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Captive Imagination: Early American Captivity Narratives and the Citizen of Democracy

ENGL 243.601
R 5:30-8:30

Near the end of her famous 1682 Indian captivity narrative Mary Rowlandson poetically testifies, “When others are sleeping mine eyes are weeping.” In a time of rejoicing for her “restoration” she pauses to observe a fissure in her smooth repatriation to Puritan society. Such moments are not uncommon in the thousands of North American narratives about the capture and captivity of whites by Indians. Captivity narratives were popular in Early America with Rowlandson’s story alone yielding five editions by 1720 and fifteen by 1800. They wielded substantial influence over the development of American literature and identity. With the vast majority of extant captivity narratives by or about women, Puritan propagandists offered them as evidence of the menace Indians posed to white womanhood. Such narratives have served to cement racial identities and divisions as well as to reassert gender hierarchies through the common tropes of “redemption” and “restoration.” Alternatively, captivity narratives have been cast as religious testimonies of spiritual triumph. Despite this pattern of politicized manipulation, the narratives themselves remain, and they offer glimpses of critical cultural exchange between English settlers and Native Americans. Far from self-explanatory factual chronicles, captivity narratives exhibit pronounced social ambivalence. The experiences described kindle the captive consciousness irreversibly, and thus enable the imagination of a more mutable relationship between self and society. What, for instance, is the precise content and contour of Mary Rowlandson’s weeping wakefulness? What specifically has she awakened to that her society cannot see as it slumbers? This course will argue that the large body of captivity narratives (including the novels of captivity or “captivity romances” that become important at the end of the eighteenth century) in American literature confirms the crucial significance of movement between cultures in the development of American identity and democracy. Though women will remain disenfranchised for nearly one hundred-fifty years after the revolution, and victimization of Native Americans will wax to an epic scale, American democracy rests on observations discernible in captivity narratives and largely made possible by both men and women drawn largely, though not exclusively, from early New England, as well as novel such as Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel, Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

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