Academics & Research / Fall 2017

Re-examining Western history with DU’s growing collection of captivity narratives

“These are extremely important books in American literary history,” Billy Stratton says of captivity narratives. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Whether he’s teaching a survey of American postmodernism, a course on Southern Gothic fiction or a seminar on Native American literature, Billy J. Stratton, an associate professor of English, encourages students to get face-to-face with the text. Not a digitized epub or PDF, but a typeset book nestled between two covers.

“I stress the importance of the physical book,” he says. That’s because the physical book has stories of its own to tell.

With those revelations in mind, Stratton has been working with DU’s University Libraries to acquire a collection of early American and Western frontier captivity narratives. Many of these accounts, typically crafted by settlers captured in battle by Native peoples, were popular on both sides of the Atlantic. They were read not just for their what-happened-next allure, but for their depictions of a culture deemed savage and alien.

“These are extremely important books in American literary history,” Stratton says, adding that they have done much to shape the public’s image of Native peoples to this day.

Now several narratives strong, the DU collection kicked off with what Stratton considers a bibliophile’s coup: the purchase of a choice 1773 edition of what has been considered America’s first bestseller: Mary Rowlandson’s “The Soveraignty [sic] and Goodness of God,” first published in 1682. The wife of a Puritan minister, Rowlandson described her 11-week captivity at the hands of a Native raiding party during the three-year conflict known as King Philip’s War. Notably, her tale does not chronicle any abuse at the hands of her captors, but it does detail her revulsion for their way of life.

The edition now in DU’s special collections is especially significant, Stratton says, because it offers evidence of how the publication was modified over time to reflect the age’s political imperatives. “It’s unique and important because it has this woodcut on the title page that depicts Rowlandson holding a gun,” Stratton explains. “Originally [in the earliest editions], she was cast as a frail flower, a woman who needed the protection of men.” In later editions, it was important to show Rowlandson’s resistance — not just to increase the heroism of her tale, but possibly to highlight the aggression of the foe.

Stratton’s fascination with the Rowlandson narrative is explored in his 2013 book “Buried in Shades of Night: Contested Voices, Indian Captivity, and the Legacy of King Philip’s War.” It breaks new ground in captivity narrative scholarship, arguing that the account, in accordance with Puritan ideology, reduced relationships between Natives and colonists to a good vs. evil dichotomy, pitting God’s chosen people against “animalistic creatures and demonic savages.” That binary portrayal, Stratton maintains, served a political end, helping the colonists justify subsequent military aggression and wholesale land grabs.

More controversially, Stratton, who earned his PhD in American Indian studies, suggests that Rowlandson may have been “doubly captive,” subjugated not just by Natives but also by the Puritan hierarchy. He makes the case that Increase Mather — known for his preeminent role in early New England history — exercised outsized influence on the manuscript. In fact, Stratton suggests, pointing to the narrative’s prose style and other social factors, Mather may even have written it.

This is the kind of detective work that an encounter with an actual book can yield. So when his students take up Rowlandson’s tale — or any captivity narrative, for that matter—Stratton hopes they will do more than skim the story’s surface. He hopes they ask probing questions about context, editorial intervention and what he calls the “ensconced privilege of the narrator’s position.”

In other words, he says, whose voices and stories are missing?


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