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  • A Savagist Abroad:Anti-Colonial Theory and the Quiet Violence in Twain's Western Oeuvre
  • Susan Kalter

Over the past several decades, two concerns have dominated the scholarship around the writings of Mark Twain: interventions into the debate over Twain's discursive treatment of African Americans, particularly its appropriateness to secondary school learning, and discussion of Twain's less studied writings with respect to his critique of imperialism. Despite its intricate relation to both of these topics, the "Native presence" in Twain's writing—a phrase I pointedly borrow from Toni Morrison—has received comparatively little attention. Yet this discursive presence of Native Americans, whether they are actually en-charactered or not, is perhaps one of the most pervasive and apparently hypocritical elements of Twain's writing, from its inception in the 1850s through the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, as well as beyond (the author's career importantly spanning the most intense era of U.S. aggression toward Indian nations). Because Twain routinely spoke the unspeakable in ways that helped make the thoughts and attitudes of his land-aggressive western readers toward Native Americans more acceptable in the broader public conversation, his words often serve as a classic illustration of literary savagism as delineated by Roy Harvey Pearce in his pivotal theoretical observations from Savagism and Civilization.1

Given the persistent split between post-colonial studies (of which interest in the cultures of U.S. imperialism and Twain's anti-imperialism is a by-product) and the understudied dynamics of U.S. imperialism, both material and literary, on the North American continent itself, the complexities of Twain's references to Native America and their contexts merit collective and sustained scholarly inquiry. In particular, scholars working in the field of Native American Studies are poised to contribute significantly to our understanding of Twain's impact on nonwhites globally. Such scholars can offer specific and credible, rather than generalized and under-theorized, insight into the historical contexts of Twain's public and private commentary. I will attempt here to situate historically Twain's regionalist writings—especially [End Page 26] The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By obtaining a better view of the historical situatedness of his eastern, midwestern, and western readers, of Twain's own historically informed mind, and of the important histories that shaped Twain's Missouri and the Mississippi Valley's identity, we can better assess both the cultural work of his so-called regionalism and the moral "consistency" of his protests against global imperialism.

Some of the most important contexts to Twain's two boy books are the ones that have received literally no critical attention since their publication. It is not without significance that Twain set the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer precisely in between two extremely significant events in Midwestern history: the end of the Black Hawk War (1832) and thus of concerted Sauk and Mesquakie resistance to U.S. land theft and the annexation of Texas by the United States (1846). Larger shifts in the balance of power among Indian nations and Spanish, French, British, and U.S. empires constitute a core background to Twain's treatment of Missouri and the Mississippi Valley. Twain's voracious and only partly traceable reading about these shifts and these agents interacted with his experiential learning both inside and outside the region to produce texts that collect California, Nevada, Connecticut, and other portions of the western hemisphere alongside Hannibal and Keokuk as nostalgic middle America. Whether or not Twain fully recognized how closely he was connected to the specific conditions that made possible his literary fame, it is worthwhile for us to draw these ironies out of the collective political unconscious into consciousness.

The Native Studies Deficit in Critical Race and Nation Studies of Twain's Writing

Two recent publications begin to close in on the important interconnections between Twain's discourse regarding Native Americans and his writings on imperialism and African Americans. John Carlos Rowe argues that Twain's associative and digressive style is "more consistently political in content and moral purpose than it has usually been considered."2 Going against the grain of recent criticism regarding how travel...


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