Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of “Captivity”
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Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson
Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of “Captivity”

In 1984 following the tercentenary of Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 captivity narrative, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Louise Erdrich published a poem entitled “Captivity,” whose speaker the poem’s epigraph identifies as “Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” The next decade saw the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage and the publication of Sherman Alexie’s narrative poem “Captivity,” which reproduces the title and epigraph of Erdrich’s earlier work. The poems target the Rowlandson legacy, a construct of national memory that owes its cultural intelligibility to the silencing of potentially subversive readings, contexts, and meanings. Like the memory of Columbus, the Rowlandson legacy is composed of recurrent retrospective impositions of illusory semantic stability on a messy past, and Erdrich and Alexie contribute to it critically by complicating the memory, dimensions, and content of that past.

As William Spengemann shows, “Columbus” is an unstable label with various meanings that have “changed continually over the centuries,” and while it “always has a referent,” each citation of that label emphasizes one of multiple “referents [that] differ markedly from case to case” (120–22, emphasis in text). Similarly, in the Rowlandson legacy repeated citations over diverse contexts and periods have detached its subject from her particular historical circumstances and reattached her to presentist national concerns. Thus, the immediate local success of Sovereignty and Goodness pales by comparison to its far wider posthumous appeal, which began in the 1770s when Rowlandson was cast as a protonational heroine.1 Mid-twentieth-century [End Page 21] scholars returned to Rowlandson to honor her as founder of the original genre of American literature, and later, feminist scholars recovered her again, casting Rowlandson as a founding mother of US literature and culture.2

Recovery efforts subsided by the century’s end as exceptionalist national perspectives on the genre, book, and author became outmoded,3 but the Rowlandson legacy hasn’t died. In the wake of 9/11, journalist Susan Faludi urged New York Times readers to remember Rowlandson as “key to our own experience” in the face of “the fear of home-soil terrorism” (“America’s” A29).4 Bringing the conflicts that shaped colonial New England to bear on contemporary geopolitics, Faludi classifies seventeenth-century colonization as “our original wilderness experience,” King Philip’s War as “our original war on terror,” and Rowlandson as the “original female captive” (Terror 13, 213, 219). In this typology Rowlandson becomes a harbinger of US liberties while the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuck anticolonial campaign that subjected her to eleven weeks of captivity is reduced to a precursor of Al Qaeda’s attack.

This historical logic fits what Jean M. O’Brien calls “firsting and lasting,” the imagination of New England as the absolute national origin that obliterates indigenous histories. As “the ‘first’ New Englanders are made to disappear,” O’Brien writes, “the colonial regime is constructed as the ‘first’ to bring . . . authentic history to the region” (xv). Since Sovereignty and Goodness made a particularly significant contribution to this process (33), I treat the Rowlandson legacy as the literary version of the historiographic dynamics that O’Brien studies. As Rowlandson was thought to have “inaugurate[d] a native American genre” (Stern 378),5 her “firsting” helped marginalize early Anglophone Native literature, and historian Jill Lepore locates the “lasting legacy” of Sovereignty and Goodness in “the nearly complete veil it has unwittingly placed over the experiences of bondage endured by Algonquian Indians during King Philip’s War” (126).

I argue that Erdrich’s and Alexie’s “Captivity” poems pierce this veil by disrupting the exclusively national functions of the legacy’s affective and mnemonic investments. Dean Rader and Robin Riley Fast agree that Native poetry often emphasizes “hybridization” and [End Page 22] “dialogism” (Rader, “Epic” 128; Fast 13), and I foreground Erdrich’s and Alexie’s respective mobilizations of affect and memory in the service of a dialogic critique of hegemonic firsting that challenges the reproduction of historical identification. The creative power of these poems derives from their intriguing expansions of the intertextual networks that sustain the legacy. In terms of Rader’s analysis, they further...