Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Mark Twain Among The Indians & Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll

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Professor Driscoll has given a number of lectures on the topic of Mark Twain’s response to indigenous populations.  Her lectures can be streamed and downloaded as part of our Trouble Begins Archives.  These lectures include:

  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the Native Other” (July 11, 2018 – The Park Church)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain, The Maori, and The Mystery of Livy’s Jade Pendant” (October 1, 2014 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain and the American Indian” (May 7, 1986)

Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples. By Kerry Driscoll. University of California Press, 2018. Pp. 448. Hardcover $95.00. ISBN 9780520279421 (hardcover). ISBN 9780520970663 (ebook).

An irksome puzzle has persisted through more than a century of Mark Twain scholarship. It has usually been avoided altogether, or at best it has been briefly touched upon by a handful of scholars. In her ground-breaking new study, Kerry Driscoll spells it out clearly: “While Twain’s view on blacks . . . [demonstrate] unequivocal growth away from the racism of his origins in the antebellum South, his representations of Indians do not follow a similarly redemptive arc. They are instead vexingly erratic and paradoxical, commingling antipathy and sympathy, fascination and visceral repugnance” (4). Driscoll credits scholars who have dealt briefly with Twain’s attitude toward America’s indigenous people–Ned Blackhawk, Louis J. Budd, Joseph Coulombe, Leslie Fiedler, Philip Foner, Max Geismer, Harold J. Kolb, and Jeffrey Steinbrink–and points out that they tend to fall into two camps that either idealize or vilify Native Americans. Both camps distort Twain’s own views by over-simplifying the issue. The truth is more complicated, and a book length study to explore these complications is long overdue.

Driscoll’s book is that much needed and long overdue study, and well worth the wait! “Mark Twain did not care for Indians. This book is an attempt to understand why” says Driscoll (3). Driscoll describes her approach as “chronological and geographical” (7) and she documents when and where Twain met Indians, when and where he read about them, when and where he heard about them, and when and where he wrote or spoke about them. She lays out her evidence like a prosecutor, challenges her own evidence, and in doing so avoids the overgeneralizations that have plagued previous brief studies that have touched on this topic. At one point the CIA looms large in her narrative, but more about that later. She also refutes the conventional notion that Twain’s animosity toward Indians was fiercest when he was out west and that it steadily modulated during his Hartford years. His views modulated at times, but his antagonism often erupted in later years, and at best settled into an antipathy toward Indians.

Driscoll makes clear that she does not intend to “defend or defame” Twain, and reminds us that “his intellectual journey–sprawling, untidy, incomplete–matters more than where he ultimately arrived” (13). It is an amazing journey, and if Driscoll’s account of it at times seems sprawling, untidy, or incomplete, it is only a reflection of Mark Twain himself, whose genius as a storyteller and brilliancy in capturing the voice of America is justly celebrated, but whose failure to grasp the humanity of Native Americans is a flaw that cannot be ignored.

The journey begins in Sam Clemens’s early years when he likely heard his mother Jane Clemens recite the story of her own grandmother’s survival of the “Montgomery Massacre” in Kentucky in 1781, in which her father and four other family members were killed, along with some neighbors in nearby cabins, and some of her playmates captured. Although some accounts of that first attack are contradictory, it is clear that after Jane Clemens’s grandmother married, she and her husband survived three more Indian attacks on the Kentucky frontier and she displayed clear symptoms of PTSD. Jane Clemens exerted enormous influence on young Sam, and Jane did not like Indians. Despite his family heritage, sixteen year old Sam romanticized Indians on par with James Fenimore Cooper when he wrote an account of Hannibal that he published in 1852, calling them “children of the forest” who once gave “the wild war-whoop” where Hannibal now stood, but were now “scattered abroad . . . far from the homes of their childhood and the graves of their fathers” (14). Likewise, Sam’s brother Orion expressed sympathy for the displaced Indians of the region just a few years later when he penned an essay about Keokuk for the town’s first directory which he printed while Sam was in his employ.

But the brothers’ attitude toward Indians did not remain in sync. During their years in Nevada, Orion continued to express sympathy for the local Indians, while Sam’s view evolved in the opposite direction. With the exception of a single letter, he viewed the local Indians as violent, ignorant, lazy, untrustworthy, and filthy “savages”–describing them with contempt, amusement, and sometimes pity (72-73). Orion would retain his sympathy for Indians for the rest of his life, but not even the charitable views of Sam’s friend William Wright (Dan De Quille) could soften Sam’s bias. Twain could even distinguish cultural differences between the local tribes while sustaining his prejudices toward all of them. As Driscoll observes at one point, Sam Clemens “sees, in other words, but does not comprehend” (74).

.continue reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review on The Mark Twain Forum

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