In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll
  • Ann M. Ryan (bio)
Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples.
Kerry Driscoll. Berkeley: California UP, 2018. 448 pp. $95.00, cloth.

There are a handful of biographies and works of literary criticism in the field of Mark Twain studies that deserve to be called definitive. Kerry Driscoll’s Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples is one of them. In this patient, comprehensive, stunning work of scholarship, Driscoll has told stories that have been long forgotten, revised tales we thought we knew, and revealed others that have either been buried under the weight of Mark Twain’s celebrity or silenced by our own desire to evade the truth. For any scholar working on issues of race in the life and writings of Mark Twain, for any instructor teaching Twain to undergraduate or graduate students, or, for that matter, for anyone researching the intersections between nineteenth-century politics, culture, and Native American history, Mark Twain among the Indians will be an essential text.

Driscoll describes her work as a kind of “literary archeology,” which is something more than metaphor. Her research undermines less rigorous explanations of Twain’s baffling antipathy to Native Americans, some of which represent his racist attitude as a youthful phase, or as a remnant of familial trauma, or simply as a convenient comic trope. Underlying each of these explanations is the suggestion that Twain’s ugly rhetoric about indigenous people had little to do with the actual feelings or politics of the writer. Alternately, Driscoll complicates the impulses of critics who seek to dismiss Twain as unquestionably and irredeemably racist. In place of these easier readings of Twain’s lifelong preoccupation with native peoples, Kerry Driscoll offers a far more complicated set of facts and influences. Like any good archeologist, Driscoll pieces together a narrative from disparate fragments; she draws on newspaper clippings, obscure memoirs and regional histories, legal documents, letters, maps, popular songs, reward posters, travelogues, [End Page 173] photographs, etchings, dinner invitations, native sculpture and tattoos, minutes of meetings, marginalia, and folklore—to name just a few of her sources.

In organizing her project, Driscoll describes her approach as “both chronological and geographical.” In addition to an introduction which ably situates her research in response to other scholars, and a conclusion that highlights the dangers of reaching conclusions—“The erratic, deeply conflicted views Mark Twain expressed about American Indians over a period of nearly sixty years defy easy explanations” (369)—Driscoll’s eight chapters move from the history of Twain’s great-grandmother, Jane Montgomery Casey (1761–1844), to Twain’s Letters from Earth, written in 1909, only months before his death. Despite the historical and biographical sweep of her work, however, Driscoll resists the temptation to conflate the forward motion of time with anything like progress. For example, when Jane Lampton Clemens tells the story of the “Montgomery Massacre” to her spellbound family, it does not become a touchstone in the worldview of Orion Clemens, Twain’s older brother. Driscoll suggests that this childhood memory may not have been as traumatic as earlier critics have suggested. This early tale of “savagery” is not the racial urtext that haunts Twain’s psyche, nor does it mark the starting point in Twain’s inevitable journey toward enlightenment. Twain’s interactions with Native American people and the history that surrounds them are far less formulaic, according to Driscoll, and much more tangled.

Her study of the geography that Twain inhabits allows Driscoll to illustrate the way Twain’s racism erupts, retreats, and recurs in an almost cyclical pattern. Whether Twain is in the wilds of the Washoe territory or the comforts of Farmington Avenue or touring a Maori meeting house in New Zealand, he is surrounded by competing voices, texts, political agendas, and histories. Twain is fond of representing morality as the product of training: “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing.” Driscoll describes the many advocates for Native American rights and freedoms who surround Twain, suggesting...