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Wednesday, 16 August 2006 00:00

Captives and Captivations

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Narratives of confinement have long held a fascination for readers. From Saint Paul’s account of his imprisonment to modern stories of Turkish prisons, Alcatraz, and the Hanoi Hilton, we find ourselves roused by stories of courage and tenacity shown in the face of punishment and prison.

Liberty’s Captives: Narratives of Confinement in the Print Culture of the Early Republic (University of Georgia Press, ISBN 0-8203-2801-4) includes accounts by Indian captives, war prisoners, impressed sailors, and others enduring such hardships and trials. Ebenezer Fletcher tells us of being taken prisoner by the British during the Revolutionary War and of his attempts to escape. Joshua Penny gives a vivid account of being impressed into the British Navy during the War of 1812. Maria Martin writes of her captivity and sufferings during her six years as a slave in Algiers. Liberty’s Captives contains 14 more similar stories, all from the early days of the American Republic, all written in a vivid, readable style.

What makes this book unique, as editor Daniel Williams points out, “is how little read such texts are today.” As Williams explains, many of these accounts were quite popular in their day, reprinted several times and capturing the hearts of thousands of readers. The stories continue to attract. Modern readers will find them exciting and, in many cases, moving while modern writers of historical fiction could find a dozen ready-made plots for novels.

One distracting feature of Liberty’s Captives is the mix of eyewitness accounts with fictional stories. Since both approaches made popular reading, and since his book addresses confinement narratives of the revolutionary period, Williams is certainly justified in joining the two approaches here. Readers, however, may find it distracting to read one narrative that actually happened followed by another that is novelistic in its approach.

Other than the captivity narratives themselves, one other factor unifying these accounts is the high regard that these captives place on liberty. This theme of freedom versus tyranny, of liberty versus deprivation and confinement, ran through all of these accounts and served to remind early American republicans of the precious value of their hard-won freedom. Here, for example, Penny writes of the British practice of impressments:

“Liberty is mocked by that nation which enslaves her subjects on pretence of rendering their condition more prosperous. Compel a man whom you stile (sic) free, to abandon his wife, his children, and every thing else he values in this world, to become your slave on ship-board! How dare you call that a land of freedom where this practice prevails, countenanced by its laws. “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”

Like our counterparts of 200 years ago, we may find in these narratives the inspiration and the will to maintain our own liberties.

•••

Larry L. King’s In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor (Public Affairs, ISBN 1-58648-3846, $26.95) offers readers an account of this writer’s life through the eyes of another writer and friend.

King was strongly drawn to Morris, the famous editor of Harper’s and the author of various novels and memoirs while at the same time recognizing his many faults: his inability to follow through on promises, his depressions, and his drinking. Morris spent the part of his life after his New York days battling demons back in Mississippi before marrying Joanne Pritchard and getting back on track as a writer for the last few years of his life.

What is appealing about Morris is less the writing and more the man. Like many people, he had enormous flaws, and yet somehow he was himself so likeable, so enjoyable as a companion and a friend that his friends forgave him his failures. Even those of us who never knew him can develop an affection for him through this book. Morris possessed great gifts as an editor and as a writer (though he tended to squander these), but it was his ability to share these gifts that draws us to him. He was a friend to writers like Styron, Mailer, James Jones, and Barry Hannah, helping their work into publication through Harpers or encouraging them in their efforts. He also kept an eye out his entire life for new writing talent. He acted as mentor, teacher or inspiration to such writers as Rick Bragg, John Grisham, Jill Connor Brown, and Donna Tartt.

Near the end of this book of memories, King writes:

“He could be selfless when it came to helping others, and he could be as selfish as a kid in a candy store when he decided on a course of action benefiting himself, and the devil take the hindmost. He wouldn’t have stolen a single one of John D. Rockefeller’s many dimes, but he seemed strangely untroubled about not promptly paying his debts: Real money appeared to have no more value to him than did Monopoly money — though that, I know, is at odds with his always looking for the big best seller, unless it was the fame and acclaim he hungered for rather than money. He could tell a few people he loved them, but with most it wasn’t easy for him to show it or sustain it. He could call his mother “crazy” and say he could never live in Mississippi until she died, close proximity being more than he could handle, yet when she died he felt, and showed, true grief.”

If you don’t know Willie Morris, this is a good place to start. If you like what you find, you should try one of his memoirs — North Toward Home, My Dog Skip, James Jones — or his novel, Taps.

 

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