The seed of what eventually became Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples, published last month by the University of California Press, was planted—quite by coincidence—long ago in Elmira. The year was 1986 and I was a freshly-minted Ph.D. (with a specialization in modern American poetry), hired on as an assistant professor at Elmira College.
One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Dr. Herb Wisbey, a member of the College’s History Department and—as it happened—the founding director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, who was looking to start up a lecture series. I tried to beg off, saying that while I loved Twain I really wasn’t qualified to speak about him. Herb persisted, asking “Well, Kerry, what are you interested in?” It was my first Term 3 (the shorter Spring term at Elmira College when students take only one or two intensive classes), and I was teaching a new course I’d devised on Native American Literature. “I’m interested in Indians,” I answered up prompt (like Huck), thinking this would surely get me off the hook. Herb’s response: “So what did Mark Twain think about Indians?” I confessed that I didn’t have a clue. “Why don’t you talk about that then?” And so I did. The rest, as they say, is history.
As fate would have it, the first piece I encountered in preparing my lecture, the 1870 sketch “The Noble Red Man,” turned out to be the single most vicious description the writer ever published about Indians over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century. It’s not a bit funny (I still vividly remember shaking my head in disbelief, thinking, “Mark Twain wrote this?”) and its rhetoric is venomously racist. Twice within the space of four pages, the speaker (one of Twain’s famously slippery narrative personae) declares that Indians are fit subjects for extermination. I was horrified, intrigued, and quite frankly hooked. How, and more importantly, why did this celebrated American writer—a man whom his first biographer Albert Bigelow Paine characterized as a tireless champion of the underdog—come to harbor such antagonistic views? This question, which I credit Herb for inspiring, became the foundational cornerstone of my book.
Kerry Driscoll is Professor of English at University of Saint Joseph in Hartford, Connecticut. She was formerly a professor at Elmira College, as well as a President of the Mark Twain Circle of America, an editor of the Mark Twain Annual, and a frequent speaker and consultant at The Mark Twain House and Museum. Please come out tomorrow (Wednesday, July 11) to the Park Church in Elmira to see a presentation from her new book, Mark Twain Among The Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples.