Genre, Form, Captivity, and Restoration: Mary Rowlandson’s Creative Writing

by Lucy Biederman | Contributing Writer


The first captivity narrative published in America was Mrs. Mary Rowlandson White’s 1682 true-life tale of being abducted by Indians. In February 1676, Indians set fire to the Massachusetts house that Rowlandson shared with nearly forty other Puritans. In the subsequent fighting, lit by the flaming house, Rowlandson witnessed a scene of horror, as the people she has spent her days with, mostly women and children, fought for their lives. Many burned to death or were shot; others, including Rowlandson, were taken captive. Out she went, holding her dying child in her arms. 

This happened during King Philip’s War in 1675. The cause of the war? Joyce Carol Oates says that all wars, and human endeavor itself, are “basically this Darwinian land grab.” The Puritans were coming in bigger shiploads, taking more of the good stuff. Among Indians, former enemies united to fight the colonists, but you can guess how that turned out. It was a nasty, torture-laden, we’ll-burn-down-your-house-with-your-children-in-it war. The “theater” of fighting was vast. Indians invaded more than half the towns in New England; given the population at the time, the six- to eight-hundred English colonists killed meant that the “death rate was nearly twice that of the Civil War and more than seven times that of World War II,” according to Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Touglas in King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict. For Indian populations, which had already been decimated from diseases brought by the colonists, the war’s catastrophic erasure of lives, cultures, histories, and traditions, messy yet viciously methodical, forged “the brutal model for how the United States would come to deal with its native population,” write Schultz and Touglas.

The legacy of this brutal war is its absence, its refusal to leave in its wake even a story. Schultz and Touglas write, “In removing King Philip war from our history books,” Schultz and Touglas write, “we became, according to the rubric, destined to repeat it.” It wasn’t that the war was never in the history books. It was removed.


Make America Great Again—boldest among this set of bold keywords, the one that most upsets and riles and evokes: again. Oh, the past. The pastness of the past, sitting at the dinner table as a family, an appropriate amount of personal identity and opportunity portioned out like mashed potatoes, like whirled peas, as the bumper stickers of my youth said. The years directly before King Philip’s War, Increase Mather, purest of Puritans—involved in the Salem Witch Trials, awarded the colonies’ first honorary doctorate (by Harvard, of Sacred Theology, in 1692), rumored to have written the unsigned introduction to Rowlandson’s captivity narrative—spent writing and delivering dark sermons devoted to the “great decay” of colonial values. Make American Great Again, he cried. After the war ended, Increase’s son, Cotton, even angrier, harsher, and more brilliant, published The Wonders of the Invisible World, including both an exegesis of “the terrible things, lately done, by the Unusual & Amazing Range of EVIL SPIRITS, in Our Neighbourhood” and “Some Conjectures upon the great EVENTS, likely to befall, the WORLD in General, and NEW-ENGLAND in Particular; as also upon the Advances of the TIME, when we shall see BETTER DAYES.” It was 1693. At the dawn of the idea of America, it was already ruined.


At the end of the twentieth century, three creative writers, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Susan Howe, each recast Rowlandson’s captivity narrative in their own words and forms, running it through a filter, introducing Rowlandson to a different audience. Contemporary poetry-reading Americans to whom Alexie, Erdrich, and Howe present Rowlandson are unlike the Americans who excitedly soaked up Rowlandson’s original. This new audience is more skeptical, in some ways: less likely to be astonished than the audience that made Rowlandson’s narrative the New World’s first best seller. And yet, like those who read Rowlandson’s seventeenth-century captivity narrative, contemporary poetry readers interpret Rowlandson as a moral actor within her tale, at the expense of interpreting her as a shaper of a text. Alexie, Erdrich, and Howe write to the enduring inclination among American readers to cast moral judgment.  

