Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”


Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.


Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.



Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”

Anthology Spotlight: The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820

9781611688887.jpgThis week our Anthology Spotlight series returns with a profile of The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. Citizen Poets, like its straightforward title suggests, is an anthology of poems from Boston periodicals during the early national period. The collection was edited by Paul Lewis, a professor of English at Boston College. Packed with poems and slim as anthologies go, Citizen Poets, published by the University Press of New England, comes in at slightly less than 240 pages and is attractively priced for classroom use at $22.95.

The Origins and Focus of Citizen Poets

Before considering the content of Citizen Poets, especially for a book that could possibly be included in the classroom, it is important to note that the book derives from the work of students at Boston College. While Paul Lewis is listed as the editor of Citizen Poets, the book is a collaborative effort by students at Boston College. Both the “Preface” and “Introduction” to Citizen Poets highlight the role of students in creating this anthology. Citizen Poets derives from increased access to online archives and the opportunities such access provides for the classroom. As the preface to Citizen Poets notes “students, working in small groups over three years, reviewed thousands of poems that were published in Boston magazines between 1789 and 1820” (xiii). The student-involved origin of Citizen Poets would make for an interesting classroom discussion of the role of student work and research. Additionally, Citizen Poets also serves as a model for the incorporation of similar local projects in our own classrooms. Frequently the introductory materials Citizen Poets calls for teachers and students to turn to local projects for the classroom. The origins of Citizen Poets could potential make for fascinating discussion in the classroom as students consider their roles in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. While many colleges and universities tout programs dedicated to undergraduate research, it can remain an abstract concept, especially for students not in the sciences. Considering the origins of a work like Citizen Poets could help make such undergraduate research projects concrete for students. You can read and listen to profiles of Citizen Poets here and here that discus the origin of the project.

The poems included in Citizen Poets were collected from the periodicals that circulated around Boston during the early national period. The anthology focuses on poetry written by “citizen poets.” As the introduction notes, the “citizen” of Citizen Poets “refers not to residents who enjoyed rights and privileges but to residents in general, who, if they were so inclined, could attempt to participate in the give-and-take of Boston’s nascent literary culture” (4). Citizen Poets emphasizes the sights, sounds, and experiences of Boston during the period of 1789 to 1820. The collection focuses on the inclusion of original poetry, much of it anonymous, written for Boston periodicals. While we might not know the identity of many of the poets included in Citizen Poets, the poems provide enough clues for students to speculate about the background of many of the authors.

The Scope and Organization of Citizen Poets

Citizen Poets begins with a brief “Preface” that provides background on the origin of the book, its relationship to both digital and traditional archives, and many of the source periodicals. Citizen Poets also includes a succinct note on the editorial practices employed in the book. The “Introduction” to Citizen Poets includes an overview of Boston, its literary culture, and introduction to the state of print culture during the time period. Additionally, the topic of literary recovery is addressed in an accessible and concise manner. Several poems included in the anthology are mentioned throughout the “Introduction” and provides students with specific examples of poetry that link to the content discussed. The front material of Citizen Poets is characterized by a genuine enthusiasm for the project and the works included. The enthusiasm of the introductory material is marked by a playfulness, like, for example, when it describes the roots of the rivalry between Boston and New York.

Citizen Poets is divided into thematic chapters that focus on particular aspects of life in Boston, and the later chapters represent universal themes, not only ones limited to Boston. In the first chapter, “Coming to Boston,” the poems focus on detailing journeys to Boston. Other chapters focus on gender, the politics of the day, family life, work, and death. There is also an interesting (and fun and challenging) chapter on “Rebuses, Riddles, Anagrams, Acrostics, and Enigmas.” Each chapter includes a brief chapter introduction that situates the chapter’s theme and the poetry in the larger social and print culture context of the era. Unfamiliar people, places, archaic words and spellings, and languages, like Latin, are lightly annotated. Citizen Poets includes a list of periodicals that were used in the creation of the anthology. One appendix includes a sampling of “Representative Editorial Statements” from Boston periodicals, which is great for those of us that might not have access to databases were we can few similar pieces. Citizen Poets ends with a short bibliography highlighting poetry and literary and print culture in Boston and the United States.

