indian captivity narrative, marking the beginning of a new genre that would remain popular until the nineteenth century. Many critics consider it one of the best works of its type ever written and point to its influence on not only on subsequent captivity narratives, but on the development of the novel and on the formation of white attitudes towards Native Americans. Rowlandson's Narrative is also valued by scholars for what it reveals about Puritan and Native American cultures and societies.

Biographical Information

Rowlandson was born Mary White around 1637 in Somerset, England, one of ten children born to John and Joan White. While she was an infant she immigrated with her mother and siblings to the American colonies, joining her father, who had preceded them. The family lived in several communities in Massachusetts before settling in the new village of Lancaster in 1653. There, the Whites became prominent landowners. In 1656 Rowlandson married Joseph Rowlandson, the minister of the local Puritan church. The couple had four children, three of whom survived infancy. On February 10, 1676, during the so-called King Philip's War, which pitted the united Algonquian tribes against the English colonists, a Wampanoag war party attacked Lancaster, killing many of the residents and destroying the town. However, the Wampanoags took Rowlandson, her three children, Mary, Joseph, and Sarah, and several other colonists captive. Rowlandson was injured in the attack, but her wounds were not as severe as those of her youngest child, Sarah, who later died during captivity. Separated from her older children, Rowlandson was held for eleven weeks. She experienced starvation, physical abuse, and hardship from the many “removes,” or forced relocations; she saw acquaintances brutalized and killed. Rowlandson relied on her faith in God to survive, interpretating her experiences in religious terms. After being ransomed on May 2, 1676, Rowlandson was reunited with her husband; their surviving children were released shortly thereafter. The family spent the next year in Boston before moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut, in 1677. Rowlandson probably wrote the original draft of the Narrative in this period and circulated the work among friends. Within a year of her husband's death in 1678, Rowlandson was remarried, to Captain Samuel Talcott, a gentleman farmer and leader of the Connecticut colony. Her Narrative was published in 1682, probably at the urging of Increase Mather, who prized it as a work of moral instruction. Mather likely assisted in its publication and was probably the author of the preface featured in early editions of the book. Rowlandson herself was apparently involved in the publication of the first edition only. Little else is known about the rest of Rowlandson's life, save that she outlived her second husband as well. Rowlandson died in Wethersfield on January 5, 1711.

Major Works

Rowlandson's Narrative chronicles her experiences during the eleven weeks in 1676 that she was held captive by Native Americans after a raid on her community. The account is written in a simple, colloquial style, which at intervals gives way to a more elevated and rhetorical style employing biblical quotation and allusion. Throughout, Rowlandson casts her story as a spiritual autobiography, presenting her captivity and its tribulations as a test or punishment from God and using the occasion as an opportunity for a close examination of her soul. Divided into twenty sections corresponding to the “removes,” the Narrative begins with a description of the raid, progresses through the actual captivity experience with its enforced marches between locations, and ends with Rowlandson's release. In the process of telling her story, Rowlandson reveals much about Puritan culture and attitudes towards women and Native Americans; similarly, she provides information about Native American culture, though often without appreciating or even clearly understanding it. Rowlandson's autobiographical account of her internment established the model for subsequent captivity narratives, and her emphasis on her role as mother laid the groundwork for later women's writing, including some African American slave narratives.

Critical Reception

Immediately popular upon its release in 1682, Rowlandson's Narrative went through four editions in its first year alone and has been published in some forty editions since that time. Early on it was admired as a fervent expression of Puritan religious belief. Almost from the first, however, Rowlandson's account and subsequent captivity narratives were used to justify the removal of Native Americans from lands being settled by English colonists. By the eighteenth century the depictions in these works of white settlers—especially women—suffering at the hands of Indians were used to garner support for wars against Native Americans. In the nineteenth century aspects of captivity narratives were incorporated into popular novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and others. By the twentieth century, as the popularity of Rowlandson's book waned, critical interest in it increased. Scholars such as Richard Slotkin and James K. Folsom, Margaret H. Davis, Deborah J. Dietrich, and many others have analyzed the Puritan culture represented in Rowlandson's Narrative, while others, including Laura Arnold, have examined the picture of Algonquian culture the text provides. Related studies by Deborah J. Dietrich, Christopher Castiglia, Teresa A. Toulouse, and Steven Neuwirth, have focused on gender roles and the process of identity-formation in the Puritan society Rowlandson depicts. Parley Ann Boswell has stressed Rowlandson's presentation of herself as a mother and has traced the influence of the Narrative on later women's writing. David Downing and Dawn Henwood have explored Rowlandson's use of biblical references, and Michelle Burnham has linked the author's use of such material to the presence of dual narrative voices in the work. Burnham has seen the use of separate “colloquial” and “biblical” voices as deriving from the contact between European and Native American cultures in the text. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian for her part has viewed this narrative split as resulting from “a clash of codes between Rowlandson's psychological and religious interpretations of her experience.” Critics have also examined the Narrative as an influential work of literature, comparing it to other captivity narratives and, by common consensus, judging it the founding work of a uniquely American genre. Many have characterized its influence in even broader terms, regarding Rowlandson's Narrative as a work that contributed to the creation of a national identity. Rebecca Blevins Faery has investigated how the account was employed in the process of formulating an American identity based on white male superiority. Slotkin and Folsom, summarizing the central role the Narrative played in the development of American culture, have declared: “Rowlandson's book is … to be taken not only as the creation of a Puritan myth, but as the starting point of a cultural myth affecting America as a whole. Gradually, ‘the captivity’ became part of the basic vocabulary of American writers and historians, offering a symbolic key to the drama of American history: a white woman, symbolizing the values of Christianity and American civilization, is captured and threatened by a racial enemy and must be rescued by the grace of God (or, after the Puritan times, by an American hero).”