Alexie’s lyric essay “Captivity,” riffs off Erdrich’s poem of the same name. Both Alexie’s and Erdrich’s creative pieces serve critical functions, too, in the service of underscoring how narrow was Rowlandson’s perspective. Howe’s piece on Rowlandson, titled “The Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson,” is, like Alexie’s, a lyric essay, combining elements of both prose and poetry to argue her vision of Rowlandson.

What I can’t work out, though, is why, in their writing of her, around her, and with regard to her, none of these creative writers reference the form in which Rowlandson chooses to tell her captivity narrative. Writing without the established American anything—novel, essay, tale—Rowlandson invented a genre. Born in England, alive in the New World. Without mold or model, she began.

Rowlandson’s text is divided into chunks that she refers to as “removes.” They are sort of like chapters, but the awkward, in-between length of the captivity narrative—more novella than novel—calls attention to them. There are twenty of these removes, and they’re short. The longest, the twentieth, is about 5,000 words, but most are shorter than that, often a single paragraph, like the eleventh remove:

The next day in the morning they took their Travel, intending a dayes journey up the river, I took my load at my back, and quickly we came to wade over the River; and passed over tiresome and wearisome hills. One hill was so steep that I was fain to creep up upon my knees, and to hold by the twiggs and bushes to keep my self from falling backward. My head also was so light, that I usually reeled as I went; but I hope all these wearisome steps that I have taken, are but a forewarning to me of the heavenly rest. I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me, Psalm 119.75.

You can see how Rowlandson’s chosen form functions as an arrow pointing forward, the way her body had to, during her captivity: “all these wearisome steps I have taken” over those “wearisome hills,” on and on, anything “to keep my self from falling backward.”

Removes, not chapters, mark the territory of Rowlandson’s text. The text is labeled, piloted, by them: “First Remove,” “Second Remove,” on to the twentieth. Each one represents the distance her captors have taken her from that starting place, her home.

Despite the formally inventive ways that Alexie, Howe, and Erdrich depict and revise Mary Rowlandson, none of them focus on Rowlandson as a writer—or, to use Foucault’s phrase, as an author function. As a writer, as a shaper of a heavily shaped text, as a builder of removes, as an author, curated and framed, Rowlandson is virtually absent for these contemporary writers who have taken her on.


Rather than dividing her text into conventional chapters, or not dividing it at all, Rowlandson displaces her reader, like she was displaced during her captivity. Like Alexie, Erdrich, and Howe, or like scholars who have written academic essays about her, Rowlandson asserts her ideology through form. By ignoring what a formal innovator Rowlandson was, these experimental writers risk re-inscribing her morality, which they rightly and obviously find abhorrent, through her innovative formal tactics—which they deploy.  

Alexie’s “Captivity,” which first appeared in his 1993 collection First Indian on the Moon, is a set of fourteen numbered prose chunks, a form that could be a reference to the twenty numbered sections of Rowlandson’s original—but probably not. The scholar Yael Ben-Zvi reads the form of Alexie’s piece as a sonnet in prose, rendered in narrative “to disrupt its formal constraints.” In one sense, Alexie’s essay mounts profound arguments against Rowlandson’s Eurocentric world view, and the disrupted sonnet form in which he writes speaks to those arguments. As we meet Alexie’s Rowlandson, she “is still running, waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Formally, however, Alexie and Rowlandson share tactics. Both writers build houses in some type of wilderness—emotional, ecological—out of weird bricks of prose. Alexie questions Rowlandson’s moral understanding of her world, but meanwhile he evokes, relies on, draws from the innovative literary tactics of her original Narrative.

In place of Rowlandson’s intertextual Biblical references, interspersed throughout the text to lend Christian backup to her tale, Alexie utters, in all caps, “the language of the enemy”: The landscape of Alexie’s text is littered with signs asserting, HANDICAPPED PARKING ONLY, WET CEMENT, SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. Where Rowlandson’s world is typologized by Biblical signs, and so she sees the Bible everywhere, Alexie’s is typologized by the U.S. Government, which knows, as well as any body, how to do things with words. “How do you know whether to use the IN or OUT door to escape?” Alexie asks in his “Captivity,” suggesting how the signs by which his world is marked hold him captive.


