American Civilization

September 10, 2008

The Captivity Narrative in American Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — equiano @ 5:11 pm

Stolen Women, Captured Hearts (1997) with Janine Turner and Michael Greyeyes.

Over 300 years after Mary Rowlandson’s account of her capture, the captivity narrative genre she helped to inaugurate in the colonies became a story-frame for pulp romance. In this pop culture form, captivity is no longer a trial, a spiritual proving ground, but an exit from the stultifications of patriarchal society. The “Savage Series” by Zebra books (Savage Rapture, Savage Conquest, etc.) generally portray a young white woman who meets and falls in love with a Native American man. She is captured, introduced into his family, and some process of transculturation occurs– i.e. her “white blood”/ status as a Euro-American is overcome via ritual integration into the tribe/village. By the end of most (90%) of these pulps the heroine has given birth or is newly pregnant. What are we to make of this vast chasm separating Rowlandson’s narrative (1682) and the fantasy of escape into the wild posited by Lifetime Channel’s version of the pulp romance (1997)?


Historical Context: New England in the late 17th century

1. Transportation/communication difficulties– a pre-industrial age.

“settlements in the northern colonies in the 17th C were small and scattered. Roads were no more than tracks, and rain or the runoff from melting snow easily turned them into mud wallows. Only the smallest streams were bridged. Most of the land remained covered in forest” (Who Built 91).

2.Restoration– the return of a monarch– seems to threaten the “errand into the wilderness”

3.Apparent loss of faith among colonists’ children. Were those born in the colonies somehow different from their parents?

4. Conflict with Native Americans

one of the conflicts between settlers and natives was the european practice of allowing pigs to roam, which then rooted through native crops. also, different ideas of ownership and resistance to further English encroachments. 

5.King Philip’s War: half the towns in New England severely damaged. 1 in 16 male settlers died. Proportionally speaking, the costliest conflict in American history.

6. Metacom was killed in battle after being betrayed by an informer. His body was beheaded and quartered by the English and his head displayed on a stake in Plymouth for 25 years.

7. Though it’s difficult to establish precise numbers it is likely that tens of thousands of colonists/americans were taken captive from first contact through the 19th century.

1641 captives taken in New England 1675 1763.


Publication History of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

Originally published in 1682. Estimated sale of 1,000 in 4 editions in that year. By 1937 there were over 30 editions of the Sovereignty and Goodness of God.


The Captivity Narrative as a Cultural Form

1793: The Manheim anthology published, a compilation of sensationalist, lurid captivity stories.

1889: 2000 different captivity narratives published in the US.

Between 1680-1720 3 of 4 bestsellers in the colonies were captivity narratives.

The formula: attack, capture, adventures in captivity, and rescue/release/escape.

Richard Slotkin:

“In [a captivity narrative] a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God. The sufferer represents the whole, chastened body of Puritan society; and the temporary bondage of the captive to the Indian is a dual paradigm– of the bondage of the soul to the flesh and the temptations arising from original sin, and of the self-exile of the English Israel from England. In the Indian’s devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian’s ‘cannibal’ Eucharist. To partake of the Indian’s love or of his equivalent of bread and wine was to debase, to un-English the very soul. The captive’s ultimate redemption by the grace of Christ and the efforts of the Puritan magistrates is likened to the regeneration of the soul in conversion. The ordeal is at once threatful of pain and evil and promising of ultimate salvation. Through the captive’s proxy, the promise of a similar salvation could be offered to the faithful among the reading public, while the captive’s torments remained to harrow the hearts of those not yet awakened to their fallen nature” (Regeneration through violence).

In the captivity narrative the individual captive becomes a substitute for the larger group. this link between individual/group is explicitly established in Puritan discourse. “the lives of the individual and the group were inseparable”; “the spiritual journey of a single soul became a community drama that served as a paradigm for the plight of the congregation just as the well-being of the congregation was reflected in each member”

The conversion experience as a central structure of Puritan life. Speaking that experience, verbalizing it, was a feature of full initiation into society. 

