- Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples by Kerry Driscoll
Kerry Driscoll’s book is a well-researched and meticulous analysis of Twain’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. It covers Twain’s early writings in Missouri and Nevada, spends considerable time on Roughing It and “The Noble Red Man,” explores his shifting positions on Natives after moving east, and ends with his commentary on Indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand. Describing her own book as “a work of literary archaeology” (7), Driscoll uses letters, marginalia, notebooks, laws, newspaper reports, and historical events to reconstruct helpful interpretive contexts— including the familial, literary, regional, and transnational— in order to better understand Twain’s anti-Indian biases. Driscoll rejects “the notion of a strict linear progression in the writer’s convictions; rather . . . the change was uneven, proceeding in fits and starts. Contradictions abound and are never fully reconciled” (9). Thus, while she [End Page 104] makes no radical new pronouncements about Twain’s prejudice, Driscoll uncovers reams of fascinating materials to help understand what shaped not only Mark Twain but also the American West and the United States.
Driscoll is at her best when outlining historical contexts and literary connections. For example, she describes how a Missouri senator introduced a bill that “ushered in an era of ethnic cleansing so thorough that no federally recognized tribes or reservations exist within Missouri today” (16–17). The senator’s name was Thomas Hart Benton, whom, she then points out, Tom Sawyer describes as “the greatest man in the world” (16). Driscoll also connects Twain’s vitriol toward Indians to the family stories that his mother Jane Lampton Clemens shared about her experiences and those of her own mother, writing that Twain “may have inherited and uncritically accepted her bias against them” (25). In addition, Driscoll explores possible antecedents for the character “Injun Joe” and contrasts Twain’s derogatory depiction of “savages” against his propensity to “play Indian,” a tendency shared by Tom Sawyer.
Readers of Western American Literature will especially appreciate chapter two, “Blind in Nevada: Early Perceptions of Indians in the West.” Driscoll uses multiple documents, including Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins’s autobiography, to recount the 1861 Pyramid Lake War, which occurred immediately before Twain arrived in Nevada, and the 1862 Owens Valley Indian War. While Twain’s letters show his awareness of these wars, the first of which was begun by white men who imprisoned and raped several Native women, Twain shows little public concern for Native peoples. Instead he focuses on the West as a “bucolic” place of “carefree comraderie” (68), which, Driscoll demonstrates, stands in stark contrast to the memories of his companion, Judge Oliver, who described their trip as filled with reminders of the recent violence. Likewise, Driscoll contrasts Twain’s attitudes about Native dispossession with those of Dan De Quille, Warren Wasson, Jacob Lockhart, Bret Harte, and his brother Orion. In subsequent chapters, Driscoll examines the context and meaning of Twain’s “The Petrified Man” hoax, the male bonding of the white miners’ club “The Pah-Utes,” and the racialized [End Page 105] and sexualized fear that informs Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.
Driscoll deserves praise for her high level of scholarly sleuthing; she leaves few stones unturned. That said, she also creates inconsistencies that are hard to ignore. For example, after informing readers that the term “Digger” is a racial epithet “invented by Anglo-Saxon settlers,” which is “in many ways comparable to nigger” (110), she uses the term in the same chapter, repeatedly referencing “the Digger tribes of the Great Basin” (118). She also struggles with a dilemma faced by many scholars: how to characterize an admired author who also advocates abhorrent policies, such as exterminating Natives. While Driscoll exposes Twain’s racism— asserting that “he never succeeded in fully exorcising this racial animus” (13)— she also defends “our nation’s greatest storyteller” against charges that he’s an “absolute Indian hater” because he wrote a letter against a bounty...