The Cold War in Barbary: Re-Casting the Tripolitan War in Kenneth Roberts's Lydia Bailey

By Stacy E. Holden
Submitted to Session P3851 (Transatlantic Maghreb: Comparative Contexts and Transnational Frames, 2014 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In 1947, Kenneth Roberts published a work of historical fiction that recycled captivity narratives dating to the Barbary Wars in the early-nineteenth century. In Lydia Bailey, the fictional hero Albion Hamlin finds himself a captive in North African Tripoli and must use his Yankee wiles not only to free himself but also to help end the war between the United States and this Ottoman polity. The publication of this book occurred as the United States emerged from World War II, and as it began its forty-five year Cold War with the Soviet Union. Within this context, the author's celebration of Hamlin's support of William Eaton--an actual historic figure who tried to replace the Tripolitan government with one more friendly to American interests--cannot be discounted as a mere adventure story. In embedding fictional characters in the midst of real events, Roberts explores political issues that were of critical importance to Americans in the mid-twentieth century. In my chapter, I will show how Roberts appropriates nineteenth-century Islamic captivity narratives for a new political purpose. In re-casting the stories of Americans held hostage in the Islamic world, the author raises critical questions about the nature of American government as well as the appropriate objectives to be pursued in the international arena. And so, I argue that Lydia Bailey is a Cold War text encouraging Americans to pursue an internationalist agenda in which the spreading of American values in the Third World--even by military might--is recognized as a legitimate means of protecting the country's strategic interests.