Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011

"Narratives of Confinement: Revisiting the Founding Myths of American Culture" by András Tarnóc

András Tarnóc earned his PhD at Debrecen University in 2001. Presently he serves as the Head of the Department of American Studies at Eszterházy Károly College of Eger. His main research interests include settler-Indian relations in the colonial period, the dynamics of multicultural societies, and post-colonial literature. Currently he is working on a research project exploring the literary, historical, psychological, and educational aspects of Indian captivity narratives. He is an author of a monograph and several scholarly articles on the above mentioned subjects. Email:

1. Preliminary observations

Most noted cultural analysts, among them Richard Slotkin, (Regeneration through Violence. Gunfighter Nation) and more recently in 2007 Susan Faludi (The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America) have asserted that the Indian captivity narrative can be considered one of the founding myths of American culture. These reports at the same time are but a small fraction of a wealth of confinement narratives ranging from the recollections of the victims of Barbary Coast pirates via the slave narrative to convent captivity stories and accounts of prisoners of war.

Consequently, sharing the affirmative positions of Katherine Zabelle Derounian–Stodola and Daniel E. Williams, the present essay aims to examine the mythopoeic capability of such narratives of confinement. The respective theoretical apparatus primarily employs Zsolt Virágos’ tripartite theory distinguishing between classic, archetypal (M1) and ideologically charged self-justifying myths (M2) along with myths with a creative force continuously integrated into general social consciousness (M3). The essay will also utilize T. S. Eliot’s mythical method in addition to Philip Wheelwright’s insights into cultural myths.

Moreover, Slotkin’s concept of myth as prioritized narrative details reaffirming the moral and ideological convictions of a given community will be instrumental as well. In addition to revealing the respective archetypal, typological and general culture-shaping features this paper will explore how these narratives of Indian confinement spanning over three centuries have fulfilled their mythicizing, or self-authenticating potential.


2. Reflections in a Myth Criticist’s Mirror

At the beginning of the present inquiry a distinction should be made between the captivity narrative and the captivity mythology or a cultural product and the expression of a shared memory, respectively. While, according to Slotkin, such works as John Barlow’s Columbiad (1805) or Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930) attempted to summarize the American national experience, these texts failed to obtain the quasi-religious status required of myths, namely a capability “to dramatize the world vision and historical sense of a people or culture, while reducing centuries of experience into a constellation of compelling metaphors” (Regeneration 6). This purported metaphoric universe is made up of the first heroes of the nation, or as Slotkin holds the true Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were the fur trappers, the hunters, the explorers of the wilderness, and of course the Indian captive.

Philip Wheelwright’s mythopoeic mode of consciousness model provides additional reinforcement for the first level of Virágos’s taxonomy. Accordingly, mythmaking as a psychological and social activity is divided into three stages: the primary or mystic phase, in which the repetitive activities and the individual perception of the mythmaker dominate; the romantic phase emphasizes the social function of the given myth; while the consummatory level transcending the narrative’s logical and linguistic forms enables the protagonist or mythmaker to act as a prophet (Regeneration 12–13). The Indian captivity narrative appears to meet all three levels of the criterion system. The rendering of the ordeals and the descriptions of the given environment (as seen in the case of Rachel Plummer) allows the captive to function as a primary mythmaker, the recollections of the captive and especially the moral message to be learned as implied by Mary Rowlandson’s sigh:” It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (467) promotes social cohesion, while the depiction of the heathen and barbarous Indian anticipates and at the same time provides justification for the elimination of Native American presence on the frontier.

