In this post, I want to focus on the spatial divisions and depictions of borders between civilization and wilderness in John Marrant’s Narrative, and how it speaks to ideas about religion and race. Marrant’s narrative reveals an underlying preoccupation with spatial divisions; he separates the world into distinct areas: his home and other European American settlements, cultivated lands, woods, wilderness or “desart,” and Indian nations.
Each of these areas are further divided and segmented, beginning with Marrant’s description of a fence “about half a mile from our house, which divided the inhabited and cultivated parts of the country from the wilderness” (932). This literal fence separating wilderness and cultivated country stands as the primary marker, not only between white civilization and cultivated lands and wilderness and Native American civilizations, but also between religious persecution and religious freedom. The land just opposite of the fence, referred to as “the woods” serves as a sanctuary where Christianity can be freely practiced, first for Marrant himself (932), and later for slaves who were “obliged to meet at midnight in different corners of the woods that were about the plantation” to read the Bible (939).
The land beyond the fence is further divided: the religious sanctuary of “the woods,” followed by a kind of borderlands/wilderness (Marrant at one point refers to it as a “desart”), and, beyond that, Native American nations. The borderland area that lies between “the woods” and Native American settlements can be distinguished from the other areas both as the place where Marrant struggles to survive off of the land and as home to threatening or monstrous animals. Animals only take on the role of monstrous beasts in this area of land. Both on his venture out into the wilderness and upon his return, Marrant is surrounded by wolves and must climb a tree for safety (932, 936). When he meets the Indian hunter the “dreadful animals” with “shining eyes and tremendous roar” are no longer a danger to him. This suggests that the crossing is dangerous; that there is something fundamentally incompatible between humans and the wilderness.
Beyond the wilderness/borderlands is the series of Native American settlements, which, as Marrant explains in the Preface, he “prefers the habitations of brutal residence to the less hospitable dwellings of enmity to God and godliness” (929). Throughout his narrative, Marrant moves progressively farther west, away from European settlements. “I began now to feel an inclination growing upon me to go farther on, but none to return home” (936). The series of movements to different Native American tribes takes him first sixty miles, then fifty-five miles, then eighty miles away from the Cherokee nation (936). As he is returning home, Marrant again measures the distance in increments: sixty miles, one-hundred miles, seventy miles, one-hundred-twelve miles. These spatial movements through nature and his tracking of them also mark Marrant’s spiritual journey; his spiritual journey is literalized in the land he traverses. This marking of the distance from each Native American tribe seems reminiscent of the way Mary Rowlandson structures her narrative as a series of removes. It seems that both narratives (Rowlandson’s and Marrant’s) invest physical distances across nature with a certain degree of importance.