White woman, Indian chief: Beatrice Ravenel and the poetic consciousness of captivity

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Date: Winter-Spring 2011
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 64, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Report
Length: 7,059 words
Lexile Measure: 1670L

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I run the gauntlet like a savage captive, Torn into ravellings Not by the spears of men but by the gold pins of the women! --"The Selfish Woman," Beatrice Witte Ravenel

WHEN THE CHARLESTON POET BEATRICE WITTE RAVENEL PUBLISHED HER collection of poetry The Arrow of Lightning in 1926, she displayed a keen interest in the Carolina Low Country and in the writing of history. Ravenel's most remembered poems in this collection, the only one published in her lifetime, concern the Yemassee Indians; in these poems, as Susan Donaldson argues, Ravenel's poetic voice, embodied by the mockingbird, the totem of the Yemassee, becomes "a daring and resourceful thief, a 'Trick-tongue' that steals the music of others and deceives its listeners" (184). Associating this mockingbird with her own poetic axis, Ravenel writes, "You are no dryad, / No young squaw of trees; / You are a conjurer. / You sing the songs of all birds with a difference" (The Arrow 22). Ravenel uses this voice, one capable of transmutation, to challenge narratives that marginalize or demonize native cultures. The narrator captures the echoes of native history in order "To tell of the passing of nations, / Of the exquisite ruin of coasts, of the silvery change and / the flux of existence" (The Arrow 24). In effect, Ravenel frees her subject from mainstream narratives that justified westward expansion and violence against native peoples. (1) This concern with otherness and the consequences of colonization locate themselves not only in the reemployment of the tribal voice of the Yemassee, but more specifically through the use of tropes originating in the early American captivity narrative, which Ravenel, like many Southern women writers, strategically employs to critique identity borders maintained by white male agendas.

Beatrice Witte Ravenel is a remarkably understudied figure in the canon of the Southern Renaissance, even within the female tradition of the period. Though greeted with positive critical reception, numerous accolades from the Poetry Society of South Carolina, and the attention of renowned authors such as Amy Lowell, her work faded into the margins of the Southern literary landscape until Louis D. Rubin, Jr. attempted to revive interest in her poetry in his 1969 edition titled The Yemassee Lands. His introduction to this collection positions Ravenel's work as "better than any other poetry being written in the South ... outside of Nashville"--quite the compliment in 1960s scholarship to place a woman alongside the Fugitives--and he hails her work as "worthy of lasting attention" (5). Yet in spite of Rubin's attempt, the field has seen only two article-length publications and one dissertation chapter devoted entirely to this important figure. The bulk of her verse remains in relative obscurity and her contribution localized to her participation in the Poetry Society of South Carolina. My goal in this essay is thus two-fold. First, I want to make a case, through a focused study of Ravenel, for looking at the influence of the genre of captivity narratives on the women writers of the modern South....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A280965534