Wheelwright also distinguishes between cultural and archetypal myths. The former refers to stories, tales that express the beginnings of new epochs in a given culture, while the latter, suggestive of the captivity narrative, alludes to texts that combine and correlate individual experience and psychology with collective history and with the processes of cosmic evolution. The merging of the experiential, historical and cosmogonic threads results in the fundamental motif of the heroic quest (Regeneration 8-12). Consequently, the mythopoeic functions and the end products can be interrelated as the experiential strand is applicable in the primary stage, the historical function is prevalent in the romantic phase, while the cosmogonic aspect is anticipated in the consummatory level. The categorization of captivity narratives as classic or Virágos’ M1-type myths is substantiated by the use of such authorial devices as frequent invocations of the Bible, the deployment of typological strategies, and the use of demonic/apocalyptic imagery

Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Temperley argue that the main reason behind the invocation of the Old Testament in typological descriptions is the presaging or foreshadowing of the New Testament (41). Typology can take place in two ways: by correspondence and correlation between figures of the Old Testament and the New Testament or by establishing a connection between sacred and secular history. The captive resorts to typology for identifying private or communal justification for the ordeal, to obtain spiritual reinforcement, and to convey the suggestion or anticipation of the Christ image. In narratives of confinement the captive’s self-identification with Biblical, primarily Old Testament figures is prevalent, which also implies that just like the Old Testament lays the foundation for the emergence of Christ, the respective tribulations may create a parallel between the captive and the Redeemer.

The typological references include a wide range of characters from the Old Testament both on the individual and community level. Mary Rowlandson’s invocation of Job’s lament: “And I only am escaped alone to tell the News “(437) is substantiated by Emory Elliot considering her a New England Job “undergoing a lonely metaphysical passage through the dark night of the soul” (111). When Sarah, Mrs. Rowlandson’s youngest child dies in captivity, the bereaved mother recalls the lament of Jacob: “Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin also” (441). Loth’s wife is another Biblical paradigm employed by the captive. As Mary Rowlandson is carried further and further away from her own home she finds consolation in the fate of the spouse that turned into a pillar of salt while escaping from the burning Sodom.

This typological reference offers a dual interpretation. While naturally, the first approach is the comparison of Lancaster, Mrs. Rowlandson’s home to the city of sin, she evokes the parallel in the sixth Remove, that is, after she had been taken a considerable distance from her hometown. As reported in Genesis 19:26 Loth’s family including his wife and two daughters motivated by the warning: "Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" (New International Version 1984 by Biblica) is running away from the burning Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus paradoxically the application of this trope implies that the wilderness might serve as an escape, instead of the standard contemporary interpretations as a threatening environment. Moreover, the reference to the pillar of salt connotes a petrified emotional state, or a desensitized mental condition potentially correlated with symbolic death, a common by-product of the first, separation stage of the captivity experience.

In addition to individual analogies by establishing a parallel between a given group’s fortune and an apocalyptic pattern, Mary Rowlandson’s narrative provides examples for typological identification on the community level. Consequently, the captive is seen as a representative of Christians among barbarians. Mrs. Rowlandson’s lament in the Sixth Remove is instructive: “The Indians were as thick as the trees: it seemed as if there had been a thousand Hatchets going at once […] I my self in the midst, and no Christian soul near me, and yet how hath the Lord preserved me in safety? “(445).

Corresponding to Northrop Frye’s taxonomy consisting of mineral, plant, animal, human, and divine elements (141), captivity narratives tend to display both apocalyptic and demonic imagery. Such examples are provided by Rachel Plummer presenting an exhaustive catalogue of the flora and fauna of the American Southwest, while in the Narrative of John Gyles the reader is even familiarized with the Latin equivalent of the name of the respective animals. In Plummer’s account the animal world is represented by the prairie dog, prairie fox, mountain sheep, buffalo, and the elk, plants include the wild flax, and timber, while the mineral world is best exemplified by the depiction of dripstones in the cave episode of the Narrative: “Reader, you may fancy yourself viewing, at once, an entirely new planetary system, a thousand times more sublime and more beautiful than our own, and you fall far short of the reality I here witnessed” (349).

