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”

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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
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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
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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.

Resources:

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.

Bio:

Randi-Tanglen6

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.”

Pedagogy and the Weird with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, and Flannery O’Connor

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via weirdal.com

I have taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” Louise Erdrich’s “Sister Godzilla,”  and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in a row several times. I don’t stress connections of place or time period when teaching these texts, but rather they fit nicely together because they are all a little odd or weird. I have written about how “crazy” is often used by students to dismiss a text or a character. The opposite is at work with “weird” in literary texts. If someone calls you weird when you are in elementary school, it probably hurts your feelings. But as adults, even if we haven’t embraced our weirdness as much as Weird Al has, many of us are comfortable with our weird aspects because they are what makes us stand out a little. To call a text weird then is not to dismiss it but to celebrate it. When I say the three stories that I am going to discuss below are weird, I don’t mean it as a pejorative. I think it emphasizes the creativity of the text and shows students how literature can transport us outside of our everyday experience. If I announce before a class discussion, “This text was a little weird, huh?,” I am giving students permission to embrace their reaction to the text—many don’t want to initially admit their first reactions to the text was confusion or questioning. I am also adding a little lightness into the discussion. Allowing that the text might in fact be weird gives us the opportunity to play with our interpretation. The author took risks to construct the story, and we can take our own risks in interpreting it. 

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

When teaching Marquez, of course, the “weird” narrative of the story is the element of magical realism. Students may or may not be familiar with this term, but if they are not, it is a useful way of helping them understand why a very old angel has crash landed in a yard. In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” an angel visits the home of Elisanda and Pelayo. The text is ambiguous from beginning to end about the origins of the angel, why he is present in the setting, and what he represents. He may or may not be an angel and he may or may not be there in response to the sickness of the couple’s child. Students enjoy the ambiguity of the text because of how unusual the angel is and how strange he makes everyone act. Elisenda and Pelayo keep the angel in their chicken coop and charge people to see him, the townspeople think he grants miracles, and the local priest writes to Rome to get word on whether the angel is really an angel or not.

The story is labeled as “A Tale for Children.” That label is ripe for unpacking because the details of the story are off-putting—the hens in the chicken coop he stays in spend their time picking parasites off his wings—and the narrative offers no closure or moral lesson. Students like to discuss this idea of the text being “for children.” Is Marquez joking? Is he commenting on the tales we do tell to children? Rather than being a light children’s tale, the reader feels the dark, depressing tone from the very beginning of the story. Marquez opens the story with a description of the rain that has been falling relentlessly causing crabs to infiltrate the family’s house. He writes, “The world had been sad since Tuesday.” This sadness brought on by the rain infiltrates the rest of the story. The whole story feels a little damp. In order to illustrate the tone of the story, I like to show my students these images I came across online by the artist Olga Skorobogatova. They showcase perfectly the tone of the story, and because they also illustrate many scenes in the story they can be used as a framing device for an entire class period on “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” 

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Olga Skorobogatova’s illustrations of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is short and can be covered in one class period, but it is very rich in terms of content that can be explored. I haven’t done so, but I imagine it would also be a good introduction to lead students into longer works by Marquez or other works of magical realism.

“Sister Godzilla”

Erdrich’s text, “Sister Godzilla,” is a coming of age story about a young girl, Dot, who becomes enthralled with her school teacher, Sister Mary Anita. Sister Mary Anita is new to the school and is defined by her physical feature of a prognathic jaw. Dot leads the charge of making fun of Sister Mary Anita by calling her “Sister Godzilla” and drawing pictures of her as Godzilla. However, when confronted by Sister Mary Anita about the nickname and the drawing, Dot completely changes her perspective and pledges her allegiance to the nun. She becomes obsessed with protecting the nun and not allowing the rest of the children to make fun of her.

