Introduction to Special Section on English Literature

The following three essays—by Emily Dismukes, Caitlin Smith, and Cat Williams—examine literary responses and representations of women whose lives were uprooted by colonialism in the Americas. As these three scholars discover, American writers creatively employ various genres—from the captivity narrative and poetry to the young adult novel and historical fiction—to retell past, painful experiences in ways that both offer insight into their causes and consequences and that imagine new possibilities for the future. Each scholar employs historical research and literary analysis to reconsider the experiences and writings of colonial and American women and to show how these women found new ways of belonging in the new worlds into which they were thrust.

Emily Dismukes’s “Feared or Family: Portrayal of Native Americans in Redeemed and Unredeemed Captivity Narratives” offers a comparative framework in which to understand Mary Rowlandson’s seventeenth-century captivity narrative. The captivity narative genre offered an account of a woman’s capture by Native Americans, her response to her captivity and her captors, and either her return home or continued life with her captors. Dismukes makes the interesting move of comparing Rowlandson’s narrative with a 2002 young adult novel that reimagines the captivity of a young girl named Mercy Carter. While it might appear counterintuitive to compare seventeenth-century and twenty-first century texts, Dismukes’s move generates new understandings of both texts. As she explains, what might appear to be historical or autobiographical accounts of the women’s experiences and captors are actually closely connected to the outcome of the narrative. If the captive returned home, she usually had to maintain the narrative of British colonial religious and cultural superiority. In cases when captives did not return, the captive is enabled to see Natives as a surrogate family and to recognize their kindness as human rather than as divine intervention. Dismukes’s comparison of these two captivity narrative shows that possibilities for new endings arise when the captive’s experiences do not follow the traditional plot of the captivity narrative. Dismukes helps us not only to better understand how the genre of the captivity narrative works but also to glimpse what is possible when those narratives falters or is incomplete.

Cat Williams’s “Government Policy on Racial Genocide Through Eugenics Exposed: Joseph Bruchac’s Hidden Roots” combines historical research on the U.S. policy of sterilizing Native women in the twentieth century with literary analysis of Joseph Bruchac’s young adult novel. Hidden Roots tells the autobiographical story of a young boy who discovers his Abenaki roots, a heritage that has been hidden from him because of his family’s fears of sterilization. Williams employs the secrets depicted in Hidden Roots as a foundation through which she can explore the silenced policy of sterilization. Thus, as the paper elucidates the novel’s method of exposing Native women’s experiences of racial genocide, it also brings the history and consequences of these policies to light. Williams’s interdisciplinary research shows not only that state governments pursued genocidal policies but also that Native women and their children responded to these policies in creative ways that ensured the survival of their heritage.

Caitlin Smith’s “Musical Language: The Bay Psalm Book and Anne Bradstreet’s Poetic Style” offers a new historical and literary context in which to examine poet Anne Bradstreet’s later work, which critics have described as moving away from the influence of Renaissance genres to a simpler, more vibrant style. Against scholarship arguing that Bradstreet’s poetry is derivative of English verse or influenced by male mentors such as Bradstreet’s father, Smith finds that the aesthetic of the Bay Psalm Book, the American colonies’ psalter, offers a better context through which to understand Bradstreet’s stylistic shift. Smith explains that the seemingly rough and clumsy style of the psalms in the Bay Psalm Book actually allowed Puritan ministers and their congregations to match their worship to their theories of language—that it should be plain and simple to avoid rhetorical artistry that would distract a reader or speaker from divine truths. Smith reads Bradstreet’s early and later work in the context of these theories of language, in order to find that Bradstreet’s later, shorter, and more “simple” poems reflect the “presence of the metrical psalms” in order to represent authentic, unmediated experiences of grace. As she brings the history of music, of the book, and of poetry together, Smith offers a new understanding not only into several of Bradstreet’s poems but also into how America’s first poet responded to a move to a rural town and to Puritan theories of language. Far from being entirely influenced by male poets or retreating to domestic concerns, Bradstreet engages key debates about language that are central to scholars’ current understanding of Puritan aesthetics.

Together, these three essays highlight the important scholarship of some of UNT’s students, scholarship that not only helps us to see both canonical and under-recognized texts in new ways but that also highlights the broader literary, cultural, and historical significance of these texts, both for their own times and for ours.