Mary Rowlandson and Louise Erdrich’s “Captivity”

I always enjoy teaching Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative for a myriad of reasons. It presents students with an early example of that distinctly American genre the captivity narrative, it highlights the role of women in colonial America, it illuminates the colonists’ feelings towards Native Americans, and it serves as a text that showcases Puritan thought during the late 1600s. Today, I want to take the time to look at Louise Erdrich’s “Captivity,” a poem that interrogates and questions the ways that we read Rowlandson’s text. In many ways, Erdrich’s poem touches on the themes and threads mentioned above; however, I will not have time to discuss each of these aspects today.

erdrich_picErdrich’s poem initially appeared in 1984, a little over 300 years after the publication of Rowlandson’s narrative in 1682. Told from Rowlandson’s point of view, like her narrative, “Captvity” chronicles Rowlandson’s time as a “prisoner [of] the Wampanoag.” The path that Erdrich traces for Rowlandson mirrors Rowlandson’s own experience from one of initial fear and dismay to a sort of acceptance and respect for those who took her from Lancaster. Rowlandson, perhaps afraid of backlash from the community, downplays her feelings towards those who took her captive. As well, this downplaying could be due to the input that Increase Mather or other Puritan ministers had on Rowlandson’s text. (This is one thing that I cannot answer, but it warrants discussion at some point.)

Erdrich begins “Captivity” with an epigraph attributed to Rowlandson: “He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.” The epigraph brings together a scene from the fourteenth remove where Rowlandson talks about being hungry and quenching that hunger with “crumbs of cake that an Indian gave [her] girl” upon their capture. Now moldy, Rowlandson still partakes and it sustains her. In the same remove, Rowlandson describes the Native Americans killing a deer with a fawn in its stomach, cooking it, and eating it. Rowlandson partakes, and through this, she begins to blur the lines between her life in Lancaster and her time in captivity.

Following the epigraph, the first stanza relates the group crossing a stream and Rowlandson falling into the raging water only to have her captor pull her up out of the water by her hair. Here, she presents those who took her captive as violent and savage; however, immediately after the unnamed he pulls her out of the water, Erdrich’s Rowlandson states, “I had grown to recognize his face. /I could distinguish it from the others.” In her narrative, Rowlandson begins to portray her captors as individuals as well.

During the attack on Lancaster, Rowlandson refers to the attackers as “murderous Wretches,” “Barbarous Creatures,” “bloody heathen[s],” and “Infidels.” These identifiers strip the Native Americans of their identity, making them all appear the same without any individuality. As early as the third remove, Rowlandson begins to provide distinct individuality to her captors. She refers to her master, Quannopin, and her son’s master in this remove. Even with this recognition, though, she still maintains a blanket recognition at points by labeling her captors as “wild Beasts of the Forest” on the fourth remove.

300px-1770_maryrowlandson_captivityLater, even though she does not use specific names, Rowlandson shows the kindness of the Native Americans. For example, in the ninth remove she mentions a “Squaw” who gave her a place to rest and food. In the fourteenth remove, she relates how she slept inside a wigwam while others slept outside in the rain. When she arose, she discovered that she “fared better than many of them.” When writing about King Philip himself, she describes him as fair and truthful. In the nineteenth remove, he pulls Rowlandson aside and tells her she will be free in two weeks. These instances, though, create a fear within Rowlandson because, as Erdrich notes at the end of the first stanza, “There were times I feared I understood/ his language” (emphasis added). Rowlandson’s fear echoes the fears that de Crevecoeur writes about in Letters from an American Farmer when Farmer James retires with his family to frontier, speaks somewhat favorably of the Native Americans, then expresses fear that his children and wife will assimilate into Native American culture.

The second stanza starts with Rowlandson claiming, “We were pursued by God’s agents/ or pitch devils, I did not know.” Here, Erdrich questions, like Apess before her, the religious doctrines that Christians espoused while they attacked and decimated Native American tribes. Are the colonists “God’s agents” looking to save or are the “pitch devils” looking to destroy? Erdrich’s Rowlandson continually confronts her spirituality in “Captivity. While Rowlandson herself repeatedly comes back to God and her spirituality during her travails, seeing them as part of her spiritual growth, Erdrich’s Rowlandson questions whether what she believes is actually real.

She fears going into the wilderness, as Rowlandson herself does, at the end of stanza two. In stanza four, Erdrich’s Rowlandson sees a storm and “God’s wrath” come down on her captors; however, her captor does not notice. As the “[s]hadows gaped and roared” Rowlandson’s captor “did not notice God’s wrath.” Rowlandson herself hides her face from “God’s wrath” in fear that He would destroy her along with everyone else, “but this, too, passed.” Rather than God, tempest exists in Erdrich’s poem only as nature; Rowlandson’s Puritan typology fails her.

Upon her rescue in “Captivity,” Rowlandson sees her husband continually trying to till the land with no success. He “drive a thick wedge” into the ground, which could also be considered in relation to Rowlandson’s relationship to her husband upon her return. Rowlandson returns to the comforts of her previous life, but when she falls asleep, she sees herself “outside their circle” in the wilderness.

While Erdrich’s entire poem plays upon Rowlandson’s narrative, the final stanza is the most important. Here, Erdrich flips the ending of Rowlandson’s narrative. In the twentieth remove, Rowlandson speaks about her insomnia upon returning to her family. However, while she cannot sleep, she still praised God for redeeming her. Rowlandson references Psalm 81 in the final remove, specifically verse 16. The final stanza of Psalm 81 reads:

If my people would only listen to me,
if Israel would only follow my ways,
how quickly I would subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes!
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
and their punishment would last forever.
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.

Rowlandson continually laments her disobedience to God in her narrative, and upon her redemption, she realizes her insubordination and because of her recognition God decided to redeem her from captivity. Erdrich’s poem, though, turns this on its head. Erdrich’s Rowlandson stands outside of the circle while Native Americans dance and celebrate. She feels othered here, and she want to partake. She begs for the earth to open and admit her so it can feed her “honey from the rock.” In this manner, Erdrich calls upon us to listen to the Wampanoag and their position, not just Rowlandson’s. Erdrich shows that during Rowlandson’s captivity, she came to see her captors not as heathens and infidels but as people.

This, of course, is not all that could be said. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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2 thoughts on “Mary Rowlandson and Louise Erdrich’s “Captivity”

  1. Pingback: Exploration and Colonization in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” | Interminable Rambling

  2. You article was very interesting to read; it gave me an overall introduction of the two works of art and I found it inspiring. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Actually you gave some pretty interesting insights that are a wonderful start to write on the topic. Thanks again and happy holidays. Elena

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