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Reading Between the Lines Part II: A Mini Blog Series Investigating A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison

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A printed illustration of Mary Jemison, credited to James E. Seaver.
An illustration of Mary Jemison credited to James Seaver in 1856.

By: Claire Lavarreda

I. Introduction

In the first entry of the “Reading Between the Lines” series, we investigated how Mary Jemison (a white woman captured and adopted by a Seneca family) portrayed women and gender in her work, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Jemison was strongly influenced by her biological and adoptive mothers, as well as her adoptive sisters, and these bonds reveal the complex way Jemison viewed fellow women. Brave, tender, intelligent—in Mary Jemison’s account, women are human beings, not just ideas and objects manipulated by men. In contrast, her transcriber, James Seaver (an American minister) investigates women on a shallow level, using his prefaces, appendixes, and notes to underscore womens’ looks, deferential behaviors, and lack of education.

How, then, does the story of Mary Jemison’s life—and the characterization of women in general—change when interpreted by a fellow woman? In this second article and final installment in the mini-series, Mary Jemison’s original narrative (1824) will be compared to fictionalized versions of her account, including  Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941), Deborah Larsen’s The White (2002), and most recently, Jane Kelley’s (pen name E.F. Abbott) Mary Jemison: Native American Captive (2016). Of course, there are clear limitations to this analysis considering Jemison’s original narrative is non-fiction and intended for a general audience, and the versions by Lenski, Larsen, and Kelley are fictional and mostly geared towards children. Furthermore, many versions of Jemison’s narrative exist, beyond the three samples for this project. Even with a small sample size, text analysis programs like Voyant Tools can help reveal the ways that Jemison’s life and original narrative have had significant impact on gendered historical fiction throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

American preoccupation with captivity narratives is no secret. A quick search for the term “indian captive stories” reveals a plethora of novels—Goodreads alone has a list of one-hundred and twenty-three. These works are often romanticized notions of the Indigenous “Other”— bearing names like Ride the Wind (Lucia St. Clair Robson) or Shawnee Bride (Elizabeth Lane). Sweeping Westerns, mythical founding myths, stories of the thirteen colonies, the capture of “innocent” women—these themes have preoccupied American literature and history for many years. As discussed in the first article of this mini-series, colonial and early-republic Americans latched on to captivity narratives as a way to reckon with race and gender, portraying Indigenous peoples as “savages” who had potential to steal and ruin “pure” white women (Numias 11). Captivity narratives were part of a broader literature designed to create a national American identity.

 Yet the question remains: why are they still popular? Why has Mary Jemison’s account taken on several dramatized iterations over nearly two hundred years? Scholars such as Megan Behrent note the popularity captivity-themed media still holds today, citing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) and the recent television series (2017), as well as shows like Orange is the New Black (2013) and The Radical Story of Patty Hearst (2018) (3). Behrent builds on the work of scholars like Elena Furlanetto and Nancy Armstrong to note how colonial American captivity narratives developed on the idea of a white British (and later American) ruling class that “defended” womanhood and domesticity, allowing the legitimization of violence against people classified as “other” (5). Furlanetto argues that captivity narratives remain popular in times of crisis by invoking the idea of a “frontier imaginary,” emphasizing “female fierceness” by drawing inspiration from colonial figures like Mary Rowlandson (captured by Nipmuc, Wampanoag, and Narrangansett forces) or Hannah Dustan (captured by the Abenaki) (5). Today, captivity narratives continue to fascinate the American public, but noticeable changes are coming into play, turning the captor-captive dynamic on its head and challenging the use of these narratives to form a “racialized other”(Furlanetto 6). 

Interestingly, the fictionalized versions of Jemison’s narrative by Lenski, Larsen, and Kelley can be connected to tumultuous times in American society. For example, Lenski’s version from 1941 was published the same year the United States formally entered World War II in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Larsen’s The White was published a year after the events of 9/11, and Kelley’s 2016 version was published in the same year as the chaotic U.S. presidential election. Though more research would be necessary to prove these connections are more than coincidence, it is certainly compelling to note the correlation between captivity narratives, womanhood, and social discord.