Demonic animal imagery is also represented by Mary Rowlandson’s description of her captors as “ravenous Beasts,” ”a company of Sheep torn by Wolves, and hell- hounds,” (437) or as “roaring Lyons, and Salvage Bears”(463). Mrs. Rowlandson’s first night with her captors is given an infernal interpretation as well: “Oh the roaring, and singing and danceing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell”(438). Rachel Plummer’s reference to the man-tiger fusing the elements of man and beast with a capability of destroying nature and intimidating the Indians is a further example of demonic imagery (346).

T. S. Eliot’s view of M1-type classic myth as a “universalizing, transcendentalizing device with an energy emanating, form-creating, and catalytic organization potential” can be instrumental as well (Országh–Virágos 58). Certainly the reception of captivity accounts had a universalizing impact as the trials and tribulations perpetuated by the protagonist appealed to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. The misadventures at the American frontier satisfied the ever-expanding public desire for escapade. The Indian captivity narrative served as a warning for colonists and prospective settlers of the frontier of the dangers of venturing beyond the hedge.

The transcendentalizing aspect of the Indian captivity narrative is based on its capability of functioning as a spiritual journal or the chronicle of regaining one’s lost religious commitment. Roy Harvey Pearce’s emphasis on the texts’ confessional aspect is substantiated by Mary Rowlandson’s laments “I then remembered, how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent, and how evily I had walked in Gods sight; which lay so close unto my spirit, that it was easie for me to see how righteous it was with God to cut off the thread of my life, and cast me out of his presence forever” (440), or by Robert Eastburn’s admission of the gravity of his guilt as compared to the extent of the respective ordeal: “My Afflictions are certainly far less than my Sins deserve!” (158).

Slotkin’s recognition of the spiritual aspects of the captivity experience appears to confirm Eliot’s transcendentalizing function too. Accordingly, the confinement experience begins with separation as a result of “devilish visitation” or attack by the heathen Indians, the primary ordeal takes place in the wilderness in a form of an “enforced sojourn in evil climes under the rule of man-devils,” as the misadventure culminates in “ultimate redemption of body and soul” (Regeneration 130).

The captivity narratives potentially anticipating Charles Olson’s notion of the projective verse “as high-energy constructs operating within a field of composition” (Országh–Virágos 327) displayed a certain energy emanating force as well. Tara Fitzpatrick points out that texts written by female authors revealed a new defiant universe for women aiming to break away from WASPM control (5). Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative was considered the first travel book published by a woman author, and John Marrant’s Narrative is one of the first American books written by a black man. Moreover, Daniel Williams concluded that narratives of confinement fulfilled a significant cultural mission in the early Republic, reinforcing the rhetorical and social distinction between slavery and liberty along with illustrating how people functioned when denied freedom. Consequently, these narratives provided an action pattern for minority or women readers or a way of coping with their current disadvantageous situation. Furthermore, as Slotkin asserts, these accounts also promoted a general action pattern for the settler communities in dealing with the Indians of the frontier. The potential responses included either violent retribution or passive submission (Regeneration 45).

The captivity narratives also fulfilled a form-creating function demonstrated by the rewritings and stylization of several accounts including that of Elizabeth Hanson’s. As VanDerBeets reports there are significant stylistic differences between the American (1728, 1754) and the English editions (1760) of said texts, the former being “relatively, natural and straightforward accounts told in the homely language of the period,” while the latter displays “rhetorical emphasis and stylistic embellishment” (Held Captive 131).

Besides functioning as classic M1-type myths, captivity narratives operate as ideologically charged M2 texts via resorting to stereotyping and versus patterns. The primary purpose of stereotyping and ideological descriptions was the forcing of the Indian into the position of the Other. As Slotkin asserted, the captivity narratives enabled whites to provide a definitive identity for themselves through the exclusion of the Indians from the respective set of definitions. The description of the particular barbarities strengthened the image of the sophisticated Puritan, the invocation of the heathen Indian reinforced the notion of the pious Christian, while the depiction of the Native American as a noble savage assigned to the Puritan the role of the tamer of the wilderness.