Citizen Poets includes some poems by well-known writers, like Judith Sargent Murray, but the majority of poems are anonymous

The Poems of Citizen Poets

The majority of the poems included in Citizen Poets represent the production of anonymous poets contributing to the periodicals of Boston during the early national period. However, there are a few selections from better-known authors such as Judith Sargent Murray and William Cullen Bryant and Susanna Rowson. The lack of canonical writers in Citizen Poets provides an opportunity for students to consider canon formation and to address the tension between high and low art. In short, Citizen Poets marks an excellent occasion to answer that question of “but is it any good?” raised by Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs. However, as the introductory material points out, and my reading sustains this claim, there is a freshness to the work of these anonymous poems because they aren’t familiar and they aren’t high art. I found that many of the poems were chortle worthy. Some of the poems are indeed “good.” Additionally, many of the poems make great reading because of the simplicity and accessibility of their meter, rhyme scheme, and accessible topics. The poems of Citizen Poets, regardless of their artistry, are pieces that could lead to fruitful discussions and explorations in the classroom. The size of the poems also makes them appropriate for the classroom. The poems of Citizen Poets range in size from a page or two to handful of stanzas or a single short stanza. The format of the poems could lead to a fruitful discussion with students about the form and layout of periodicals.

Citizen Poets reminds us that when we study literature we often forget that authors and readers had lives beyond the page; beyond a world of reading and writing. One poem that I think captures the multifaceted lives of the authors is Susana Rowson’s poem, “God is There,” a work written in response to a performance by The Handel and Haydn Society. Rowson’s poem about one of America’s earliest (and continuing) musical organizations, illustrates for students that people of this time did things like listen to music and attend concerts. Rowson’s short piece, like many of the poems included in Citizen Poets, invites students to engage these poems in the larger contexts of literature, history, art, and music.

Is there Too Much Boston in The Citizen Poets of Boston?

City or regional focused anthologies are a popular genre and often have a specific draw to classrooms. One thing in the back of my mind as I read  Citizen Poets is if it would be, well, too much Boston for students. From my own experience of spending two weeks on a text, or tracing through a theme over the course of a semester, I know that even the most engaged students can grow weary of a course theme or topic. Might students tire of the Boston of Citizen Poets, no matter how evocative the poems and the poets are? Yes, that is a possibility, especially for students that might not engage with the entirety of the text and see the universality of the thematic chapters.

However, the topical scope of the poems included in Citizen Poets makes Boston-fatigue unlikely. Beyond the title of this anthology, beyond the introduction, and beyond the first chapter which features poetry about journeys to Boston, the world of Boston recedes with the later chapters’ thematic focus on universal topics. Yes, these are poets with ties to Boston writing in periodicals circulating around Boston. However, the thematic division of Citizen Poets revolves around the universal: work, family, death, and even word games and having fun. It goes without saying that each of these topics aren’t specific to Boston or any one area, or anyone person, or even any one time period. Citizen Poets takes on universal themes  and would fit well within in many different courses.

From the introductory materials (both to the book and the individual chapters) through the variety of charming and playful poems included, Citizen Poets is an accessible book, even for students in general courses or early career majors. Given the Boston focus coupled with the emphasis on poetry and print culture, Citizen Poets might be best suited for a seminar or topics class consisting of juniors and seniors. Still, I’d be comfortable assigning this text in lower level classes.

Classroom Text Pairings for Citizen Poets

What kinds of texts would pair well with Citizen Poets? Several come to mind for a class on the American city. For example, Citizen Poets would dovetail nicely with texts like The Quaker City, New York by Gas Light, and many others. Another natural pairing would focus on print culture in early American and could include works by Phillis Wheatley, Ben Franklin, and Susana Rowson. The variety and universality of subjects covered in the thematic chapters of Citizen Poets makes for a versatile text.

Additionally, there is an abundance of digital resources that could be paired with Citizen Poets. For example, online resources from the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Boston Athenaeum would make a great addition for background material or classroom workshops with archival materials. The Boston and/or Northeastern connections of these archives provides for a wealth of resources. I’ve used many of these websites in my classes and students often respond well to them. In the podcast realm there are several episodes from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and The JuntoCast that would pair nicely with the content of the book.

Citizen Poets is a welcome addition to poetry anthologies for the classroom. The variety of poems included, the introductory material, the price, and the pedagogical opportunities makes Citizen Poets an attractive anthology for classroom use.