Captivity narratives

Each bullet point below is a quotation from

Vaughan, Alden T. and Edward W. Clark. “Cups of Common Calamity.” Introduction. Puritans Among the Indians. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.1-28. The current edition can be found here.

  • Ironically, the earliest New World captivity tales must have been told by the American natives: Spaniards, not Indians, first seized hapless victims to serve as guides, interpreters, hostages, or curiosities.
  • ‘Captivity narrative’ came to mean an account, usually autobiographical, of forced participation in Indian life. The literature of early American colonization is dotted with poignant and often gruesome tales of seizure, torture or adoption (sometimes both), and eventual escape or release. Such stories found a ready audience on both sides of the Atlantic, where they flourished, in one form or another, for three centuries.
  • These stories were immensely popular because-like any successful literature-they served readers a hearty fare of literary and psychological satisfaction, peculiar to their time and place.
  • In sum, the Rowlandsons’ publisher promised an intensely personal account of God’s testing and eventual salvation of a tormented soul, and a broad hint that her experience might foretell in microcosm the fate of all Puritans. Those were compelling attractions to the deeply pious people of seventeenth-century New England, who sought desperately to comprehend their preordained roles in God’s awesome universe.
  • Puritan authors wove the captivity narrative from several existing literary strands. One strand was spiritual autobiography. . . . The New England branch of the Puritan movement . . . encouraged spiritual autobiography as a vital expression of the search for personal salvation. ‘The spiritual autobiographer is primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience.’ But the search for salvation was fraught with torments, doubts, and relapse, in almost perfect parallel to the experiences reported in the captivity narratives. In spiritual autobiographies, God and Satan wrestled for the sinner’s soul; in captivity autobiographies, the captive, with God’s help, battled Satan’s agents. In both cases, of course, God eventually prevailed; the weary pilgrim survived the ordeal because his faith wavered but did not break, and because God’s mercy was stronger than His wrath.
  • ‘Redemption,’ a frequent term in captivity titles and texts, thus had a double meaning-spiritual as well as physical. Similarly, captivity stories combined individual catharsis and public admonition. Implicitly, at least, they exhorted the reader to find his or her own spiritual redemption.
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