II. Analysis

Each of the aforementioned authors use Jemison’s original narrative and adapt it for their retellings. Lenski and Kelley’s interpretations are written for children and teens, though Lenski notes her “careful study of Indian Seneca material” for historical accuracy as she wrote her version (“Foreword”). By contrast, Larsen’s version is intended for adults and written in a poetry-like fashion, drawing on her own background as a professor of writing. Despite the differences in audiences, however, readers should note that children’s literature is not inherently fictionalized, in the same vein, adult literature is not strictly factual or more reliable. Using Voyant Tools, a web-based and open-source platform that enables text analysis and visualizations, word clouds illustrating the most common words in each book can be created and compared. A comparison of Jemison’s original narrative and the works of Lenski, Larsen, and Kelley, draws out an evident shift in gendered language. Explore the photos below to view the word clouds and accompanying corpus summaries.

Caption: This first image features a word cloud of Lenski’s 1941 version of Jemison’s narrative. The most common words are “Molly,” “Woman,” “Said,” “Indian,” and “Corn.” Note: This work is much longer than the others referenced below, with 70,000+ words compared to others with 35,000 or less.

Caption: This second image features a word cloud of Larsen’s 2002 version of Jemison’s narrative. The most common words are “Said,” “Mary,” “White,” “Looked” and “Time.”

Caption: This third image features Kelley’s 2016 version of Jemison’s narrative. The most common words are “Mary,” “Said,” “Jako,” “Ki,” and “Odankot.” 

Caption: This final image is Jemison’s original 1824 narrative. The top words are “Indians,” “Time,” “Indian,” “Went,” and “Till.”

An overview of the following works, including A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) by Mary Jemison, Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941), Deborah Larsen’s The White (2002), and most recently, Jane Kelley’s Mary Jemison: Native American Captive (2016) reveals an interesting change in Jemison’s story over time. When examined through Voyant, Jemison’s original narrative reveals that her top words are “Indians,” “Time,” “Indian,” “Went,” and “Till.” There is a strong focus on time, place, and movement in Jemison’s actual account—a glance at the word cloud overall reveals further terms like “land,” “house,” “days,” “town,” “came,” “place,” and “took.” In Jemison’s account, we see a woman living and interpreting her own life—counting days, moving across landscapes, changing homes. Directly female-gendered terms like “woman” or “women” do not show up in the visualization, but interestingly enough, male terms do—“brother” and “man” are visible in the word cloud. 

Lenski’s version (1941) noticeably differs. The top words are “Molly,” “Woman,” “Said,” “Indian,” and “Corn,” and a look at the word cloud shows other terms like “White,” “Indian,” and “Earth.” Lenski’s use of “Molly” over “Mary” is noted in her foreword, and since her book is written in the third-person, “Molly” is consistently present throughout. This is a trend echoed in Larsen and Kelley’s works, in which the name “Mary” is a top term. More interesting, however, is the focus Lenski places on women throughout her interpretation of Jemison’s story. “Woman” is used 311 times throughout, followed closely by “said” at 293 uses. The term “Man” is very small and barely visible in Lenski’s word cloud, indicating that Lenski not only made a deliberate choice to center women in her retelling, but shifted from Jemison’s actual attention to men. Perhaps Lenski’s interest in centering women was inspired by the era in which her work was produced—women became the backbone of the working industry during World War II, as memorably represented by “Rosie the Riveter.”

Larsen’s version (2002) inverts Lenski’s top two terms, with “Said,” followed by “Mary,” and the remaining terms being “White,” “Looked” and “Time.” Supporting terms such as “Seneca,” “Man,” “Eyes,” “Head,” and “Sheninjee” are visible. What is most interesting about Larsen’s work is the closeness it bears to Jemison’s original narrative. “Time” is used 79 times in Larsen’s work and 130 times in Jemison’s original account. Though used much less, the term is significant to Larsen’s retelling. Relationships take center-stage in Larsen’s visualization—Jemison’s husband “Sheninjee” is prominent, as are tactile terms like “Eyes,” “Head,” and “Looked.” Interestingly, Larsen’s version brings greater attention to race than Jemison or Lenski’s visualizations. “White” is used 98 times, making it a top word for Larsen, whereas the word is not used enough to even appear in Jemison’s visuals. This may be explained by colonial constructions of race (which did not take on the language and dimensions of nineteenth-century racial thinking), but also coincides with post 9-11 racial tensions. Of course, this is just interpretation—Larsen’s narrative itself focused on Mary being white — and to assume her retelling was influenced in part by the post 9-11 American social and cultural milieu without much deeper research and consultation with Larsen is inaccurate.

