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The West Wing's "Isaac and Ishamel" as a
Captivity Narrative and American Jeremiad:

A Call for Acknowledgement of America's Historically Rooted Ideology

By: Thomas J. Gillan
Mentor: Dr. Kathleen Hohenleitner

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Aaron Sorkin and NBC responded with a stand-alone episode of The West Wing entitled “Isaac and Ishmael.” The episode centers on a group of high school students from Presidential Classroom and, separately, an Arab-American man, Raqim Ali (Ajay Naidu), who works at the White House, being interrogated for having been suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, the White House goes on crash, which, as Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), the president’s deputy chief of staff, explains “means there’s been some kind of security breach and no one’s allowed in or out of the building” (“Isaac”). During this crash the students congregate in the White House mess room where members of the staff come by to talk to them. By the end of the episode, the Secret Service finds Ali innocent. 

This essay argues that “Isaac and Ishmael” constitutes a contemporary example of both the American jeremiad and the American captivity genre with captivity operating on several levels, all of which reinforce the myths, ideals, and ideology of American dominant culture during a time of crisis: in this instance, the period immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent “War on Terrorism.” The qualities present in “Isaac and Ishmael” that are characteristic of captivity narratives and jeremiads are physical and psychological captivity, the need to establish the author’s credibility, prescribed and sometimes transgressed gender roles that promote heterosexuality and a stable family as “normal,” a sense of declension or crisis and the need to return to normalcy, and a black-and-white mentality. All of these are present in The West Wing’s “Isaac and Ishmael,” and all can be found in standard pieces of the captivity genre.  

America ideology is present throughout many captivity narratives written in colonial America and the Early Republic. Standard captivity narratives include those of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. Generally following a plot that begins with violence often between two different cultures, the narrative then moves to removal from one’s usual surroundings to those of the other culture. From there, the captive usually experiences some type of acculturation. By the end of the narrative, the other culture either adopts the captive, as was the case for Mary Jemison, or the captive is redeemed and returned to her own culture through negotiations, as was Mary Rowlandson. In all of the narratives, the captives symbolize representatives of their culture in distress. This distress or anxiety lies at the heart of the American jeremiad.  

Some argue that the captivity narrative is unique to American literature. The jeremiad, while not unique to America, took on particularly unique forms in the New World. Typically confined to a type of sermon, the jeremiad includes, according to Perry Miller, “fast-day and election sermons” with one standard theme: that “New England is steadily declining from the high purity of the founders” (23). Sacvan Bercovitch elucidates Miller’s definition more fully in his American Jeremiad, writing, “The American jeremiad was a ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, public to private identity, the shifting ‘signs of the times’ to certain traditional metaphors, themes, and symbols” (xi). Bercovitch hints at the relationship between captivity narratives and the jeremiad, saying, “captivity narratives . . . transform what elsewhere would be considered evidence of private regeneration into a testimonial for the colonial cause” as evidenced in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (Puritan 117). Increase Mather’s preface to Rowlandson’s narrative sets out with the clear purpose of establishing Rowlandson as a type to which the community should aspire (Rowlandson 63-68).

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