The scholar Wai Chee Dimock writes of the “back-and-forth networks” of race, region, and time that are suggested by Alexie’s lyric essay and Erdrich’s poem about Rowlandson: Erdrich and Alexie indicate “that there is more than one story here,” other routes to take than the one that Rowlandson selected. Dimock writes that Alexie’s lyric essay on Rowlandson is about what Rowlandson was unable to say, constrained, perhaps, by the expectations of the captivity narrative genre and of her gender. But Rowlandson doesn’t seem all that constrained to me. Her narrative is actually quite confessional, as was the Puritan way: Their God listened close for their secrets. At the beginning of her captivity narrative, Rowlandson writes,

I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should chuse rather to be killed by them than taken alive; but when it came to the trial my mind changed; their glittering Weapons so daunted my Spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous Bears, than that moment to end my daies.

Before, when it was all talk, I said I would die before be held captive. But when they came to kill me, I saw their knives and it turned out I wasn’t brave. In Erdrich’s poem about Rowlandson, which first published in the 1984 collection Jacklight and has been anthologized widely, such disclosures return as silences. Erdrich’s “Captivity,” a persona poem in free verse, depicts Rowlandson’s xenophobia, racism, confused desire, and her sleeplessness on returning to the Puritan world she had known before being taken captive. Erdrich writes, “I told myself that I would starve / before I took food from his hands / but I did not starve.” Erdrich creates a strong suggestion, built on throughout “Captivity” but never explicitly stated, of a love affair between Rowlandson and a central “he,” a leader of the group Algonkian Indians that has taken Erdrich’s Rowlandson captive.

Moments that feel confessional in Rowlandson’s Narrative are rewritten, in Erdrich’s “Captivity,” to suggest that pieces of information have been censored. The stanza that begins with the three lines quoted above continues,

One night
he killed a deer with a young one in her
and gave me to eat of the fawn.
It was so tender,
and the bones like the stems of flowers,
that I followed where he took me.
The night was thick. He cut the cord that bound me to the tree.

And now, the cord cut, another stanza begins:

After that the birds mocked.

Rather than fill in the details of what Rowlandson might have left out, Erdrich dramatically amps up the sense that the real Narrative has been suppressed. The phrase “After that,” coming as it does after the stanza break, points to some undescribed scene, “where he took me,” in some lost place between stanzas, where readers don’t go. No—where writers don’t go. It may well be that, as Dimock suggests, the captivity narrative genre comes with constraints that work against truth-telling, and that, as Erdrich suggests, a reality exists that is more real than what Rowlandson titled her “True History.” But it is not as if we disclose the whole truth, now that we live in the present.


Dimock’s suggestion that Rowlandson’s content was constricted by the conventions of her genre and gender calls attention to the reality of Rowlandson’s authorship, the contemporaneous conditions of her authorial choices. It is interesting to note that Rowlandson appears across Alexie’s lyric essay in many different personae: as a student, a lover, a pioneer wife. But never as an author. Alexie’s “Captivity” works by detaching Rowlandson from the specific contexts of her authorship. In its first section, the piece introduces Rowlandson as “the white girl with no name or a name which refuses memory.” The second part of the essay describes a car crash: “The only survivor was a white woman from Springdale who couldn’t remember her name.” The piece, as Dimock puts it, “taunts” Rowlandson. Alexie writes: “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? As an author, Rowlandson imposed form on the disordered event of her captivity by numbering and describing each remove she was taken from home. Alexie removes Rowlandson from her own narrative by unsettling the details of time, place, and even name by which Rowlandson is known. Ben-Zvi reads Alexie’s “jumbled, mock centennials” as a way of cutting against “the ostensibly progressive course of national history from King Philip’s War (1676) through the US Declaration of Independence (1776) and the US Centennial and Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) to the US Bicentennial (1976).”

