Mary Rowlandson and Identity

Mary Rolwandson’s A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson: A Minister’s Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made Public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted (1682) always fascinates students. For me Rowlandson’s text provides a multitude of connections to other works in an Early American literature survey from texts by John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Increase Mather, James Fenimore Cooper, William Apess, and others. Along with these connections, Rowlandson’s text provides an opportunity to discuss captivity narratives, the Puritans errand into the wilderness, and Puritan theology.  On this read through, the aspect of Rowlandson’s narrative that stuck out to me occurs in the title and the “Preface to the Reader” which most scholars attribute to Increase Mather.

300px-1770_maryrowlandson_captivityMather’s preface provides readers, who will hopefully learn spiritual lessons from Rowlandson’s experience, with the background they need to encounter the narrative. While he does this, he also subverts the agency and identity of Rowlandson herself. This subversion begins in the title (typed in full above) when Mary’s name appears only once. Immediately following her name, we get information that she was “A Minister’s Wife in New-England,” thus defining her role not as individual but as a help mate to her husband. This erasure of Rowlandson’s identity continues throughout the course of the preface until she takes her story. However, even when she takes up her own story, we do not know, fully, how much influence others may have had on her text, specially in regards to the placement of scripture references.

Reading through the preface, we can see that Rowlandson loses her identity because rather than referring to Rowlandson by her name, Mather uses other terms to construct her existence. In fact, Mather, with his nearly eight (to my count) referneces to Rowlandson, never uses her name. Instead, Mather, introduces her in the second paragraph by situating her in relation to her husband. Mather writes,

The most solemn and remarkable part of this Tragedy may that justly be reputed which fell upon the Family of that Reverend Servant of God, Mr. Joseph Rowlandson, the faithful Pastor of the Church of Christ in that place, who, being gone down to the Council of Massachusetts , to seek aid for the defense of the place, at his return found the Town in flames or smoke, his own house being set on fire by the Enemy, through the disadvantage of defective Fortification, and all in it consumed; his precious yoke-fellow, and dear Children, wounded and captivated (as the issue evidenced, and the following Narrative declares) by these cruel and barbarous Salvages. (emphasis added 28)

While we need to note that Rowlandson’s narrative is meant to be didactic and to show other colonists spiritual renewal, the text does center on her own experiences, from her point of view. This is why I find Mather’s positioning of the narrative, before we even read Rowlandson’s words, interesting to note with students.

In the passage above, the calamity befalls the family of Mr. Joseph Rowlandson. Ok. That fact is true. While he was away seeking support to help fortify Lancaster, Native Americans attacked the settlement, killing some and taking others captive. His wife and children amongst those taken, Joseph Rowlandson suffered as well. At the beginning of the passage, we do not see any reference to Mary. She appears near the end, and only as Joseph’s “precious yoke-fellow,” devoid of name and an identity that exists apart from her husband. Even though this is not out of the ordinary for Puritan texts, I find it fascinating to explore this aspect of the narrative with students because it brings into focus for them the milieu Rowlandson, Bradstreet, and Anne Hutchinson existed within.

As the preface continues, Mather uses the term “Gentlewoman,” a term that highlights Rowlandson’s character. At some points, Mather adds more information about Rowlandson, but he always falls short of naming her, choosing instead to yoke her with her husband. One such instance sees Mather calling Rowlandson “the dear Consort of the said Reverend Mr. Rowlandson” (28). Again, Rowlandson does not exist apart from her husband and/or her children. She becomes, in aspect, not an individual but a tool of God, which in regards to Puritan theology is not something out of the ordinary.

Later, Mather drives the point home that Rowlandson should be viewed as an example from God when he writes, “This Narrative was Penned by this Gentlewoman her self, to be her a Memorandum of God’s dealing with her, that she might never forget, but remember the same, and the several circumstances thereof, all the daies of her life” (29). Rowlandson’s text began, much like some of Bradstreet’s works, as a personal journal that she used to reflect upon her “traumatic” experiences in captivity. The narrative did not reach the public, like Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse, until some friends persuaded her to share it. For Mather and others, the publication of Rowlandson’s story served “that God might have his due glory, and other benefit by it as well as her self” (29). The text exists as a lesson of spiritual travails and growth.

Even though we can understand Mather not naming Mary as the author, but only describing her as her husband’s help mate or as a Gentlewoman, in relation to Puritan society, we must have students question why he does this in the context of a society that was not just Puritan. We know of women who had autonomy and independence. Here, I am specifically thinking about Sarah Kemble Knight and her narrative. What do we think of Mather’s representation of Rowlandson when we consider Knight’s travel narrative alongside Rowlandson’s narrative? Does that change our perception? These are questions I have been asking myself as I reread Rowlandson.

What are your thoughts here? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Rowlandson, Mary. A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives. Eds. William L. Andrews, Sargent Bush, Jr., Annette Kolodny, Amy Schrager Lang, and Daniel B. Shea. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 26-65.

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