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  • Disorienting Captivity:A Response to Gordon Sayre
  • Brian T. Edwards (bio)

There are several provocative assertions in Gordon Sayre's essay "Renegades in Barbary" that together make a compelling case for rethinking the ways in which we consider captivity narratives in light of the recent scholarly turn toward the Mediterranean and "the Muslim world." As Sayre rightly notes, this turn, spurred by the geopolitics of the past decade, which has made US political incursions in the Middle East and captivity of both Americans abroad and transnational Muslims at Guantanamo Bay subjects of popular fascination and political crisis, may be seen both in studies of the early American republic and in Americanist work treating subsequent periods. Too often, it would appear, scholars working outside the period have caricatured narratives of American captivity in Muslim hands during the early republic, forgoing a richer understanding of the literary and political engagement with North Africa in the late eighteenth century. That this is done in terms that feed into and are made comprehensible by present concerns is troubling and demands corrective measures.

Sayre is most concerned with offering a more capacious definition and a more nuanced account of captivity narratives, primarily, as he frames it in his essay, because a better understanding of the genre supports and enriches the arguments of those who have been calling for postexceptionalist American studies. Secondly, as Americanist scholars working in later periods have renewed their attention to earlier encounters with North Africa and the Middle East, Sayre finds that they have embraced a now outmoded understanding of captivity narratives wherein accounts of American prisoners of "Barbary" are divorced from their transatlantic and [End Page 360] domestic analogues, within which they would at the time have been understood, thus supporting ahistorical arguments of (indirect) use to neo-imperialists. In this I agree with Sayre. I have my own arguments about the treatment of the later period, which I will suggest at the end of this response.

Regarding misapprehension of the early period by presentist concerns, the problem is crystallized—magnified perhaps—in sensationalistic accounts in the mainstream press that would reincorporate a period two centuries or more ago in the vocabulary and logic of the period "after the American century." Prominent examples would include Christopher Hitchens's 2004 cover story in the splashy pages of Time, in which Hitchens anachronistically refers to "Barbary terrorism" and suggests that Jefferson's maneuvers with the Barbary pirates "prefigured later struggles with both terrorism and jihad" (56), or even more aggressively the popular history by Joseph Wheelan which pulls no punches in its subtitle: Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801-1805 (2003). These are among the many spurious discussions of the various "roots" of present conditions that imagine and craft continuities, and consolidate and ossify categories and identities. These are potentially dangerous leaps when they serve to collapse material histories of individual cases and geopolitical concerns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century into reductive accounts of the putative transhistorical "problem" for the US of "the Muslim world." That latter category, which I put in scare quotes advisedly, is an entity that exists more decisively in journalistic and popular fantasy than reality. The coherence of "the Muslim world" as an entity is in no way certain, and the phrase serves more of a rhetorical, than an accurate descriptive or analytical, function. It is in the older traditions of scholarly Orientalism that a hugely diverse portion of the world comprising multiple ethnicities, varieties of Islam, languages, and histories may be collapsed in an at best naive—and at worst intellectually dishonest—phrase such as "the Muslim world."

In addressing the popular fascination with Private Jessica Lynch, taken captive by Iraqi forces shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Sayre notes the captivation sentimentalism holds over the American media public, particularly as it is filtered through an account of a white woman in the hands of putatively dark men and forces. He juxtaposes the published comments of an American literature professor in Iowa, then teaching Susanna Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794), to point both to the renewed interest and the resulting perils of misreading two apparently linked accounts as...


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