Andrew Newman: Captivity Narratives and The Handmaid’s Tale, Part 1

Allegories of Encounter: Colonial Literacy and Indian Captivities by Andrew NewmanToday we welcome the first of a 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 I. Reception Allegories

Why did sales of George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale surge in 2017? The immediate answer to this question, that the grim forebodings of these works of speculative fiction are seemingly being fulfilled by current events, is not sufficient. It does not explain the shared impulse to seek out parallels to one’s experience in one’s reading, or the recourse to reading in response to disorienting, upsetting events. A more thoroughgoing explanation emerges through the study of colonial captivity narratives.

Allegories of Encounter is about representations of literacy practices in the narrative accounts of colonists who were captured by Native Americans during colonial wars. It argues that for these captives, reading and writing were part of a reassertion of a cultural identity under duress – even as they were stripped of their European clothes, famished and fatigued, they remained ideationally connected to their estranged communities by reading, writing, recollecting, and meditating on texts.

Moreover, these texts became part of their experience of captivity. That is, a conventional model of intertextuality focuses on the relations between texts, but I argue that stories also inform experiences, and even influence behaviors. I develop the concept of the “reception allegory,” in which the story one is reading, a story about others in other times and places, is also understood as the story of oneself.

Many instances of reception allegory in accounts of captivity extend the Christian interpretive practice of typology. Early New England captives understood the story of the Old Testament Jews who were carried away captive to Babylon as a literal account of an event that occurred in the remote past, as a prefiguration of the story of Christ in the New Testament, and as a pattern for their own experience. For example, the following passage is from Mary Rowlandson’s famous – to early Americanists – 1682 account of captivity during King Philip’s War, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. It recounts the moment soon after Narragansetts and Wampanoags captured her in a raid on Lancaster, when they brought her across the Connecticut River and into a re-enactment of the 137th Psalm.

Although I had met with so much affliction, and my heart was many times ready to break, yet could I not shed one tear in their sight; but rather had been all this while in a maze, and like one astonished. But now I may say as Psalm 137.1, “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sate down: yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.”

This sort of reading was not restricted to Scriptures, however. I also see evidence of reception allegories in accounts of secular reading practices, such as those of the eighteenth-century British gentlemen Thomas Morris and Thomas Ridout, who read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus as captives in the old Northwest.

I see both phenomena, reception allegories and discourse-community affiliation,  at play in contemporary readings and evocations of dystopian fiction. Like early colonial captives, readers today correlate current events with prophetic texts.

Sign at the March for Science 2017 in Washington, DC.
Sign at the March for Science 2017 in Washington, DC.

Readers today know that the United States is not literally becoming Oceania, or Gilead, the totalitarian states depicted in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, respectively, any more than the American woods literally became Babylon. Instead, noting the correspondences, they fear it is becoming like them: the allegoresis indicates an outcome, possibly to be averted.

In some cases, as in the Indian captivities, the levels of signification, literal and figural, seem to converge, as when activists have dressed as handmaids, the procreative slaves in Atwood’s dystopia, to bring attention to threats to women’s rights. “But now I may say,” one seemed to declare, at a Chicago rally against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in August 2018: “We won’t let the bastards grind us down.”

Image caption: Charles Edward Miller, "Illinois Handmaids Stop Brett Kavanaugh Rally Downtown Chicago Illinois 8-26-18"
Charles Edward Miller, “Illinois Handmaids Stop Brett Kavanaugh Rally Downtown Chicago Illinois 8-26-18”

The phrase is a literal translation of a faux-Latin slogan from the novel: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Who might understand this cryptic public allusion? It is accessible only to the initiated: those who had read The Handmaid’s Tale, or, alternatively, had seen Episode 4, Season 1 of Hulu’s television adaptation of Atwood’s novel, which premiered in April 2017.

This collective allegoresis exemplifies a broader implication of all of our media practices – reading, writing, tweeting, posting, tagging, liking – namely, the actualization of community. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, in 2018, is not necessarily a political act, but it is definitively a symbolic action. It signifies, I count myself among those who get the relevance of this book, today. In times like these, I value literature. In this respect, as a practice of participation in a community and of contradistinction to that community’s perceived outsiders, this reading resembles the media practices of the captive readers.

The valuation of literacy and literacy enacted by readers of dystopian fiction reflects the values (or language ideology) expressed by the works themselves. In 1984, Winston Smith awakes from a dream with “with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.” The Handmaid’s Tale, which after Inauguration Day in 2016 leapfrogged 1984 on Amazon’s bestseller list, is especially apropos because it’s a captivity narrative: the first person account of a woman, June, who was wrested from her family and her former life (including a job at a library!) and forcibly assimilated into a new role, with, like some colonial captives, a new name: she becomes Offred, the handmaid of Fred, the Commander.

In Gilead, getting caught in the act of reading or writing might mean losing a hand. In this respect, The Handmaid’s Tale differs from the captivity narratives I analyze in Allegories of Encounter, because in those the captors generally sanction and even enable the captives’ literacy practices, even by giving them books. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the captors’ recognition of the captives’ attachment to their former life is more sinister: the Commander himself summoned Offred to his study, “an oasis of the forbidden” lined with books; she was “terrified,” but the tension diffused when he invited her to play a game of Scrabble. Subsequently, he proffered a glossy woman’s magazine – a relic from a lost world. “I felt the Commander watching me as I turned the pages,” Offred recalls. As June did in her former life, Atwood’s readers may take for granted their freedom read a magazine or to play Scrabble, to arrange letters into words.

Whatever they suggest about the Native Americans, colonial captivity narratives express the importance of literacy practices to the captive-authors, as rituals of cultural identity. Unsurprisingly, a twentieth-century author expresses a corresponding worldview. Atwood construes the proscription of literacy as a definitive feature of dystopia, and the act of literary representation as antithetical to totalitarianism.

In the next installment of this blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into The Handmaid’s Tale, and its methodological implications for historical scholarship.


Andrew Newman is associate professor of English at Stony Brook University.  Follow him on Twitter.

For more information on the Omohundro Institute, please visit their website, and check out their full list of books published with UNC Press.