- The Western Captiveand Other Indian Stories by Elizabeth Oakes Smith
It’s not every day that we can identify the crucial turn in the recovery of a major American woman writer, but I would argue that the publication of this book signals just such a privileged moment. Featured in various book chapters, scholarly essays, and conference papers appearing irregularly since the 1970s, Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1806–93) has figured most prominently in published scholarship for her poetry, having even been represented in Cheryl Walker’s The Nightingale’s Burden (1982) as one of a small number of writers representing a “composite” view of the nineteenth-century woman poet (67–86). But in the absence of editions like this from Broadview, our ability to incorporate Oakes Smith more fully into our research and teaching has been hindered by the general difficulty of physically accessing and sharing standard editions of her work, an enormous amount of which still awaits recovery in manuscript collections or rare copies of gift books and annuals. In this light, the availability of this well-researched edition of Oakes Smith’s The Western Captive and other writings on Native Americans will not only give scholars new texts to complicate narratives of Indian/white relations in the antebellum United States; it also stands to change or at least challenge the way we teach the works of Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Sedgwick, Ann Stephens, and other antebellum writers addressing these relations.
Readers will find The Western Captive (1842) a more Indian-centered text than Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie: or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827) or Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824), combining an honorific portrayal of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh with an uncompromising critique of the domestic limits of white women’s lives. The novel’s protagonist, Margaret Durand, might in a way be compared to Sedgwick’s Faith [End Page 433] Leslie, taken captive as a child when her family is massacred and lost to her adopting tribe. But while Sedgwick’s protagonist (or Child’s) must finally resist cultural adoption, Oakes Smith’s Margaret (now called Swaying Reed) never considers herself captive at all, finding in Shawnee society the fully developed identity and dignity denied women in the white settlements. If there is a captive in the text, in Oakes Smith’s view it would seem to be indigenous peoples resisting the advance of white settlement. Thus, as Woidat makes clear in her introduction, in its broadest reading The Western Captive becomes Oakes Smith’s contribution to broad national debates over Manifest Destiny, land development, Indian removal in general, and the legacy of then recently deceased President William Henry Harrison in particular.
While in an earlier Legacy essay on the novel (“Puritan Daughters”) Woidat interprets the character of Swaying Reed as a white woman’s fantasy and a mostly allegorical critique of the limits of patriarchy, the strongest part of her introduction for the present volume is her elaboration of Oakes Smith’s actual personal and professional involvement with the principal authorities guiding the literary commerce between Native American and white culture, Henry and Jane Schoolcraft. Oakes Smith’s correspondence with and a later biographical sketch of Jane Schoolcraft, included in one of several appendixes, demonstrate the grounds from which Oakes Smith portrayed herself as a “transcultural” woman “by recounting dialogue in which Indians . . . grant her the distinction of possessing an ‘Indian soul’” (28). Woidat’s inclusion of Oakes Smith’s “Kinneho: A Legend of Moosehead Lake” (1851) demonstrates Oakes Smith’s complex position as a translator of Native American texts, both as one whose gender position has left her in a position of subjugation shared with indigenous populations and as one whose attraction to the wilderness brings her into positive contact with Indians whose confidence (and stories) she then carries or “translates” into the pages of American periodicals. The published result is what Woidat refers to as “a palimpsest with layers of American Indian and...