Apess and Talbot – The Rhetorical Uses of Ancestry

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“I was born to experience a large portion of the disagreeable circumstances incident to human nature…” Thus begins Mary Anne Talbot’s memoir, published in 1809. Talbot was notable not for her writing, but for dressing as a male and for having fought battles in the British military, but any great novelist would be proud to have written such a line. It is striking and engaging. It encapsulates the sense of helplessness and inevitability that is essential to Talbot’s story. A reader might be tempted to read those words as the beginning of a brilliant tale of a “Remarkable Character,” as many perhaps did and do, forgetting that they were written by a woman, not from the point of view of character, but as a statement about what a real-life person, whose father happened to be a Lord, perceived was her place in the world. Despite her apparent noble lineage and her early education, Talbot lived a life of suffering and misfortune, and her memoir, in large part, is concerned with detailing her misfortunes in an attempt to repair her public standing.

William Apess, a Native American, begins his 1829 autobiography, A Son of the Forest, with a discussion of his royal lineage, but he tempers this discussion with a pointed remark: “This statement is given not with a view of appearing great in the estimation of others—what, I would ask, is royal blood?—the blood of a king is no better than that of the subject.” (Apess). Apess, like Talbot, is attempting to change his public standing, but his method is in opposition to Talbot’s. While Apess appeals to his lineage only in order to deny its importance, Talbot appeals to her lineage as the only connection she has to the social order she wishes to rejoin.

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We might ask, from where does this opposition arise? After all, Apess and Talbot lived remarkably similar lives. Both were orphans, Talbot by the death of her mother during childbirth, and Apess by abandonment. Both, as a result of their orphanage, did not have fixed homes as children, and, moving from household to household, were often abused or mistreated by their caretakers. Both were soldiers (and later deserters) at a very young age, Talbot a drummer-boy and a powder monkey in the War of the First Coalition, and Apess an artillery soldier in the War of 1812. Both moved from place to place in search of income as adults, and both lost opportunities for employment as a result of their lower status, Apess finding difficulty being ordained as a minister in the Methodist church, and Talbot being cheated out of her inheritance by Mr. Sucker, among other things. Both sought membership in a society that does not have a place for them

These two authors’ rhetorical techniques are each, however, built to a specific purpose. In examining both techniques, and attempting to understand their purposes, we can work toward a better understanding of the historical situation that caused Talbot and Apess to suffer exclusion as they did.

Perhaps the major incident in Talbot’s narrative that leads to her extraordinary life is her sale to Captain Bowen by her caretaker, Mr. Sucker. Bowen, who initially pretends to care for Talbot, forces her to dress as a foot boy and accompany him to the West Indies. Later, Bowen is ordered to join a troop of soldiers in France, and he coerces Talbot to enlist in the army as a drummer-boy. Following Bowen’s death, Talbot frequently chooses to remain in male dress as a matter of safety or expediency. When Talbot finally returns to England after her adventures at sea, however, the injuries she sustained in previous battles prevent her from maintaining any kind of livelihood, and she spends much of the latter portion of her life in and out of hospitals and fighting off debtors. Although Talbot fought bravely for her country in the Napoleonic Wars and seems to have been a very capable sailor, once her gender is discovered, she no longer continues to make her living by sailing. Without a family and without a steady form of income, Talbot ultimately composes her memoir.

Immediately, it seems obvious that Talbot seeks to move her readers to pity her situation. But, because Talbot is an English lady, her readers are just as likely to censure her for her actions as to pity her for her misfortunes. Thus, in order to effectively achieve the support from English nobility she intends to achieve, she must speak on their terms in a manner they will find agreeable. She does this in two primary ways: First, she asserts that she is the illegitimate child of Lord William Talbot. By asserting noble lineage, Talbot presents herself as the victim of circumstances rather than of poor education. Further, she implies that such misfortune can potentially fall upon other children of noble blood, or even upon the children of her readers. Second, she describes her involvement in the British military, particularly the Siege of Valenciennes. Although many of her readers may have found it unnatural for a woman to dress as a man, by illustrating that she did so under threat of slavery and in service of her country, she proves that she deserves admiration and honor for her bravery, rather than censure for her unusual manners.

The Grand Attack on Valenciennes by the Combined Armies under the Command of His Royal Highness the Duke of York, 25 July 1793

Apess, too, by speaking on his reader’s terms, is attempting to persuade them to a particular way of seeing. Specifically, he is speaking the language of Christianity. After he claims that the blood of subjects and kings is qualitatively the same, he takes his argument one step further, saying, “We are in fact but one family; we are all the descendants of one great progenitor—Adam.” By claiming a common Christian ancestry of all people, Apess not only denies that he is superior to natives who do not have royal ancestry, but, by extension, he also denies that European people are racially superior to natives. Unlike Talbot, who is a social outcast because of the circumstances of her life, Apess is a social outcast because of the circumstances of his birth.

And although Apess has a conversion experience and develops a good reputation for his preaching abilities, he is denied ordination in the Methodist church, and he claims that he is denied simply because he is a native. Further, even though he fought in the War of 1812, he, like many other natives at the time, is denied his military pension and does not have the right to vote. It is in Apess’ interest, then, to call the New England Christians to account for their unjust behavior toward the natives by asserting a broader lineage than that of race, the lineage of Adam. He reiterates this argument in new terms when he claims that the natives are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

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In each case, the author approaches the question of lineage as a basis for social belonging. While Apess shows that Christian beliefs support the idea that his people are children of God, just as the whites are, Talbot illustrates that neglectful treatment of children, even children of noble blood, can lead them into lifetimes of danger and misfortune. Unfortunately, it seems that neither author ever achieved the social belonging they strove for, but their writings are important to us because they allow us to see, in details and in flesh and blood, the human consequences of social exclusion and the methods individuals used in attempting to solve those problems.

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