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Image from 2014 film via bbc.com

I teach the story as a coming of age tale, and students enjoy discussing other coming of age tales they are familiar with or moments in their own lives where they realized they were becoming adults. However, very few coming of age moments have as sharp of a before and after as Dot’s experience with the nun. Dot completely changes her behavior after being confronted by Sister Mary Anita. Students will be interested in this reversal, but might not be completely clear on what to make of it. The text does not provide a lot of evidence about  why Dot changes from teasing Sister Mary Anita to wanting to keep her from all harm. The most evidence that is provided is that this is the first time Dot has felt empathy. The text notes, “Dot had never felt another person’s feelings, never in her life.” Still this might not seem like enough explanation for Dot to decide things like she will have to “declare her vocation, enter the convent” to become a nun so she can look after the sister. The answer that I give my students here about Dot’s motivations is one they may be uncomfortable with but also eventually find liberating—I’m not really sure either why Dot has such a sudden change of heart. We can make guesses about the glimpses we get of Dot’s home and school life, but I think that part of the productive weirdness of the text is that we are not supposed to know exactly what inspires Dot. The text is purposefully ambiguous about this which fits with the overall atmosphere of it. The story is less interested in answers than it is in presenting an impression of the characters and their interactions. 

The ending of the story is relevant to the theme of coming of age and is rather ambiguous also. Even though Dot tried to protect Sister Mary Anita, the other students still laugh at her, and the story ends with Sister Mary Anita staring out of the classroom window after rather dramatically kicking away a Godzilla toy the students had placed in the classroom. Most endings make for good discussion points, but this one is especially ripe for discussion because it is so enigmatic. I take time to really analyze the discussion and ask my students questions like: Did Dot fail as a protector? Will that have ramifications for her later on? What is Sister Mary Anita thinking in this moment? Is she preparing herself to discipline the children? Is she taking one final moment in the classroom before never returning again? 

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the unusual elements of the text are used to highlight the dark humor of the story. The narrative follows a family on a road trip that goes horribly awry when the grandmother insists on taking a detour to Unknownsee an old house that she remembers that had a secret panel in it. The grandmother’s son, Bailey, is driving and is reluctant to take a detour. The family insists, however, and the detour takes a turn when the car crashes and the family has a run-in with an outlaw, The Misfit.

Based on just the facts of the narrative alone, one would not think this story should be particularly funny, but with O’Connor’s knack for outlandish details even the confrontation with The Misfit that ends in (spoiler alert) the death of the whole family has its moments of humor. The Misfit’s partners have killed Bailey and taken his shirt because The Misfit is piecing together an outfit after abandoning the clothes he escaped prison in. The grandmother is trying to talk The Misfit out of killing her and while she does this he puts on her son’s shirt. The scene is macabre itself, but O’Connor’s description of the shirt takes it from gruesome to absurd. The shirt that The Misfit is now wearing is yellow with “bright blue parrots” on it. Students will find this funny, and they might be a little worried about laughing in this seemingly serious scene. It is helpful to pause here and in other places where the humor is at odds with the content of the story and consider how the scenes are constructed to make them funnier than one might think they should be.

The humor is created through unusual juxtapositions, and it is also emphasized by O’Conner’s vivid characterization. The details of the characters are so specific. For example, in the opening scene, the grandmother and her grandchildren are discussing what they would do if they ran into The Misfit and one of the grandchildren, John Wesley, says, “I’d smack his face.” That quick sentence tells the reader a lot about the child and his relationship to authority. The only exception to the specificity of characterization is the mother of the family. It can be fruitful to ask students why the mother is not described explicitly. It can also be useful to think about why some of the characters with the most characterization—the grandmother and The Misfit—don’t have names but rather labels.

The last time I taught this story I divided the class into groups and then gave each group a character. The students described the character, the character’s motivations, and then found a relevant quote about the character. We made a chart on the board containing all of this information and then discussed why characterization is so important to the story and how it drives the narrative, which contains dramatic events but not a lot of plot leading up to those events. Exploring character can be a useful way of dissecting this story and analyzing why it is so memorable.

Often our classes are organized by time period, or if not, perhaps genre or themes. Although these stories can be linked by some of those elements, I have found it more effective to think of the connections among these stories as about the reader’s relationship to the event or narration in the story. These pieces distance themselves from the reader by having elements that are a bit weird. The unusual spots in the readings are places that can really be dug into in the classroom. Instead of letting the weirdness turn us off, I encourage my students to dig in and find out why they are reacting that way and why the author might have made those choices in the narrative.