Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll
The works of Mark Twain already claim a great chunk of cultural and psychological real estate in this nation’s on-going negotiation with race and slavery—our so-called “original sin.” For a great many white readers Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a beloved book that serves to bind the wounds of North American slavery by placing an innocent waif and an escaped slave together on a raft and setting them adrift on the Mississippi River, complete with straw hats and corn cob pipes to make the journey more pleasurable. Non-white audiences, however, have found it difficult to look past the onslaught of racial epithets sounding off on nearly every page, as well as the facile representation of Jim which, as Peaches Henry noted some years back, never allows the character to rise above “the stock conventions of ‘black minstrelsy.’” Debates over whether Twain himself was on the cutting edge of progressive nineteenth-century American values or mired in internalized notions of white supremacy remain passionate and seem to trace the same racial divides informing contemporary attitudes over police shootings, out of control incarceration rates, and biased immigration laws. A majority of white people in the U.S. are disinclined to see unfair racial disparities in these dynamics. They hold onto the belief that our democracy is like that raft where, as Huck muses, “you feel mighty free and comfortable and easy.” An almost wounded resentment persists that black audiences can’t simply enjoy the ride or embrace the promise of national redemption residing at the heart of the novel. Black readers of Twain’s book, on the other hand, can’t help but notice how that raft is drifting further and further away from freedom with each turning page.
Kerry Driscoll’s Mark Twain among the Indians and other Indigenous Peoples could, perhaps, tip the balance for readers seeking to understand Twain’s already complex and controversial attitudes concerning race. While our cultural fascination has remained fixed on Twain’s representation of blacks, there is much to be gleaned from the way Twain characterized the indigenous peoples he encountered both in North America and abroad. Too little has been said on this topic, but Driscoll’s book offers a comprehensive examination of Twain’s attitudes about “Indians” and the results are arguably more dismal, and even damning, than one might expect.
As a former president of the Mark Twain Circle of America and an editor for the journal Mark Twain Annual, Driscoll is superbly situated within Twain scholarship and the Twain archive to perform this exhaustive study, [End Page 184] mining material from the author’s letters, manuscript drafts, journals, newspaper advertisements, and other marginalia. What emerges is a portrait of the author as one whose strides towards a universal embrace of humanity have been greatly exaggerated. The reader can almost feel the tension in Driscoll’s own analysis, as an unspoken desire to want to redeem Twain as the iconic humanist that liberal tradition has made of him seems to haunt this work. Upon opening the book, the first thing we encounter is a full-page image of a kindly Twain seated on a trunk, leaning in to hear the words of an indigenous woman, with the caption “Listening to her History.” As it turns out, however, Twain, throughout his long life, was incapable of hearing the histories of America’s indigenous peoples and, as Driscoll concludes, even Twain’s “expressions of sympathy for Indians tend to be discrete, short-lived epiphanies, punctuated by lapses into more regressive modes of thinking” (9). At best, Native identity for Twain was a punchline, and once he latched onto a joke he liked, no matter how denigrating, he had a most difficult time letting go of it.
The scope of Driscoll’s research is impressive as it fleshes out the personal and historical contexts informing Twain’s views. We are told of Twain’s grandmother Jane Montgomery who, as a child, survived an attack on her Kentucky homestead by a party of unidentified Natives (probably Cherokee) and whose stories may have fueled Twain’s own childhood animus toward indigenous peoples. But Driscoll also reads more deeply into these contexts, laying out the history of the Iowa Halfbreed Tract, for example, which, in 1841, displaced members of the Sac and Fox communities, leaving them “homeless and adrift.” Stigmatized as beggars and vagrants by residents of Twain’s childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, this indigenous presence provided ample fodder for the creation of Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Although a villainous figure in the novel, Injun Joe seems to have been an amalgamation of several benign Native personages living in and around Hannibal at the time. As we come to see, Twain’s blanket condemnation of Native people as deviant, squalid, shiftless, savages persistently ignores the socio-economic exigencies that lay behind this perception, even while others close to him, such as his brother Orion, articulated a much more nuanced and sympathetic reading of this history.
