- Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous People by Kerry Driscoll
By Kerry Driscoll. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. ix + 420 pp. Figures, notes, bibliography, index. $95.00, cloth.
It is hard to forgive Mark Twain for claiming that the American Indian was "nothing but a poor filthy, naked scurvy vagabond, whom to exterminate were a charity to the Creator's worthier insects and reptiles which he oppresses." Twain wasn't always quite so insensitive. But unlike his attitudes toward African Americans, his thinking about Native Americans never fully evolved. It has also received surprisingly little attention. So the time is ripe for Kerry Driscoll's monumental study of Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous People. Driscoll has amassed a large body of materials in which Twain says something, anything, about Indigenous peoples. Her goal is, she says, "neither to defend nor to defame" Twain, but simply to present the information. In that, she largely succeeds.
Nevertheless, she could have been a bit more careful with terminology and with some claims. She repeats derogatory terms like rapacious and especially savage somewhat indiscriminately. (She refers, for instance, to Twain's "fascination with native spirituality—and its incongruous relation to the savage violence of Indian behavior" .) And she has a tendency to refer to white settlers as innocent. (Innocent from whose perspective?) Nor does she question such Twainian imputations such as that American Indians preferred to avoid cleanliness. (They did not. It was white settlers who were more likely to reek.)
I could also have used less of the meticulous tracking of possible sources of fictional characters—admittedly a favorite pastime of Twain aficionados. In hailing these and other influences, Driscoll has to resort to such locutions as "likely heard" or "seem to have influenced." Yet even if direct causality is debatable, she does provide a wealth of information that suggests some of the temper of the times.
Driscoll also offers some compelling insights. The discussion of "The Noble Red Man" is particularly acute. Twain produced this most vitriolic of his writings about Native Americans (it's the source of my opening quotation) in 1870, when Lakota leaders, including the Oglala Red Cloud (Maȟpíya Lúta) and the Brulé Spotted Tail (Siŋté Glešká), were negotiating a treaty on the East Coast, with much fanfare in the press. They garnered enthusiastic acclaim in metropolitan newspapers such as the New York Times, but a more dismissive, even derisive, response in regional papers such as Twain's own Buffalo Morning Express, as Driscoll richly elucidates. Twain was no fan of Noble Indians, and at a time when their nobility was much touted, he was not shy about trying to debunk it.
Driscoll is also to be praised for her nearly exhaustive scrutiny of Twain's published work, as well as his drafts and unpublished letters, having scoured archives from Connecticut to California. In sum, despite its digressions and unevenness in tone, Mark Twain among the [End Page 105] Indians and Other Indigenous People will be the definitive resource for those seeking to track Twain's attitudes toward Indigenous peoples.