Stereotyping in captivity narratives, however, is an ambiguous feature. As the frontier is considered a contact zone or palisade, the two clashing cultures mutually impacted on each other. A general tendency of the descriptions is negative stereotyping based on essentialism and prejudice at the beginning of the respective experience, and as the captive gradually accommodates himself to the particular conditions, the depictions become more understanding and in some cases even empathic. Mary Rowlandson after accepting Indian food and even the burial of her child takes a tearful farewell from her captors referred to as friends: “So I took my leave of them and in coming along my heart melted into tears” (463). Mary Jemison describes her first husband in positive terms emphasizing his manly physique, courage, and heroism, while adding a qualification: “Sheninjee was a noble man; large in stature; elegant in his appearance; generous in his conduct; courageous in war; a friend to peace and a great lover of justice […] Yet, Sheninjee was an Indian.” (82).

There are descriptions, however, which do not imply any acceptance of the Other. Rachel Plummer never comes to terms with the trauma of losing her child and the direct experience of physical and emotional brutality. Her and other authors’ including Peter Williamson’s rendering of blood-chilling barbarity on the one hand offers a justification for the elimination of the enemy, and at the same time it testifies to the use of the well-tested psychological mechanism of alleviating or mitigating one’s defeat by enlarging the capabilities of one’s opponent. “Terrible and shocking to human nature were the barbarities daily committed by these savages!” (218).

The captivity motif not only carried a warning to settlers at the North American frontier, but it functioned as a frequently deployed culture-shaping mechanism throughout American history. Consequently, in addition to being expressed in the actual tales of the captive’s suffering and redemption, the captivity myth exercised a considerable impact on the total spectrum of literary and extra-literary culture substantiating the third, M3 level of Virágos’ taxonomy entailing “fictive, subjectivized, man-made constructs aspiring to the status of myth” (Virágos Modernists 178). Thus, the captivity myth resurfaced in revival sermons as Cotton Mather commemorated Hannah Dustan’s ordeals in his 1697 address titled “Humiliations follow’d by Deliverances” or Jonathan Edwards frequently resorted to the notion of spiritual captivity or “going on in Ways of Sin” (326) in his orations as well.

James Fenimore Cooper also utilized the motif of the female captive in the characters of Alice and Cora Munro of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and at the turn of the 20th century the captive woman appears in popular fiction demonstrated by E. R. Burrough’s The Princess of Mars (1912) in the figure of Deja Thoris. Moreover, the sympathy and emotional identification with the captive was exploited for anti-labor propaganda in the works of Allen Pinkerton in the late 19th century. The primary target was the Irish-American terrorist group, the Molly Maguires, as the author in his book titled The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives (1877) draws a parallel between the fate of Detective MacParlan and that of Mary Rowlandson. (Gunfighter 142)


3. Final Notes

The Indian captivity myth is undoubtedly a crucial component of the ideation of American cultural identity. The respective ordeals, the attack on the frontier homes, the loss of family members, the threat to Puritanism, the physical and emotional brutality not only provided lessons in morality, but reinforced the duty of mission undertaken by a chosen nation. The Indian captivity narrative, as a by-product of the clash of the two primary groups of the frontier shed light at the less triumphant side of the concept of translatio imperii implying the rising glory of American power. Its capability of summarizing the American national experience while expressing a world vision via compelling metaphors is beyond doubt. The confinement experience at the hands of Native Americans helped to forge the early clasps of national identity. Consequently, the devilish heathen Other lurking in the collective unconscious of the frontier functioned as a catalyst towards either a directly or vicariously shared experience periodically resurfacing in such traumatic episodes of American history as Custer’s Last Stand, the Vietnam War, the shock of 9/11, and the protracted conflict in the Persian Gulf.


Works Cited

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