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

Ann Eliza Bleecker

Ann Eliza Bleecker never published anything in her lifetime. Instead, she enclosed her numerous poems and narratives in letters that she circulated among a small group of family and friends. With her fictionalized Indian captivity narrative, The History of Maria Kittle, she took this strategy one step further, presenting the story itself as a letter to her half-sister Susan Ten Eyck. She begins with the salutation “Dear Susan” and interrupts the plot intermittently to address Susan directly and comment on the action. In addition, Bleecker later included the narrative in another letter to her cousin, where she suggested that, like Susan, her young cousin might also benefit from the story. Indian captivity stories, such as those of Hannah Dustan and Mary Rowlandson, were tremendously popular in the late eighteenth century, and Bleecker’s fictionalized account invigorated the genre by giving it an explicitly didactic dimension that links it to the emerging genre of the didactic novel. Bleecker’s mode of expression was influenced heavily by the eighteenth-century British cult of sensibility, and she wrote in the mannered, often hyperbolic, language of feeling popular in didactic fiction.

Bleecker was born in October 1752 in New York City to Margarette van Wyck and Brandt Schuyler, a prosperous merchant, and at a young age she acquired a local reputation for her precocious poetic talent. She often composed “extempore” in the midst of company and at the request of friends. Her poetry ranged from the sophisticated and witty to the satirical and sentimental, as illustrated by the samples in the Heath Anthology. . At seventeen she married John J. Bleecker, and the couple settled on a bucolic estate in Tomhanick, a town eighteen miles north of Albany where John Bleecker had inherited land. Geographically isolated and far from the familiar urban context of her family and friends, Bleecker addressed all her work to friends to alleviate her loneliness. The move to Tomhanick represented the first in a series of losses that seemed to Bleecker to characterize her life. Her involvement in her grief suggests that she was self-consciously fashioning a poetic identity that drew heavily on the era’s “sentimental” virtues.

The central event that provoked Bleecker’s melancholia occurred early in the American Revolution, in the summer of 1777. Threatened by the approaching British troops of General John Burgoyne, who led an expedition from Canada against the colonies, the Bleecker family was forced to flee on foot to Albany with their two daughters, six-year-old Margaretta and the infant Abella. In the course of their journey, Abella died of dysentery. They continued on and were joined by Bleecker’s mother in Red Hook, who also died on the journey. This death was followed by that of Bleecker’s sister, Caty Swits, who had joined them for their return trip to Tomhanick. Every generation in Bleecker’s supportive circle of women had been devastated. Four years later, in 1781, John Bleecker was kidnapped by a band of wandering British soldiers. Though he was soon returned to his family, the trauma of the event led Bleecker to miscarry. From that summer in 1777 until her death in 1783, Bleecker suffered from intense bouts of depression, and maternal loss figures prominently in much of her writing.

Maria Kittle contains many typical features of the Indian captivity narrative: it presents graphic scenes of violence, depicts Native Americans as treacherous savages who mercilessly slay infants and women, and recounts the hardships of Maria’s journey as a captive. Yet in the last third of the narrative, Maria Kittle diverges from the genre by representing Maria’s experiences in Canada after she has been redeemed. Indeed, the story of her captivity carries less emotional weight than this final section in which three colonial women tearfully recount their tales of maternal loss to a sympathetic group of British and French women. Significantly, these stories bear a number of similarities to Bleecker’s experience of losing her own daughter as a result of the invasion of anti-insurrectionary British troops. In transposing her tale of maternal loss onto the Indian captivity narrative, Bleecker expresses the desire for a redemptive community of women who achieve a degree of agency through the acts of telling, hearing, and responding “appropriately” to stories. Yet this agency relies on the racist conventions of Indian captivity narratives that demonize Native Americans, and Bleecker deploys the powerful rhetorical strategies of sentimentalism in the construction of a national identity.

After her death in 1783, her daughter, Margarette Faugères, also a poet (see her poetry in this anthology), published a significant portion of Bleecker’s work, which included twenty-three letters, thirty-six poems, an unfinished short historical novel, The History of Henry and Ann, and The History of Maria Kittle. This material first appeared in The New-York Magazine in 1790 and 1791 and then in a collection entitled The Posthumous Works of Ann Eliza Bleecker in 1793. That Maria Kittle was republished separately in 1797 attests to its popularity.

Allison Giffen
New Mexico State University

Frank Shuffelton
University of Rochester

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graduate University

In the Heath Anthology
On the Immensity of Creation (1773)
Written Before the Retreat from Burgoyne (1773)
from The History of Maria Kittle (1777-1780)  [n.b., Written, first published 1790-1792 in installments, 1793 in whole]

Other Works
The Posthumous Works of Ann Eliza Bleecker (1793)

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The Words of a Woman
  Several poems by Bleecker.

Virtual Museum of History
  A brief biography.

Secondary Sources

Chris Castiglia, Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst, 1996

Julie Ellison, "Race and Sensibility in the Early Republic: Ann Eliza Bleecker and Sarah Wentworth Morton," American Literature, 65, 1993: 445-474

Allison Giffen, "Ann Eliza Bleecker" in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Women Prose Writers to 1820, vol. 20, 1999.

Allison Giffen, " 'til Grief Melodious Grow': The Poems and Letters of Ann Eliza Bleecker," Early American Literature, 28, 1993: 222-241