Mythic character of ICNs: “an archetypal drama, encapsulating in a single narrative strand the Puritan experience of re-location and settlement in the New World. It is suggestive also of a particular world-view, one of ‘apocalyptic crisis, the prevalent sense that imminent horror lurked behind the facade of commonday existence’” (Slotkin quoted in Panay).

The ICN is historically specific: it plays a central role in confirming and creating a Puritan identity. Yet if we look to its structural features, its formal conventions, we can see the way the captivity narrative continues to influence national identity over time.

An archetypal emplotment of bondage and redemption. Compare with biblical antecedents. The Hebrews in Egypt, etc. The Romance: maiden in distress and knight errant, etc. Relate to various other cultural traditions: slavery narratives, tales of captivity by Barbary pirates, abolitionist tracts, the idioms of Civil Rights Movement, a contemporary search for an autonomous, utopian space in the face of a “totally administered society”/ postmodern alienation.

Captured by Pirates!: Abraham Browne’s A Book of Rememberance of God’s Provydences Towards Me Throughout the Cours of My Life, Written for My Own Medytacon in New Engl. recounts his captivity in North Africa (Morocco) in 1655.

Most popular Barbary Captivity narrative in the US: James Riley’s Authentic Narrative of his capture by “wandering Arabs”– Lincoln owned a copy. Joshua Gee’s account: catpured in 1680 and held in Albiers for 6 years. Ransom arranged by Samuel Sewall. Gee’s son eventually became a minister, with Cotton Mather, in Boston’s North Church.

Moroccan corsairs ranged as far as Newfoundland, where they commandeered 40 ships.

Accounts of Barbary captivity were so prevalent that a confidence game known as the “Algerian Prisoner Fraud” attempted to swindle the innocent. 

ICNs ironically represent the white captive in the hands of some racial or cultural other at precisely the time when it was thousands and eventually millions of African captives who suffered slavery. Also, Native Americans, who were, as the Norton tells us, “sold into slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere, some transported as far away as Tangier” (62).  

Keep in mind that as many as 2/3 of the colonists were indentured as well.

Freedom as a national trope and a leitmotif of political rhetoric occludes the fact that for most of its history most inhabitants of America from the era of exploration onward were not free in any meaningful sense. 

Relationship between spatial movement and psychological/spiritual transformation. In a culture of immigrants geography is autobiography. Persistence of the key value of social/spatial mobility. Though the US is only the fifth most socially mobile nation in the world, its inhabitants move often (source: Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development 2008 Report on inter-generational mobility).

Ideological work of the captivity narrative: compare with other leitmotifs and figures of American history and culture:

the last stand (Alamo); the circled wagons; the frontiersman/woman– all of these tropes are largely defensive. America as a nation whose aggressions are always figured as defensive in nature: WMD in Iraq, etc.

the narrative shifts to address changing conditions and demands: from Mary Rowlandson to Jessica Lynch.

the question of sexual violence (rape) against female captives. the implicit question: what happened to you in the woods?

captivity narrative as a means of ordering a disordered experience.

ethnographic dimension of the captivity narrative: a description of the life ways of the Other.

The first captivity novel was The History of Maria Kittle (1797) by Ann Eliza Bleecher.

Others: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Hope Leslie by Sedgewick.



Phases in the Development of the Captivity Narrative

Era of colonization: colonists as victims of Native American attack, an explicit typological dimension. The connection between the individual and the community emphasized. Sex and gender: fears about the limits of European patriarchy, that women may be seduced to the Native side. Fascination with the wild. 

19th century: Captivity narratives are secularized, become more violent, lurid, and ideological. As racial categories are more sharply delineated fears of miscegenation are amplified. Later narratives such as the Captivity of the Oatman Girls are explicitly propagandistic, and work to rationalize the genocide of Native Americans. The Dime Novel incorporates elements of the captivity narrative as a means of titillating readers, as in Deadwood Dick, Prince of the Road (1877): “He stood there, to behold a sight that made the blood boil in his veins. Securely bound with ter face toward a stake, was a young girl– a maiden of perhaps seventeen summers, whom, at a single glance, one might surmise was remarkably pretty. She was stripped to the waist, and upon her snow-white back were numerous welts from which trickled diminutive rivulets of crimson. Her head was dropped against the stake to which she was bound, and she was evidently insensible. With a cry of astonishment and indignation, Fearless Frank leaped forward to sever her bonds, when like so many grim phantoms there filed out of the chaparral, and circled around him, a score of hideously painted savages. One glance at the portly leader satisfied Frank as to his identity. It was the fiend incarnate– Sitting Bull!”