Twain ultimately carried this animus west with him to Nevada in 1861 as he accompanied Orion to Carson City where Orion was to be “territorial secretary,” arriving in the direct aftermath of a bloody conflict, known as the Pyramid Lake War, between settlers and the Northern Paiutes. This was the only period in Twain’s life when he experienced direct contact with America’s indigenous communities and the impressions formed at this time would reverberate throughout his literary career. As he claimed of [End Page 185] the local Gosiute tribe (a band of Western Shoshone referred to derisively by Twain as the “Goshoots”), they were “the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen.” He declared them “a thin scattering race,” who produced nothing and were entirely lacking in communal structure, comparing them to gorillas, kangaroos and water rats.
Remarkably, as Driscoll informs us, not only Orion, but many of Twain’s other associates expressed a fairly sympathetic, if paternalistic, view of the Shoshone and other regional tribes. Twain’s mentor, Dan De Quille, a fellow reporter on the Territorial Enterprise, wrote of the Paiutes that they were “quite an intelligent race, apt to learn and industrious. If there were plenty of work here for them . . . and the whites would not molest their women, the whole tribe would . . . soon become civilized and useful members of the community.” Twain, however saw only depravity in the Natives he encountered, perversely equating their conquered condition with racialized slovenliness and rejoicing in the paradoxical comparison between these seemingly degraded specimens and those romanticized by James Fenimore Cooper. As he wrote in an 1867 letter upon receiving news of Red Cloud’s War, “I am awaiting patiently to hear that they have ordered General Connor to polish off those Indians, but the news never comes. He has shown he knows how to fight the kind of Indians that God made, but I suppose the humanitarians want somebody to fight the Indians that J. Fenimore Cooper made.” The idea that America’s indigenous peoples should simply be exterminated as a proper “cure” for the “Indian Problem” is voiced several times over the course of his career, and he goes so far as to suggest to General Grant, Secretary of War at the time, that “there was nothing so convincing to an Indian as a general massacre.”
As accomplished as this work is, Driscoll frequently strains towards a progressive interpretation of Twain’s attitudes that never satisfactorily reveals itself, forcing her, at times, to grasp at straws. While working on his sequel to Huck Finn (the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians), Twain took a cursory interest in what he understood to be indigenous spirituality gleaned from the works of Parkman and other nineteenth-century “Indian experts.” Driscoll observes how this reflected “tremendous growth in his appreciation of Native religion within the brief space of three years.” In truth, however, Twain’s interest only extended so far as he saw ways to use Native spirituality as a cudgel with which to satirically beat Christianity. “We have to keep our God placated with prayers, & even then we are never sure of him—how much higher & finer is the Indian’s God” who in Twain’s view needed no such supplication. Although Driscoll offers an astute reading of the racialized knot Twain gets himself into in plotting this failed novel, she also neglects to comment upon the reductive representation [End Page 186] of Jim who remains a problematic member of the cast. For those who feel that the character of Jim rises above stereotype in the original novel, the sequel is enough to make one question any such assumption. The base racial stereotypes, of both Natives and African Americans, informing these further adventures of Tom, Huck, and Jim provide sufficient reason as to why the existence of this work is so little known or examined.
In his later years, as he went on a world speaking tour to pull himself out of debt, Twain developed a deep skepticism of imperialism. Untethered from the nationalistic affections that, perhaps, blinded him to such dynamics in the U.S., Twain becomes a harsh critic of the way aboriginal peoples were treated in Australia and New Zealand, and he brings his sharp wit to bear on the subject in a nuanced manner. Here as elsewhere Driscoll makes a strong contribution, using the correspondences of Twain and his wife and daughter to flesh out the details behind intriguing tossed off comments in Twain’s published accounts. Twain is also found to be critical in later years of scalp bounties put out by the state of Arizona against the Apaches. Nevertheless we leave Driscoll’s book conscious of Twain’s failure to fully shed his biases—if he is a humanist, he is a humanist who can still joke about Native genocide right up until the end—and Twain’s failure seems very much the failure of the United States, as a whole, to fully recognize this lesser acknowledged of its original sins. [End Page 187]