Alexie uses not only time but form to resist that received sense of onward progression—and to undermine Rowlandson’s authorship. One of the ways he does this is by using a phrase from the final clause of the previous numbered section to begin the next section. For instance, the twelfth section of “Captivity” ends,

June, Mary Rowlandson, the water is gone and my cousins are eating Lysol sandwiches. They don’t need you, will never search for you in the ash after your house has burned to the ground one more time. It’s over. That’s all you can depend on.

The thirteenth section then begins, “All we can depend on are the slowmotion replays of our lives.” Through such repetition-by-alteration, Alexie suggests a moving forward that feels like moving back, or like not really moving forward at all.

Alexie’s piece shares both a title, and an epigraph, with Erdrich’s poem about Rowlandson. That epigraph reads,

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to look at it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

– From 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.

In Alexie’s version, the spelling is changed to “biscuit,” suggesting that historical accuracy is not the goal here. Ben-Zvi notes that this text is not from Rowlandson’s narrative but from a later captivity narrative, John Gyles’s Memoirs of Odd Adventures, Strange Deliverances, etc. (1736). Alexie’s epigraph, from its implied reference to Erdrich’s poem to its updated spelling of “biscuit,” works to establish further formal distance from Rowlandson the author.

However, as the poststructuralists tell us, the author wasn’t really there in the first place. The textual purity of Rowlandson’s text, for those who believe in such things, was upset immediately, when the narrative was published under different titles in America and in England. The title of the narrative as it was published in America in 1682 was:

The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Commended by her, to all that desires to know the Lords doings to, and dealings with Her. Especially to her dear Children and Relations.

Written by Her own Hand for Her private Use, and now made Publick at the earnest Desire of some Friends, and for the benefit of the Afflicted.

And in England, same year:

A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New-England. Wherein is set forth, the Cruel and Inhuman Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens, for Eleven Weeks time: and her Deliverance from them.

Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: And now made publick at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted.

Gary Ebersole and Teresa Toulouse have both written about how these two different titles indicate the different concerns of their audiences; Toulouse reads, in the word “Soveraignty” in the American version, evidence of the debates that then raged over how New England would be governed and by whom. No matter what the title, each edition of the text retains Rowlandson’s unique formal device, those twenty removes, with one chunk of prose for each movement further away Rowlandson is taken by her Indian captors.

The First Remove

Now away we must go with those barbarous creatures . . .

The fourteenth through nineteenth removes have the group “bending our course” backward toward where they came. Thus Rowlandson’s removes come, even more explicitly, something other than spatial distance from where she began. The distances those later removes chart are cultural, psychic, social, and, perhaps most important, spiritual. As Ebersole shows, Rowlandson’s intended audience would have associated the word remove with the notion that “God’s affection had been removed or withdrawn.” Rowlandson’s text, then, is a terrifying descent into possible damnation: “The growing sense of distance—both spatial and spiritual—the captive had experienced with each successive remove would also have been felt by the reader through the act of reading,” Ebersole writes. Rowlandson’s—and her reader’s—journey is textual, passage to passage, however far away she really is. 


If Rowlandson’s Narrative were published for the first time today, it might be termed, like Alexie’s piece, a lyric essay. With its dual confessional and scriptural impulses and its frequent use of literary quotations, Rowlandson’s Narrative reminds me a little of the poet Mary Karr’s memoirs, like Cherry and Lit, which sing Rowlandson’s tune: I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Lia Purpura, a contemporary innovator of the essay, suggests that the lyric essay is, at its heart, “an epistolary form.” Rowlandson’s captivity narrativeis a text directed to: Even within the space of its title, it seeks to prove to you, “the Afflicted,”God’s power. It grabs you by the collar—Dear Reader, Change and Believe.

