- “All Parts of the Union I Considered My Home”The Federal Imagination of The Algerine Captive
My ardent wish is that my fellow citizens may profit by my misfortunes. If they peruse these pages with attention they will perceive the necessity of uniting our federal strength to enforce a due respect among other nations. Let us, one and all, endeavor to sustain the general government. . . . Our first object is union among ourselves. For to no nation besides the United States can that antient saying be more emphatically applied: BY UNITING WE STAND, BY DIVIDING WE FALL.—Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive (1797)
Toward the middle of Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, an unusual exchange takes place. Having been captured and bound into slavery in Algiers, Updike Underhill—the novel’s wayward Yankee protagonist—agrees to meet with a “Mahometan priest” who wishes to debate matters of faith. At first glance, the stage seems set for a conflict between East and West. Underhill enters the room with confidence, ready to defend “the sacred truths of our holy religion against the insidious attack of the mussulman priest” (131). The Mollah greets him with equal assurance, convinced of his ability to persuade “the Christian purified by Calvin” that the teachings of Mahomet also represent “sacred truths” (131). The scene that follows, however, fails to produce the expected clash. Instead of presenting Christianity and Islam as fundamentally at odds with one another, the dialogue characterizes these two religions as different yet compatible expressions of belief.
As the two men converse, Underhill presents a series of points intended to “prove” the superiority of Christianity, namely that it is “divinely inspired,” “supported by miracles,” and blessed by “wonderful increase.” To each of these statements, the Mollah responds with a similar assertion, [End Page 481] countering Underhill’s arguments with the repeated claim, “so is ours.” “Your argument I allow to be forcible,” he tells Underhill, “but grant us also the use of it” (132).
Yet in highlighting these similarities, the Mollah never completely equates the two religions. Throughout the dialogue, he stresses that Christianity and Islam are distinct systems of belief—defined by different texts, prophets, histories, and doctrines. Instead of characterizing these differences as points of contention, however, the Mollah encourages Underhill to see Christianity and Islam in compatible terms, as alternate expressions of similar beliefs. The dialogue ends with the Mollah urging Underhill to “read the alcoran”: “Read, then, this spotless book. There you will learn to love those of our faith and not hate those of any other. . . . In a word, you will learn the unity of God, which, notwithstanding the cavil of your divines, your prophet, like ours, came into the world to establish and every man of reason must believe” (135–36). By arguing that the experience of reading the Koran will produce a sense of unity rather than division, the Mollah makes a striking point. Throughout the eighteenth century, early American writers tended to characterize the Islamic world as “heretical” and “barbarous,” representing the antithesis of American governance and ideals—a view that persists today.1 In sharp contrast to this oppositional relationship, the dialogue between the Mollah and Underhill suggests that engaging with the “heretical” texts and practices of Islam can actually produce relationships of tolerance and cooperation, rather than conflict. By the end of the scene, Underhill feels pressured, not to convert, but to broaden his religious views to include a wider range of ideas and practices, thus expanding his sense of what “every man of reason” can and should find acceptable (135).
As it turns out, this dialogue is just one of a number of moments where the novel encourages Underhill (and the reader) to develop a more tolerant and productive view of political, cultural, and aesthetic differences. Throughout the text, Underhill’s encounters with different people, places, and practices lead him to see the world as a space that is enhanced, rather than destabilized, by variety. Likewise, the novel relies on an equally diverse range of styles and genres to represent Underhill’s various adventures—moving back and forth between the conventions of picaresque satire, sentimental captivity narratives, travelogues, historiography, and dramatic...