Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nineteenth-Century Captivity Narratives

A genre specific to North America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the captivity narrative reflects the diversity and complexity of American self-images during the period when the newly-evolving nation began to take shape. In contrast to the commonly held belief that white Americans and Native Americans interacted primarily through major military conflicts, the captivity narratives reveal a greater frequency and more fluid series of encounters—encounters that began with the violent kidnapping of white families but ended in a variety of ways: from the "Indianization" of whites, to arranged exchanges of captives, to successful escapes from imprisonment. The political and cultural views guiding these narratives vary considerably as well: while many stories describe the brutality and cruelty of captivity, others insistently portray their captors as gentle and benevolent.

The body of extant captivity narratives provides access into tensions within early American identity, which was, as many scholars have claimed, dominated by the problem of "the frontier," or the confrontation with an "uncivilized" people who resisted the physical and cultural migration of European Americans. June Namias has observed that Native Americans commonly employed captivity as a strategy, but whites did not. For them, capture "employed elements not found in European warfare in the early modern or modern periods—a forced, prolonged imprisonment with the enemy, a fearful contamination, a separation from one's community, a loss of spouse and children, and a communion with or at least relentless exposure to representatives of the devil." Central themes of these narratives include the dichotomy between civilization and wilderness and the decision between heroic resistance and redemptive suffering.

The earliest narratives were generally autobiographical accounts (sometimes related to a more literate editor) by captives returned to their communities by exchange or through rescue. In the nineteenth century, although factual or semi-factual accounts continued to be published, fictional narratives—primarily sensationalistic, popular "dime novels"—became common. However, despite the association of the captivity narrative with popular fiction, works such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) also exhibit the influence of major elements of the captivity narrative. In addition, as Richard Slotkin and John Saillant have noted, during this period the structure and sentiment of captivity narratives were also employed in a modified form by abolitionist authors, who emphasized the parallels between white captives and black slaves.

Due to the differential treatment of captives—men were much more likely to be killed than women—many of the first-person accounts were authored by women. As a result, captivity narratives have informed historical analyses of images of femininity: women and young girls, considered by European culture to be the most innocent and vulnerable of captives, are portrayed alternatively as stoically and passively awaiting rescue; as heroically staging their own escapes and those of their children; or as adapting to native life without attempting—and sometimes even actively resisting—a return to Anglo-American life. Captivity for many women, as these narratives suggest, offered a kind of freedom unavailable in "civilized" society; whereas in white society women were economically dependent and confined to the home, as captives they often displayed strength, endurance, and fortitude and performed feats of which they were not previously believed capable. The threat of sexual assault on white women by Native American men, often euphemized as forced marriage, pervades many of the most popular captivity narratives. This threat, as Christopher Castiglia has contended, is linked in the popular imagination to the corruption of civilized sensibilities through integration into a native lifestyle: this possibility, to the minds of early settlers, emphasized the malleability of European American identity, existing as it did on the frontier of a vast wilderness. A standard element of these narratives is the establishment of either the most extreme difference between white and Native cultures, or the subtle similarity between the two.

In opposition to the straightforward accounts of earlier periods, nineteenth-century narratives more deliberately expressed political and cultural views, whether violently anti-Indian or more conciliatory. Richard VanDerBeets has argued that the captivity narrative may be read as propaganda that became increasingly vehement and incendiary in order to justify westward expansion. In the popular "dime novels," both Native and white characters were highly stylized, and the plots melodramatically followed the same general pattern of suffering and redemption established by the first American captivity narrative, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in 1682. The captivity narrative also became a significant genre in children's literature, in which form it self-consciously offered moral and religious lessons. Thus the captivity narrative reflected and contributed significantly to the self-conception of the nation, and became a major genre in early American literature. Although the popularity of the captivity narrative waned with the stabilization and effective erasure of the frontier toward the end of the nineteenth century, the genre continues to influence literary constructions of American identity.