- The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker
Judith Ranta's book about the life of Betsey Guppey Chamberlain is divided into two main sections: a critical biographical section, followed by a section of selected writings Chamberlain penned in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The biographical information Ranta shares with us concerns the life and heritage of Chamberlain, and although it seems thoroughly researched, and contains an amazing amount of archival material and secondary sources as well, it remains problematic regarding Chamberlain's Native ancestry. The book itself is dedicated to the Abenaki people, and though Ranta claims that Chamberlain comes from Abenaki heritage, this point is debatable, for Chamberlain did not make this claim herself. Ranta judges Chamberlain to be of Native ancestry based upon a rather dated (and debated) set of criteria for discerning if a writer is Native. The basic tenets of the criteria are: the writer's self-concept; the writer's acceptance by a tribal community as a part of that community; the writer's tribal documentation (or enrollment); and the writer's commitment to Native American causes. Ironically, even though Ranta uses these criteria, Chamberlain doesn't truly fit with any of them, excepting perhaps a commitment to Indian causes, but even this remains unclear. A non-Indian friend and peer of Chamberlain's, Harriet Robinson, is apparently the only "community member" who believed Chamberlain to be Indian. From the title of the book, and the outset of the text itself, Ranta promotes the idea that Chamberlain is of mixed-blood heritage, and claims her writing as "the earliest known Native women's fiction" (3). Only later within the text does she acknowledge that this idea is "complicated," and that "tribal affiliation has not yet been discovered" (63).
This does not mean that the book is not useful. On the contrary, I think it is quite useful, but we must be cautious in naming Chamberlain's work Native American literature. First, it is useful because it opens discussions about Native identity and who makes those determinations [End Page 127] in recovered texts such as this one. Second, I think the book is important as women's writing because, through Chamberlain's stories and sketches, we see how gender discrimination bloomed in the nineteenth century, and we are privy to the concerns of early women laborers. Most of Chamberlain's writings were published in the newspapers of the mills near Lowell, Massachusetts, and are concerned with "Native Tales and Dream Visions," "Women's Concerns," and "Village Sketches." In this first section, "Native Tales," there are only two very short writings that have anything to do at all with Native people. And, though both seem to be "sympathetic" to Indian people, the first, "Fireside Scene" is rather disturbing—a graphic description about the mass destruction and burning of a Miami village (125–126). The other seems to be a re-telling of the story about a white woman who is kind to an Indian man, after her husband is hostile toward him. Later, the Native man "returns the favor" by saving her husband, even though the husband mistreated him. These two "tales" seem to be more in the genre of the New England reformist writings popular during that era rather than Native writing. Both emanate from a Eurocentric viewpoint, and both portray Native people as victims we can feel sympathy for, not as fully developed characters in a story.
An independent scholar and reference librarian, Ranta has published other pieces on women mill workers that are very useful as well, and she's quite adept at recovering early women's literatures that have been overlooked far too long. Still, I think Ranta has unfortunately run aground in the forced representation of Chamberlain as a Native writer, which effectively dulls the impact of the book for Native Studies.
Kim Lee received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2003. Her dissertation was an edited collection of letters by Mari Sandoz...