Before I knew what affliction meant, I was ready sometimes to wish for it. When I lived in prosperity, having the comforts of the world about me, my relations by me, heart cheerful, and taking little care for anything, and yet seeing many, whom I preferred before myself, under many trials and afflictions, in sickness, weakness, poverty, losses, crosses, and cares of the world, I should have my portion in this life, and that Scripture would come to my mind, “For whom the Lord loveth he chaseteneth, and scourgeth every Son whom he receiveth” (Hebrews 12.6). But now I see the Lord had His time to scourge and chasten me.

Rowlandson quotes, confesses, regrets, remembers, revises. But now (alas) I see.

In her 1993 lyric essay about Rowlandson, published in The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American History, Howe makes Rowlandson’s form, those removes, seem pedestrian: “the narrative is divided into chapters called Removes.” Howe is a formal experimentalist herself, but she is uninterested in Rowlandson’s inventiveness. Howe flattens those removes, de-fangs them, brings them closer into the familiar, by labeling them, simply,chapters.

“This is a crime story,” Howe writes. “This is a crime story in a large and violent place. Too large for subject and object. Only a few of her captors have names. Nearly all of their names are wrong. Anyway, by 1676 most of them are gone.” Without explicitly saying it, Howe suggests here that the crime in the crime story is not Rowlandson being held captive, but the “large and violent” American imperial ideology in which Rowlandson is an active and valuable participant—a system that has, by 1676, already gone a long way toward wiping out Indian land, lives, and ways of life. This crime story is, Howe writes, “beyond the protective reduplication of Western culture,” perhaps suggesting a motive for the crime. A place where Western culture cannot be protected, “reduplicated,” must be destroyed.

But I cannot help thinking that Howe’s ability to place that familiar generic label on Rowlandson’s narrative—“crime story”—feels like evidence of the opposite. That is, Rowlandson’s ability to sell what happened in that wilderness as a captivity narrative, or Howe’s take on it as a crime story, both seem to me evidence that Western culture is capable of reduplicating itself there—even, or perhaps with particular relish, in that large and violent place. If we know where it would have been shelved at Blockbuster Video, is it really beyond the grabby octopus arms of Western culture?

By removing the text’s received generic label, captivity narrative, and replacing it with the label of crime story, Howe underlines her own text’s focus on the violence and mystery of Rowlandson’s tale. But neither of those labels speak to the form of Rowlandson’s text, the twenty removes. Howe contrasts Rowlandson with Anne Bradstreet, who came to Massachusetts on the famous Arabella voyage in 1630, the ship on which John Winthrop said those words destined to ring out again and again through American political life: “We shall be as a city upon a hill.” Bradstreet, who was well-educated and of impeccable Puritan pedigree, authored the first book of poetry published in the North American colonies, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650). According to Howe, Bradstreet differs from Rowlandson, who has been stricken, marked; she is “narrating something about the recalcitrant beast in Every-woman,” in contradistinction to Bradstreet’s “polished pious verse.”

But in depicting Rowlandson as beyond the reach of form, while Bradstreet stayed in safe Puritan society and attended to prosodic traditions, Howe ignores what, for me, is most salient about American forms. Captive or not, Rowlandson and Bradstreet stood (. . . read, wrote, cooked, sewed, washed. . .) on shaky ground. American forms are necessarily malleable. America wouldn’t work if they weren’t. It’s the Coke thrown from a plane in The Gods Must Be Crazy, which I haven’t even seen. It’s the pic shared on Facebook of children in an impoverished Guatemalan village wearing t-shirts celebrating the victory of the team that lost the World Series, which were printed just in case, probably by the thousands. As Homi Bhabha shows in “Signs Taken for Wonders,” that “traumatic scenario of colonial difference” that Rowlandson experiences and struggles to write and unwrite is not some freaky exception to the rule. It is the rule, the way the whole thing operates. Bradstreet, who was, like Rowlandson, born in England and removed to America, traffics in form like Rowlandson. Both writers are, to recall Purpura, epistolary, hyperaware of their audiences. The titles of Rowlandson’s text (both the American and English versions) and many of Bradstreet’s poem titles (“The Author to Her Book,” “To My Dear and Loving Husband”) feint and parry, telling us, I wrote this for my “private use,” for my children, my family—I’m no author! And the texts of both writers are administered by other hands, jammed with authorizing introductions by notable men. Rather than being exterior to the actual authorship of those writers, or to the forms of their pieces, this busy curatorial activity is central. The textual presence of other writers and editors, like Rowlandson’s and Bradstreet’s constant awareness of their intended audience, are defining features of these women’s authorships.  


