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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor
The Heath Anthology Newsletter
Sprint 2000

A New Riverside Edition of American Captivity Narratives

By Gordon M. Sayre, University of Oregon



The New Riverside Editions contain the works of major literary figures such as Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. In editing The New Riverside Edition of American Captivity Narratives, I entered into a different sort of literary history, one that posed new challenges and opportunities for the method of historical and contextual literary study that the Heath Anthology has done so much to advance in the last decade.

First of all, the canonization of the Indian captivity narrative never really claimed to be based solely in the literary skill of the author or aesthetic qualities of the text. It lay in large part in the sensational experiences of the captive.

Second, because captivity stories are usually based on the real experiences of the authors, history is not merely context, it is the force that led to the captivities and raised these individuals to public notice.

Finally, captivity narratives directly reflect the racial conflicts of American history. This is obvious from the titles of nineteenth-century anthologies of the genre, such as Indian Anecdotes and Barbarities, Indian Captivities, or Life in the Wigwam, and A Selection of Some of the More Interesting Narratives of Outrages Committed by the Indians in Their Wars with the White People. I felt that a new anthology had to recognize the history of racism and dispossession practiced against Native American peoples, while at the same time demonstrating the importance of the captivity plot in Anglo-American literature and culture.

Therefore, I set out not only to broaden or revise a literary canon, but to examine the historical circumstances that defined certain experiences as "captivity" and built both a literary tradition and a colonialist ideology around it. My redefinition analyzes captivity as a consequence of European colonialism in Africa and the Americas. In these confrontations of very different cultures, many individuals were forced into new lives on the far side of frontiers. Slave, hostage, interpreter, prisoner of war, missionary, adoptee, martyr - all these words name possible versions of the captivity phenomenon.

When in 1886 the Apache leader Geronimo was captured by the U.S. Army, taken far away from his homeland, and forced to assimilate a new language, new rulers and new means of subsistence, this was a captivity. When Africans were kidnapped, shipped to America, and forced into slavery, this too was captivity. Autobiographical narratives of these experiences often drew upon the literary devices used by Euro-American captives of the Indians, and turned them to new ends. Thus American Captivity Narratives includes texts that reverse the common racial perspective of the genreÑexcerpts from Geronimo: His Own Story and The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. It also shows how many Anglo-American captives like James Smith were adopted into native communities, and then had to negotiate the issue of cultural betrayal when they returned to colonial society.

Other selections in the volume range from the mid-sixteenth to the late nineteenth century, and include translations of German, French, and Spanish texts that predate the famous 1682 narrative of Mary Rowlandson, and that offer precursors and contrasts to the genre as it is known in Anglo-America. Hans Staden lived for several years in the 1550s with the Tupinamba of Brazil. He described in detail their ritual cannibalism and narrowly escaped being eaten himself. Jesuit missionaries Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf presented their captivities as purifying suffering and a chance for a glorious martyrdom. Juan Ortiz's ten years in native Florida prepared him to become a key translator for the conquistador Hernando de Soto, and may also be the basis for the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith.

I believe that this multilingual and cross-cultural view of captivity narratives will not only help students appreciate the broader history of colonial America, but also prepare them to read the familiar New England captivity narratives more critically. For instance, captivity stories were often written not for literary or entertainment value, but as wartime propaganda. Cotton Mather, a leading minister in Puritan Boston, called the Native Americans who captured Hannah Duston "furious Tawnies" and "raging Dragons" and described Dustan's retaliatory murder of ten natives as heroic. Such words and acts as these obviously arose in a climate of inflammatory violence and fear. Students need to appreciate the causes of this fear, and yet be able read through it and expose the often racist language that expresses it.

Wartime writing, like the captivity narrative, often shows the power of literature at its most immediate - rousing readers to cry, to protest, or even to enlist in the army. The story of Jane McCrea was credited with boosting the forces of General George Washington. McCrea, the daughter of a patriotic New York minister, fell in love with a British army officer, and while crossing battle lines to visit her lover was captured and killed by Mohawk allies of the British. Or so the story goes. The novel Miss McCrea (1784) by Frenchman Michel Hilliard d'Auberteuil reveals the tensions that Revolution-era Americans felt with regard to love, gender, family, and loyalty. It is reprinted here complete for the first time in an accessible edition.

Recent critical studies by June Namias, Christopher Castiglia and Michelle Burnham have examined how woman captives elicted their readers' sympathy and aroused anger toward enemies (in McCrea's case the British redcoats). Yet these scholars have also shown that not all female captives were delicate, fainting heroines.

Gertrude Morgan, heroine of a dime novel included in the anthology, set out alone from New York to join her husband in gold rush California. When captured by Indians, she became celebrated for her skill at healing injuries, and finally made her escape on horseback as an accomplished cowgirl.

This new anthology will be suitable not only for courses on the captivity genre, but also for more general classes on American colonial or frontier literature and history.

The introductory essays explain how each text emerges from the events of its time, and how it has evolved into myth in the years since it appeared. The legend of John Smith and Pocahontas, for example, continues to be retold in movies and children's books. The captivity genre therefore offers an invaluable way to analyze American race relations and frontier mythology.

New Riverside Editions: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Rowlandson, and Others: American Captivity Narratives

Edited by Gordon M. Sayre
(University of Oregon)
Available now
ISBN: 0-395-98073-9

 


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