Similarly, Jane Kelley’s interpretation (2016) occurs at a time of political unrest, coinciding with the presidential election of 2016 in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dominated news and social media. At the same time, waves of new feminist movements coincided with political change, noted in articles by scholars like Eleanor Courtemanche. The top words in Kelley’s visualization include  “Mary,” “Said,” “Jako,” “Ki,” and “Odankot.” This is an especially interesting shift in language—women become central to Kelley’s retelling, noted in the terms “Jako-ki” and “Odankot,” names Kelley gave to Jemison’s adoptive sisters. Though Voyant identified Jako-ki as two separate words, Jako-ki occurs 164-169 times, Odankot occurs 133, and Mary occurs 728 times. The centering of Mary and her sisters takes center-stage in Kelley’s interpretation of Jemison’s narrative, something that is not visible in Jemison’s visualization, despite being evident in the content of her narrative. 

III. Limitations and Considerations

As mentioned in the introduction and throughout the analysis, this examination of Jemison, Larsen, Kelley, and Lenski is limited, and requires further research to strengthen the insights made above. Further questions arise upon greater interaction with Voyant and the corpuses — for example, the terms “Mary” and “Molly” are most frequent in Larsen, Kelley, and Lenski’s retellings because the story is being told in the third-person, rather than the first, like Jemison’s original narrative. For example, if the list of stopwords are edited on Voyant to exclude “I” and “me,” then the term “I” appears in Jemison’s original narrative 532 times, and “me” appears 179 times. Jemison is very much the main character in her own story, despite the terms not appearing in a standard word cloud visualization. Furthermore, the above word clouds rely on Voyant’s default number of terms displayed, which is only 50. If, for example, Jemison’s original narrative is expanded into a 200-term word cloud, we can see that the term “sisters” does in fact emerge, alongside “friends,” “children,” and “family.” “Women” becomes visible as well, as does “wife,” indicating that despite the greater prevalence of male terms in Jemison’s narrative compared to male terms, women are still a central part of her narrative.

Caption: The left image features a word cloud of Jemison’s original narrative, this time with 200 words displayed.

IV. Conclusion

Overall, it is clear that Jemison’s original narrative has not only remained popular over time, but has been repurposed for a variety of contexts. Authors like Larsen explore the poetic aspect of Jemison’s experience, using Jemison’s account to create an immersive interpretation; Kelley writes for children and focuses on Mary’s connection to her sisters; and Lenski also writes for a young audience with a focus on women. Captivity narratives, especially those like Jemison’s, remain beloved by American audiences, revealing insights into culture, race, gender, politics, and education. This now concludes the 2-part mini-series “Reading Between the Lines.” Thank you for reading!

Sources:

Behrent, Megan. “Editor’s Introduction for NANO Special Issue 14: Captivity Narratives then and Now: Gender, Race, and the Captive in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century American Literature and Culture.” NANO : New American Notes Online.14 (2019)ProQuest. Web. 19 Mar. 2024.

Courtemanche, Eleanor. “The Fourth and Fifth Waves.” Stanford Humanities Center. January 8, 2019. https://shc.stanford.edu/arcade/

interventions/fourth-and-fifth-waves

Faris, Robert et al. “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation.” Berkman Klein Center. Aug 16, 2017.

https://cyber.harvard.edu/publications/2017/08/mediacloud

Human Rights Watch. “V. THE SEPTEMBER 11 BACKLASH.” HWR. 

https://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/usahate/usa1102-04.htm#P308_47936

Jemison, Mary. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Canandaigua: J.D. Bemis, 1824. 

Kelley, Jane. Mary Jemison: Native American Captive. London: Feiwel & Friends, 2016.

Larsen, Deborah. The White. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2002.

Lenski, Lois. Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. New York City: Open Road Media, 1941.

Numias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Wohlforth, Julia. “Captive Bodies and Captive Minds: Women in English Captivity Narratives from the Early Modern Mediterranean to Colonial America.” Dissertation. Tufts University, 2021.

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