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Encoding A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison for the Women Writers Project: NULab + DITI Research Project

Sculpture of Mary Jemison by Bush-Brown, Henry K. 1857-1935, donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Library in 1910

By Claire Lavarreda

I. Introduction

    Over the 2023–2024 Fall and Spring semesters, I joined the Women Writers Project to encode A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) as a research project during my SGA as a NULab/DITI fellow. The Women Writers Project was established in 1988 with the goal to bring “pre-Victorian women writers out of the archive” and into public visibility, made possible through text encoding. As a PhD student interested in Indigenous Studies and book history, the WWP seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore text encoding, women’s writing, and Indigenous topics through A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824). My project is two-fold, and includes: (1). A two-part mini blog series on Jemison’s narrative, discussing representations of gender and authorship, and (2). An encoded edition of Jemison’s narrative according to the WWP schema, to be completed in May.

    II. Process

    A screenshot of an encoded paragraph from A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Elements like placeName and Name are visible.

    Caption: A screenshot of an encoded paragraph from A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, taken from page 76.

    Over the Fall semester, new encoders embarked on training led by Sarah Connell and Syd Bauman. During this time, encoders were introduced to XML and TEI, practiced on Oxygen, navigated the WWP internal documentation, downloaded the WWP textbase, and gradually chose their first texts to encode on their own. It was around this time I chose A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, officially published by minister James Seaver, but dictated (and truly authored) by Mary Jemison. Mary Jemison (1743–1833), was a white woman who was captured as a child by a group of Shawnee and French raiders and adopted into a Seneca family (Jemison 34–35). Jemison dictated her text to minister James E. Seaver (1787–1827), and fictionalized versions of the tale have since been reproduced over the years: most popular is Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941). This text not only personally interested me, but fit within the parameters of the WWP as well — originally, I had been contemplating seventeenth-century manuscripts, something Sarah Connell kindly steered me away from (sparing me from the merciless handwriting). 

    By the Spring semester, I was well on my way through encoding, albeit very slowly. The more I worked with the text, the more I realized that the content itself also needed to be examined, leading to the second part of my project. Through two blog posts titled “Reading Between The Lines,” I aimed to explore the way in which Jemison’s voice (and female authors in general) can be “read” through male-transcribed texts. The first blog post <Link Here> examined first the way in which Mary Jemison describes women that shaped her life, in contrast to the way her male transcriber James Seaver represents women. To do this, I compared the uses of gendered pronouns (she and her, him and he) in Jemison’s portion of her narrative to Seaver’s portions (which were notes, prologues, and appendixes), visualizing them in Word Trees. This visualization revealed that Mary Jemison portrays women as complex beings she feels kinship with, especially her adoptive sisters. In Jemison’s narrative, women are “loved,” “kind,” “diligent,” and “respect[ed].” (Jemison 40–54). Seaver, by contrast, portrays women as they serve men or are seen by men — how they look, if they have appropriate deferential behaviors, how educated they are — and treats women as two-dimensional. (Seaver v–vi, 171–175). Jemison’s voice throughout her narrative is identifiable by the way she discusses women, and transitions to Seaver’s writing are clear.

    The second blog post <Link Here> focused on the enduring legacy of the captivity narrative in American literature, specifically as it pertains to renditions of Jemison’s original narrative. In this post, I reviewed the work of scholars like Elena Furlanetto, who argue that captivity narratives remain popular in American society because they encourage the idea of a “frontier imaginary,” in which female captives epitomize “fierceness” and protection in the face of the racialized “Other.” (Furlanetto 6). To examine the popularity of Jemison’s narrative and trace the representation of women in her narrative over time, I used Voyant Tools to create word cloud visualizations of the following retellings: Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941), Deborah Larsen’s The White (2002), and Jane Kelley’s (pen name E.F. Abbott) Mary Jemison: Native American Captive (2016). These visualizations revealed a greater focus on women throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but also highlighted a stronger racial awareness. For example, Larsen’s narrative uses the term “white” 98 times, compared to Jemison’s 40 times. Though this can be explained partially by Larsen’s focus (as indicated in her title) and colonial constructions of race, it still highlights an interesting diversion from Jemison’s narrative and her concepts of “Other.” Furthermore, in support of Furlanetto’s assertion regarding captivity narratives and crisis, an examination of each of the aforementioned works reveals that they were each published in times of social disorder: the start of American entry into World War II (Lenski), a year after 9/11 (Larsen), and the chaotic presidential election of 2016 (Kelley).

    III. The Encoding Itself

    Though I am not yet done with the encoding aspect of the project, the encoding I have completed has revealed an interesting focus on place. Though specific locations are noted generously throughout the text, I didn’t grasp the full impact of Jemison’s references to these places until they were seen in XML. For example,  the first paragraph on page fifty-three of Jemison’s narrative alone features twelve instances of the <placeName> element. These include Conowongo, Che-ua-shung-gau-tau, U-na-waum-gwa, Caneadea, Genishau, Genesee, Free Ferry, and several others. Encoding the text allows a place-centered reading of Jemison’s narrative, one not visible upon a regular read-through. The prevalence of <placeName> throughout Jemison’s narrative not only suggests that Jemison was highly aware of her environment, but also illuminates the constant movement undertaken by her and her family as they visited relatives, traded furs, harvested corn, and searched for supplies in the wake of the French + Indian and Revolutionary wars. In fact, several of the place names mentioned in Jemison’s narrative can be noted in 18th-century maps of New York, including this map from 1788 below.

    A map from the New York State Archives dated to 1788. The map shows counties of New York traced in different colors, and places mentioned by Jemison, such as Genesee, are visible on the map.

    Caption: A map from 1788 of New York state, held by the New York State Archives. Locations mentioned by Jemison, such as the Genesee River, are visible on the map.

    IV. Conclusion

    Thus situated in the midst of my children, I expect I shall soon leave the world, and make room for the rising generation. I feel the weight of years with which I am loaded, and am sensible of my daily failure in seeing, hearing and strength; but my only anxiety is for my family. If my family will live happily, and I can be exempted from trouble while I have to stay, I feel as though I could lay down in peace a life that has been checked in almost every hour, with troubles of a deeper dye, than are commonly experienced by mortals. (144)

    A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) is one of many stories authored or dictated by women available within the WWP. Yet Jemison’s narrative is especially unique, given its enduring presence and reiterations two hundred years after its original publication. Encoding Jemison’s story for the WWP has not only exposed me to the world of TEI and the process required to archive women’s writing, but to the ways in which digital tools (such as Voyant or Word Tree) can support analyses of race and gender. <Blog One and Blog Two Here>. Though Jemison concludes her narrative by expecting that she “shall soon leave the world,” her story, recollections, and observations remain. 

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