Today we welcome the second of his two-part guest post from Andrew Newman, author of Allegories of Encounter: Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities, just published by UNC Press and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
Presenting an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to colonial America’s best-known literary genre, Andrew Newman analyzes depictions of reading, writing, and recollecting texts in Indian captivity narratives. While histories of literacy and colonialism have emphasized the experiences of Native Americans, as students in missionary schools or as parties to treacherous treaties, captivity narratives reveal what literacy meant to colonists among Indians. Colonial captives treasured the written word in order to distinguish themselves from their Native captors and to affiliate with their distant cultural communities. Their narratives suggest that Indians recognized this value, sometimes with benevolence: repeatedly, they presented colonists with books.
Allegories of Encounter is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Captivity Narratives and The Handmaid’s Tale
Part 2: “The Past is a Great Darkness”
In the first installment of this blog post, I discussed the implications of my analysis of colonial captivity narratives in Allegories of Encounter for the reading of dystopian fiction, especially Margaret Atwood’s neo-captivity narrative The Handmaid’s Tale, in the so-called “Age of Trump.” Allegories of Encounter is also about methodological considerations in the interpretation of nonfictional narrative accounts, and this second post takes up The Handmaid’s Tale’s suggestive treatment of this subject.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the first person account of Offred, formerly June, a handmaid or procreative slave who risks death by recording her ongoing story. Her explanation of her motives for doing so expresses Atwood’s insights about the roles of narrative in organizing one’s perception of experience and also in affiliating with one’s community. Such effects, Allegories of Encounter suggests, can be produced by reading as well as writing (or otherwise narrating). Offred explains that she records her spoken testimony (on cassette tapes) “because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden.” She consciously indulges in a discursive illusion: “If it’s a story I’m telling,” she suggests, “then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.” Moreover, “if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.” Thus Atwood emphasizes what devotees of literature necessarily find to be a sympathetic language ideology, one she elaborates on in a 2017 essay on “What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump”: With reference to Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, and the Rwandan genocide witness Roméo Dallaire, she argues that producing “the literature of witness” is “an act of hope”: “Every recorded story implies a future reader.” Thus keeping a journal, or even mentally composing a narrative, anticipates survival.