Mary Rowlandson & Increase Mather Readers of Research Paper

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Mary Rowlandson & Increase Mather

Readers of Mary Rowlandson's narrative of Indian capitivity within the Puritan colonization of Massachussetts may very well wonder at what Increase Mather's influence on the original text was. It is now widely agreed by scholars that the preface to the book is Mather's work -- and his official imprimatur may very well have contributed to the remarkable popularity of Rowlandson's work. As testament to the popularity of Rowlandson's book on its original publication in 1682, Greene notes that "the first edition is not known to survive…the rarity of the book grew out of its wide popularity: copies were read to pieces," going through "more than thirty editions" and retaining widespread popularity well into the nineteenth century. (Greene 25). Because of Mather's proprietary role in guiding Rowlandson to publication, and including a sort of instruction on how to read her work, scholars have been quick to suspect perhaps Increase Mather had a hand in the actual composition of the text. Traister is typical of the scholarly consensus in stating that "we should be careful, given the lack of a corroborative archive, to assert an account of the text's creation in which authorship is shared by Rowlandson and Mather together," although she acknowledges it as a possibility at least (Traiser 334). But I would suggest that the influence of Mather is palpable upon Mary Rowlandson is palpable regardless of his actual role in the composition. To a certain degree, Mather -- in providing the public voice of the peculiar offshoot of Calvinist theology to which the American Puritans subscribed -- had already outlined the means of interpretation, or heuristic, whereby Rowlandson and the larger society of which she was a part (and from which she was abducted) were able to read or write at all.

To a certain degree, we must necessarily understand Rowlandson within the specific religious context of American Puritanism, of which Increase Mather is a representative example. Faery notes that the original readers of the text would have no choice in reading Rowlandson this way: as she wryly observes, "When the first edition of Rowlandson's text appeared, it was literally bracketed by the voices of Puritan clergymen: Mather's preface precedes her narrative, and Joseph Rowlandson's last sermon, preached just days before his death, followed it in early editions. The preface makes clear why this tale written by a woman must be enclosed by authoritative male voices: their function is to foreclose the possibility of her text's being read in ways that would render Puritan race and territorial politics subject to critique" (Faery 126-7). Mather specifically (if anonymously) recommends Rowlandson as a pious model worthy of imitation, and it is this factor which specifically seems like religious approbation inviting the text to be read for its piety, especially when it contains such nervous subjects for the Puritan culture as ethnic otherness (the Indians who held Rowlandson captive) and sexual roles (Rowlandson is a woman, and to some extent requires a preface by a clergyman to vouch for her purity after so long a sojourn among the heathen, during which time she might well have become a love-slave or something). Potter thinks that Mather's preface is nervous about Rowlandson's gender, and on the one hand "establishes an example demanding 'imitation' but even in so doing it reminds the reader that a feminine public voice in any other forum demands the casting of explicitly negative refelction." (Potter 156). In other words, it is only because she has been examined for her piety by Mather that Rowlandson is able to overcome assumptions about her gender to be able to find her voice to write at all.

But the question remains of Mather's influence over the actual writing. The reader is immediately struck by the heavy use of Biblical quotation within Rowlandson's writing; Downing, who had nothing better to do than to count the instances, says Rowlandson "draws on scripture more than eighty times" in the course of the short narrative and I see no reason to doubt him (Downing 252). The actual number is not the point; the frequency is. This heavily religious bent in the actual composition is one of the chief reasons why Mather's interference in the actual text of Rowlandson's captivity narrative has been so often suggested by scholars. As Traister rather winningly asks:"To state the question bluntly: did Mary Rowlandson or Increase Mather insert all those Bible references?" (Traiser 334). But the simple fact is that Rowlandson's husband (before his death) had been a Puritan preacher as well -- hence the inclusion of his final sermon in the earliest editions of the narrative -- and so it is entirely possible to believe that Rowlandson simply knew such scriptural quotations and methods of justification almost by rote, or in the way that a baker's wife obviously knows how many muffins make up a baker's dozen. The simple fact is that we must rely on intellectual connections, including those with a more secular cast, to establish Mather's intellectual influence over Rowlandson. I have mentioned scholars who perceive a similarity in the codes of handling race and gender: Potter notes that "both Increase Mather's preface and Rowlandson's account itself are ideologically and politically complicated and at times contradictory, but they alight informatively as they raise questions about understandings of femininity and race in early coloial America." (Potter 153). But there are also other matters, such as the larger question of Indian captivity itself. As Derounian notes, by way of tracing this sort of influence:

In An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences, published in 1682, two years after Rowlandson's work, Increase Mather closely connects "covenant theology" with Indian captivity by stating in chapter I, "…several of those that were taken Captive by the Indians are able to relate affecting stories concerning the gracious Providence of God…" Indeed in his sermon Humiliations Follow'd with Deliverances (1697), Cotton Mather defines affliction typologically through the Indian captivity experience… (Derounian 85)

In other words, the very notion that Rowlandson's experience might be worth recording because in some way it expresses in miniature the Puritan theological relationship with God is encouraged by Mather's own views on Indian activity in general. Downing recalls the fact that during King Philip's War, "Increase Mather and other Puritan divines explained the Indian uprising as a sign of God's displeasure, exhorting their congregations about the dangers of 'backsliding'." (Downing 254).

It is this tendency to typological reading -- to use the technical and theological term for that aspect of Puritan theology and Biblical scholarship -- which constitutes Rowlandson's biggest debt to Mather. Much as Mather recommends Rowlandson to the reader as a fit model for imitation, so does Rowlandson perpetually find in daily experience revealed proof of God's role in human affairs, by finding daily life to be itself revealed (meaningfully) as an imitation of some Biblical "type" or archetype. By this sort of reading, Rowlandson compares herself to similar Bibilical models of conduct in adversity, such as Job, or else to other Biblical figures like Lot's wife (considered as a model for grief, rather than as a roundabout way of casting aspersions on the fleshpots of the Massachusetts Bay). This is, of course, the standard Puritan heuristic, and is exemplified in Mather's suggestive statement that "the whole world is a book, and all creatures are the letters in it" -- of this system of viewing events, Traister notes that this marks Rowlandson's "worldy self's dissolution into a system of representation…" (Traister 330). In other words, the facts of her life become mere data in a proof of God's hand working among his elect few (while still condemning them all the time for their inherent sinfulness and unworthiness of redemption, according to Mather's strict Calvinism). But there is also, as Traister indicates, a certain amount of ambiguity in Rowlandson's Biblical typology. For example, when we come upon a representative example of Scriptural reference in her text, such as this description of the Native American warriors who had taken her:

For they went, as if they had gone for their lives, for some considerable way, and then they made a stop, and chose some of their stoutest men, and sent them back to hold the English army in play whilst the rest escaped: And then, like Jehu, they marched on furiously, with their old and with their young: some carried their old decrepit mothers, some carried one, and some another. (Rowlandson 332-3).

Traister notes appositely: "Exactly what sort of typology is being established here? Jehu's victory over the house of Ahab temporarily re-established the one God of Israel and Judah; he is, that is to say, one of the military heroes of the Old Testament, a scourge of polytheism, idolatry, and sin, whose subsequent inability to follow the law of God (2 Kings 10:30) diminished his star considerably. Jehu provides an ambiguous referent for typological thinking…" (Traister 335) In fact, Traister's overall suggestion is rather persuasive: that to a certain degree, Rowlandson finds the influence of Mather's…[continue]

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