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American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning

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In reading the incredibly moving text of The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, a detailed narrative of Mary Rowlandson’s eleven week captivity among Narragansett Indians, one cannot help but become aware of the presence of two distinct and alternating narrative voices throughout the body of the text. In fact, numerous scholars have taken pause to make note of this undeniable shift in voice within their critical reflections of Rowlandson’s narrative. David Minter describes a “curious and double present-mindedness” that exists in the text, explaining that on one hand Rowlandson is attempting to use her experience as a lesson for those who walk a troubled path away from salvation, while on the other hand she is using the act of writing about her experience to mark her own place as one of the Elect declared in a long line of Puritan conversion narratives.

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian discusses an empirical and rhetorical narration within the text-empirical defining the author’s role as participant and rhetorical defining Rowlandson’s role as interpreter and commentator. “The split in Rowlandson’s narrative between the participant and the commentator voices is very clear,” Zabelle Derounian states.

These two voices, Zabelle Derounian further argues, are a result of Rowlandson having suffered from a mental disorder today known as survivor syndrome where she tries to reconcile her feelings of guilt over having survived the Indian attack on Lancaster and her subsequent captivity with her obligation to paint her experience in the hues of providential affliction.

Furthermore, David Downing notes that: Rowlandson generally recounts the events of her captivity in a vigorous and homely style, combining close observation with simple, direct expression. However, when she pauses to consider the significance of a particular detail, her style becomes more elevated as she employs biblical quotations and metaphors to convey her meaning.

Downing goes on to say that “this variation of style recurs throughout the narrative. “And in yet another observation of the duality of Rowlandson’s text, Deborah Dietrich points to Rowlandson’s “method of oscillating between involvement and more distanced observation. “This device, Dietrich continues, creates a sense of immediacy and allows the reader to relate to the author while at the same time creating a figure who has walked through the fire and lived to tell about it and teach from it. The combative nature of these two voices creates a very clear and uneasy tension that permeates Rowlandson’s captivity narrative.

For example, throughout most of the text, Rowlandson is cast as the Christian woman lost in the unknown wilderness among a savage people and wholly unsure of her surroundings. At one point of the narrative, Rowlandson recounts her multiple experiences of sitting in her captors’ wigwams at different times throughout her captivity and completely forgetting where she is before jumping up and running outside “when I was without, and saw nothing but Wilderness and Woods, and a company of barbarous Heathen; my mind quickly returned to me, which made me think of that spoken concerning Sampson, who said, I will go out and shake myself as at other times, but he wist not that the Lord was departed from him.7At yet another point in the text, Rowlandson states, “My son being now about a mile from me,…away I went; but quickly lost myself travelling over Hills and through Swamps, and could not find my way to him.

However, despite these allusions to being lost in the wilderness, Rowlandson in reality seems always to know her geographic location throughout the course of her captivity. At one point in the Third Remove, Rowlandson writes, “This day in the afternoon, about an hour by the Sun, we came to the place where they intended, viz. an Indian town called Wenimesset, Northward of Quabaug. “Later in the remove, we learn Rowlandson is “near thirty miles from any English Town.

“Still further into the text, Rowlandson notes, “We were at this place and time about two miles from the Connecticut river. “In fact, when Rowlandson loses her way when going to visit her son, who also is being held captive by another group of Indians, she appears to have no trouble finding her way back to her own camp in order to then have someone show her the way to her son’s residence. In addition to apparently knowing where she is on any given day, Rowlandson also seems capable of keeping track of which day it is.

At several points throughout the narrative, she makes note of her captors’ activities on the Sabbath. It wouldn’t seem unlikely that a person held hostage in a completely alien environment for nearly three months could easily lose track of the days of the week; however, that doesn’t seem to be a problem Rowlandson suffered. Instead of presenting her as the poor soul who has lost her way, these assertions of place and time instead cast Rowlandson in a decidedly resourceful light by showing us a woman capable of orienting herself spatially and temporally.

Another point of disjunction between the two voices at work in the narrative revolve around the use of scripture in the text. Rowlandson would appear to be the very figure of piety in sections where scripture is quoted and she is cast as the pilgrim who, but for the grace of God, would long ago have perished without His word to guide her. In a passage representative of other scripture citations throughout the text, Rowlandson states: Then I took oaken leaves and laid to my side, and with the blessing of God it cured me also; yet before the cure was wrought, I may say as it is in Psal. xxxviii. 5, 6, My wounds stink and are corrupt, I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all the day long. Here, God is attributed with curing Rowlandson of her injury rather than the oak leaves, which evidently posses some sort of medicinal property.

Even more so, God is attributed with the cure rather the captive who tells Rowlandson that oak leaves cured his wound, or even rather than Rowlandson herself who has the mental wherewithal to use the leaves on herself despite being consumed by concern for the health of her wounded child. In effect, God is responsible for everything, and scripture serves as a reminder for Rowlandson that her fate is in His hands. Everywhere there are evidences of God’s providence for His chosen, who need only wait patiently and suffer nobly to receive deliverance. However, when contrasted against passages of the narrative where Rowlandson barters her services for food and money and actively navigates through her captors’ society, we get the image of a woman quite self-reliant and capable of surviving hardships in her own right.

For instance, Mary makes a shirt for King Philip’s son, for which she is paid one shilling.13 At another point, not only does she make a shirt for an Indian but she also harasses him until he makes proper restitution for her labor with the payment of a knife.14While conflicts in voice are readily apparent throughout the text and many scholars seem quite comfortable highlighting the dueling voices that characterize Rowlandson’s narrative, very few seem to question the source of these competing voices. There appears to be an implicit acceptance among those same scholars that the two voices are Rowlandson’s own. “Nearly a third of all Rowlandson’s references are from Psalms, as apparently she found (emphasis mine) in the Psalmist the most eloquent spokesman of her personal grief and despair…” Downing notes, and in so doing grants Rowlandson authority over selection of scripture in her text.15 This despite the fact Downing comments on the shift in narrative voice when scriptures are mentioned in the text.

Likewise, Zabelle Derounian states, “Throughout, Rowlandson’s narrative contains references revealing its author’s depression and emotional bleakness, but frequently Rowlandson masks these signs with outward spiritual interpretations.”16 Again, Rowlandson is assumed to be the sole narrative voice at work in the text, despite an acknowledged “dichotomy between the voice telling the narrative details and the voice interpreting them.”17When viewed in light of the significant historical data that suggest Puritan minister Increase Mather may have played a substantial role in editing and shaping Rowlandson’s text before it went to press, however, it becomes more problematic to make critical interpretations of the narrative without accounting for the potential of Mather’s voice being one of the two.18 In fact, there is little doubt among historians and literary theorists that Increase Mather is the anonymous author of the preface to the reader that introduces and provides testimony for Rowlandson’s text.

At the very least, the historical data raise enough red flags that should lead the discerning reader to view the narrative as an amalgamation of authorial control between Mather and Rowlandson, if not indeed a reflection of two separate voices representative of two separate writers. What’s more, in light of the severe limitations placed on women’s public speech and writing at the time, it seems questionable to think that a written work as powerful as Rowlandson’s narrative would have been offered up for public consumption without first being strained through the filter of the Puritan ministry.

An examination of the historical clues certainly indicate that, if nothing else, the publication of Rowlandson’s narrative most definitely would have been of significant interest to Mather. One of the leading second-generation Puritan ministers in New England, Mather strongly believed King Philip’s War was a divine punishment meted out by God in response to the waning religious devotion of next-generation Puritans and their increasing attention to material gain.19 Mather was particularly interested in the overall significance of Indian/English relations as they pertained-in his eyes-to God’s dispensations to his chosen people, and he very vigorously worked the image of the redeemed captive as a metaphor for the entire Puritan community. Mather had a great deal to gain from the wide-spread distribution of Rowlandson’s tale of captivity and deliverance.At the time of King Philip’s War, Mather was emerging as a powerful theological and political leader in New England, jockeying for the position as king of the city on the hill with William Hubbard. For the two ministers, the war presented numerous opportunities for conflict over how best to bring it to a successful close.

Unlike Mather, Hubbard did not think that the war was some kind of Armageddon. In fact, Hubbard felt that those who accepted unreservedly that the war was the manifestation of God’s anger with the Puritans and that nothing could be done were shirking their responsibility as leaders of New England.23 With this rivalry in mind, Nelsen notes that Mather hurried to write and publish his Brief History of the Warr With the Indians in New-England (in which Mather includes an account of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity and release) before Hubbard could publish his own history, implying that the race was on to be the first to provide the besieged Puritans with a theoretical framework within which to understand the war. For Mather, “the events of the war had to be read comprehensively, for their significance would have bearing on matters ranging from the microscopic polity of the family to the organization of the cosmos under God.” Slotkin and Folsom further contend that through the work of writing his Brief History and then later a second history of the war, A Relation of the Troubles Which Have Hapened in New-England, Mather was attempting to create a new “mythology” of Indian-Puritan relations, which cast the Indians as a symbol of punishment for the Puritans’ failure to adhere to orthodox doctrine.The story of Mary Rowlandson fit in very nicely with this new mythology. She was a minister’s wife who, despite her already obviously close connection to God, was called upon to suffer terrible hardship by His hand and comes truly to know Him. What better example could possibly exist to show New England Puritans the consequence of their folly and the way to true salvation? Mitchell Breitwieser observes:

For Mather, the utility of Rowlandson’s narrative lay in the assistance it supplied for this task of application (of bringing his tenets of Puritan ideology to bear on individual experience): she affirmed that the meaning that Mather sought to establish could illuminate experience…to a level of unsurpassable specificity.25And given Mather’s desire to reweave the torn fabric of Puritan religious and political life,26 it doesn’t seem a large leap to imagine he would take an active, supervisory role in ensuring that the Puritan congregation clearly understood the message of Rowlandson’s experience. In fact, Slotkin and Folsom note, “Increase Mather saw in [Mary Rowlandson’s] deliverance a sign that God was at last consenting to harken to the prayers of his people.”27 What’s more, the opportunity to encourage and shape production of Rowlandson’s narrative did exist. Mather and the Rowlandsons knew each other well, and Mather at one point helped facilitate Joseph Rowlandson’s efforts to reclaim his family from their Indian captors.28 In addition, Mather probably enjoyed a significant influence at the Boston press where Rowlandson’s narrative was published due to the publication of several of his own works there.29 Of course, Mather’s opportunity of access and influence do not necessarily translate into a hands-on involvement with the narrative. But the curious shifts in narrative voice that punctuate Rowlandson’s text echo the tenets of Mather’s religious agenda for New England.

The problems of voice that mark Rowlandson’s narrative have parallels within the body of literature on slave narratives and collaborative women’s autobiography, and this scholarship provides a theoretical framework within which to consider The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. In his discussion of narration, authentication and authorial control in slave narratives, Robert B. Stepto contends that the narratives “are full of other voices which are frequently just as responsible for articulating a narrative’s tale and strategy.”30 Stepto goes on to explain most of these “voices” appear in the form of introductions and appendices attached to slave narratives that vouched for the legitimacy and authenticity of the written narrative, as well as the existence and reliability of the former slave who wrote the text. Stepto states: These documents-and voices-may not always be smoothly integrated with the former slave’s tale, but they are nevertheless parts of the narrative. Their primary function is, of course, to authenticate the former slave’s account; in doing so, they are at least partially responsible for the narrative’s acceptance as historical evidence.

Stepto argues that the text’s narrative voice constitutes all the authors-the former slave, the editors, the slave’s white friends and guarantors-who contributed to the final, whole written work. The narrative cannot be viewed as belonging only to the authoring slave because his voice is intrinsically bound to the numerous other voices granting him credibility. The slave is a choir member, but it is the entire chorus we actually hear, making the individual voice all but indistinguishable. When looking at Rowlandson’s narrative, the validating techniques used in slave narratives are identical to those at play in her text. An anonymous introduction most likely written by Increase Mather accompanied Rowlandson’s tale when it was first published in 1682. The introduction is an entreaty to the reader to pay close heed to the terrible events visited upon this Handmaiden of God so that he or she might learn from her experience. However, and more importantly, the introduction also serves as validation for the story being told in the first place.

After Anne Hutchinson very publicly claimed numerous Puritan ministers relied too heavily on a doctrine of good works in assessing experiences of grace among church members and declared that God had revealed to her the assurance of her own salvation, most Puritan women were denied the freedom to speak publicly in any capacity.32 In order for Rowlandson to relate her story and be acknowledged by the desired Puritan readership, her act of public “speaking” had to be made palatable.

Through the work of his introduction, Mather sets forth to accomplish that task by straightforwardly telling the reader that they should not be repelled by Rowlandson’s act of writing, but should instead be inspired. Mather further asserts that Rowlandson is a true and pious Christian woman who would never seek the limelight for herself, but

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American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning. (2018, Sept 04). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/american-puritanism-and-the-defense-of-mourning/
“American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning.” GradesFixer, 04 Sept. 2018, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/american-puritanism-and-the-defense-of-mourning/
American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/american-puritanism-and-the-defense-of-mourning/> [Accessed 25 Sept. 2020].
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