Turn of the Century into the 1910s: the threat to young white women from a raced Other (“a Chinese millionaire”, “Russian Jew”, “half hindoo- half Spanish”, Arab, Mexican– all characters in White Slavery plays and films) takes new forms. The strange case of Ella Gingles. White slavery plays (Escaped from the Harem, Dealers in White Women), reformers’ exposes (Law and the White Slaver, The Great War on White Slavery, studies by various “Vice Commissions”), films focussing on young white women abducted for the purposes of sex trafficking (The Fatal Hour, Traffic in Souls). Historians later establish that the white slavery scare was a moral panic that did not reflect realities. White slavery plays and films often claimed to be didactic, yet were often condemned as sensationalistic.

The notion of a “vice trust”– the language of finance used to describe sex industry– indicates that the pervasiveness of corporate capitalism has already begun to structure Progressive Era accounts of social problems. Compare with “wage slavery” and “white slavery”.  The moral panic about sex trafficking also expressed anxieties related to racial purity, increased Southern and Eastern European immigration, urbanization, industrialization, changing gender roles (“the New Woman”) and sexual mores. Out of this concern comes the formation of the FBI, creation of vice squads, censorship of the film industry, the Mann Act. 

Emma Goldman: “The people are a fickle baby that must have new toys everyday. The ‘righteous’ cry against the white slave traffic is just such a toy It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs.”

Traffic in Souls (1913) Banned in Chicago, running at 28 theaters in New York. 

The Cold War period: advent of alien abduction narratives. Betty and Barney Hill. A plethora of abduction stories, sci fi films, ufo sightings. 

The Alien Abduction Narrative

First widely publicized case of alien abduction: Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. Interracial couple. Reported ‘missing time’ while driving at night on a remote road in New Hampshire. Under hypnosis recalled being taken aboard a space craft and examined.

Similar images and narrative patterns between ICN and abduction stories. Mass audience. “central metaphor”: crossing frontiers and the forced experience of another culture. transculturation. Removed from home society, place into new social relations. single individual snatched from home.  

Unknown terrain. Stripped of distinguishing cultural markers such as clothing.

Alien abduction stories often feature fear of human/alien hybridization. the human race transformed or taken over. In a sense this is an analogy for ICNs with their implicit fears of misegenation or transculturation.

The Manchurian Candidate. Brainwashing. Stockholm Syndrome. A new vocabulary to describe the development of psychological warfare in the pursuit of total victory. Increasingly, the perceived threat against the social order comes from within. 

The Golden Era Western: Until the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s, Hollywood’s cinematization of the Frontier was fairly straightforward– cowboys v. Indians. As a liberal, anti-racist sensibility began to spread throughout American culture in the aftermath of WWII, the Western began to change. John Ford’s The Searchers, a captivity narrative in which the captive is almost entirely absent, reflects this transformation in the film’s protagonist, a rugged individualist whose racist antipathy for Comanches threatens to unhinge him. 

clip from The Searchers

The 60s: Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Fears of hippie mind control. Losing the young to counterculture/subculture.

1980s to the present: The missing white girl of the month. Electronic media disseminate stories of young white women under threat. The form of TV news– brief, repeated segments; immediacy of documentarian footage (handheld cameras in the field interspersed with still photos, interviews with family/officials, the anchor’s authoritative voice-over– gives the stories greater impact.

2003: The Captivity Narrative as Propaganda for the War on Terror

Jessica Lynch’s capture and rescue in Iraq. A new female figure. Media claims that she went down fighting. Emptied the clip of her rifle. The female soldier to some extent masculinzed– effective, martial– in contrast to the helpless maiden of earlier iterations of captivity.

From the Washington Post:

“Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday. Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in the fighting March 23, one official said.”

Compare this media-confected account of Lynch’s experience with another scenario from David Mamet’s Spartan:



Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: