- The Action-Adventure Heroine: Rediscovering an American Literary Character, 1697–1895 by Sandra Wilson Smith
Knoxville: The U of Tennessee P, 2018. Pp. 280. $55.
The Action-Adventure Heroine: Rediscovering an American Literary Character, 1697–1895, by Sandra Wilson Smith, provides a comprehensive view of the evolution of a previously under-examined character type in American literature, which Smith names the “action-adventure heroine.” Smith traces her identification of this heroine from seventeenth-century captivity narratives through to late-nineteenth-century Dime Novel heroines and female detectives. Smith’s investigation of the action-adventure heroine addresses a lack in our analysis of gender within dominant American literature and culture, particularly when “Americans have consistently presented assertive, physically strong female figures in their narratives and have celebrated these adventurous heroines” (231). Analyzing two hundred years of American literary culture, Smith demonstrates the evolutionary significance of the action-adventure heroine by establishing the centrality of the figure in the formation of dominant American culture, tropes, and stereotypes.
Smith begins with the captivity narrative (chapter 1). While Mary Rowland-son’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682) contains many scenes of action and violence, Smith sees Rowlandson as outside of the tradition of [End Page 104] action-adventure heroines because she does not engage in the type of violent behavior Smith identifies as characteristic of the action-adventure heroine. To exemplify the traits of the action-adventure heroine, Smith looks to the story of Hannah Dustan’s captivity (first published by Cotton Mather in his Humiliations Followed with Deliverance in 1697), John Williams’s The Redeemed Captive (1707), the fictional captivity by an anonymous writer commonly identified as the “Panther Captivity” (1787), and the Crab Orchard incident in John Filson’s “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon” (sic) (1784), appended to Filson’s The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. Smith identifies the first appearance of the action-adventure heroine as Hannah Dustan, whom Smith figures as a “fierce, avenging mother,” and whom she sees as stepping out of the passive, supplicant role when Dustan plots and executes a plan to kill her captors and escape (44). The physical action and daring that Dustan demonstrates align her with Old Testament heroines such as Jael, who is praised for her brutal murder of Sisera. These Old Testament connections provide the opening into cultural acceptance for the action-adventure heroine. Smith builds on this with her analysis of “The Panther Narrative,” which she sees as informed by Hannah Dustan’s tale. In the fictional Panther Narrative, a young woman living alone in the forest entertains a pair of male travelers with the story of how she decapitated and dismembered a sleeping giant who had told her he intended her to be his wife. While in both of the narratives, the heroine is forced into a dangerous position because she has been captured by an Other, they each take violent and decisive action to save themselves. Rather than merely fleeing when they find themselves free, each of these heroines “chooses to face her danger head on” (39). In the Crab Orchard incident, a woman aided by an African American cuts off the head of an attacking Indian. In this narrative, the action-adventure heroine becomes more secularized.
Female warriors and female wanderers are heroines whose cross-dressing undergirds their action-adventures. The female warrior figure of the 1790s to 1810s builds on the taming of the frontier undertaken by the action-adventure heroines of captivity narratives. This female warrior cross-dresses to make it possible for her to join military actions during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (chapter 2). The works examined in this chapter include the dramatic poem The Ladies of Castile (1790), by Mercy Otis Warren, The Female Review; Or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady (1797), by Herman Mann, and The Female Marine (1815–18), probably written by Nathaniel Hill Wright. These warriors “embody the classical definition of virtue, . . . participat[ing] in the combat portions of martial enterprises and, by doing so, demonstrat[ing] their public spirit” (Smith...