In each of these pieces about Rowlandson by contemporary creative writers, which I appreciate for their artistry and their attention to what Rowlandson overlooked and misunderstood, I end up missing the original Rowlandson, amalgam of publishers and pushers that she was. Howe’s essay concludes with the line, “Mary Rowlandson saw what she did not see said what she did not say.” Writing about Alexie and Erdrich’s poems, Dimock poses questions about Rowlandson that feel in a similar vein to Howe’s concluding lyric:

Having gone so far in the direction of sociality with her captors, what else might she have told us? Is her narrative an exhaustive record of everything that transpired, or are there things not admitted to, because not compatible with the conventions of the genre?

The word remove, repeated as a heading twenty times throughout Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, indicates the path that the narrative and Rowlandson’s body travel, but it also emphasizes that Rowlandson has removed certain things. As Howe puts it, “Someone is here. Now away she must go. Invisible to her people. Out in a gap in the shadows.”

The sense of erasure that attaches to Rowlandson in contemporary writers’ imaginings of her is associated with Rowlandson’s inability to sleep on return from her captivity. Rowlandson writes, toward the conclusion of the narrative,

I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is otherwise with me. When all are fast about me, and no eye open but His who ever waketh, my thoughts are upon things past, upon the awful dispensations of the Lord towards us, . . . I remember in the night season, how the other day I was in the midst of thousands of enemies, and nothing but death before me; it was then hard work to persuade myself that I ever should be satisfied with bread again. But now we are fed with the finest of the Wheat, and (as I may so say) with honey out of the rock; instead of the husks, we have the fatted Calf; the thoughts of these things in the particulars of them, and of the love and goodness of God towards us, make it true of me, what David said of himself, Psal. vi. 6, I water my couch with my tears. Oh the wonderful power of God that mine eyes have seen, affording matter enough for my thoughts to run in, that when others are sleeping mine eyes are weeping.

“What is it that keeps her awake?” Dimock asks, pinpointing the passage above as an indication “that less-than-full disclosure seems to be an important compositional principle here.” But Rowlandson tells us that thoughts of God’s “wonderful power” keeps her awake. What else is available to her to tell us? She has been witness to the most terrible misery and the most terrible joy that He has to offer, and it runs ceaselessly through her brain. It’s not like she can meet with a psychotherapist and work out what happened. She can’t get up and take an Ativan, or bingewatch “Master of None” til morning.

We don’t share Rowlandson’s typological way of making sense of the world, and so it looks insane, or childishly closed off. As Howe says, “Each time an errant perception skids loose, she controls her lapse by vehemently invoking biblical authority.” Reading Rowlandson in this way assumes that she knew less about herself and her world than we do about ourselves and our world. I do not see the world the way Rowlandson does, but her disclosure that she spends all night with her “thoughts upon things past”while those around her sleep tells me nothing more about her self-knowledge or moral knowledge than that she was a human being.

Anyway, sleeping is not one of my problems. I am able to sleep. Maybe I sleep too easily
out in a gap in the shadows.
Four hundred years from now, if this shaky ground still stands,
I hope they’ve learned to judge us lightly. 

Lucy Biederman’s experimental writing, including scholarship recast as poetry, lyric essays, and visual essays, have appeared and are forthcoming in Early American Literature, Poetry, AGNI, and Commonplace. She is the author of The Walmart Book of the Dead (Vine Leaves Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year in the fantasy category. Her monthly newsletter, The Boredom and the Horror and the Glory, featuring her strong opinions about reading and writing, is at