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The following review appeared 1 October 2018 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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An irksome puzzle has persisted through more than a century of Mark Twain scholarship. It has usually been avoided altogether, or at best it has been briefly touched upon by a handful of scholars. In her ground-breaking new study, Kerry Driscoll spells it out clearly: "While Twain's view on blacks . . . [demonstrate] unequivocal growth away from the racism of his origins in the antebellum South, his representations of Indians do not follow a similarly redemptive arc. They are instead vexingly erratic and paradoxical, commingling antipathy and sympathy, fascination and visceral repugnance" (4). Driscoll credits scholars who have dealt briefly with Twain's attitude toward America's indigenous people--Ned Blackhawk, Louis J. Budd, Joseph Coulombe, Leslie Fiedler, Philip Foner, Max Geismer, Harold J. Kolb, and Jeffrey Steinbrink--and points out that they tend to fall into two camps that either idealize or vilify Native Americans. Both camps distort Twain's own views by over-simplifying the issue. The truth is more complicated, and a book length study to explore these complications is long overdue.
Driscoll's book is that much needed and long overdue study, and well worth the wait! "Mark Twain did not care for Indians. This book is an attempt to understand why" says Driscoll (3). Driscoll describes her approach as "chronological and geographical" (7) and she documents when and where Twain met Indians, when and where he read about them, when and where he heard about them, and when and where he wrote or spoke about them. She lays out her evidence like a prosecutor, challenges her own evidence, and in doing so avoids the overgeneralizations that have plagued previous brief studies that have touched on this topic. At one point the CIA looms large in her narrative, but more about that later. She also refutes the conventional notion that Twain's animosity toward Indians was fiercest when he was out west and that it steadily modulated during his Hartford years. His views modulated at times, but his antagonism often erupted in later years, and at best settled into an antipathy toward Indians.
Driscoll makes clear that she does not intend to "defend or defame" Twain, and reminds us that "his intellectual journey--sprawling, untidy, incomplete--matters more than where he ultimately arrived" (13). It is an amazing journey, and if Driscoll's account of it at times seems sprawling, untidy, or incomplete, it is only a reflection of Mark Twain himself, whose genius as a storyteller and brilliancy in capturing the voice of America is justly celebrated, but whose failure to grasp the humanity of Native Americans is a flaw that cannot be ignored.
The journey begins in Sam Clemens's early years when he likely heard his mother Jane Clemens recite the story of her own grandmother's survival of the "Montgomery Massacre" in Kentucky in 1781, in which her father and four other family members were killed, along with some neighbors in nearby cabins, and some of her playmates captured. Although some accounts of that first attack are contradictory, it is clear that after Jane Clemens's grandmother married, she and her husband survived three more Indian attacks on the Kentucky frontier and she displayed clear symptoms of PTSD. Jane Clemens exerted enormous influence on young Sam, and Jane did not like Indians. Despite his family heritage, sixteen year old Sam romanticized Indians on par with James Fenimore Cooper when he wrote an account of Hannibal that he published in 1852, calling them "children of the forest" who once gave "the wild war-whoop" where Hannibal now stood, but were now "scattered abroad . . . far from the homes of their childhood and the graves of their fathers" (14). Likewise, Sam's brother Orion expressed sympathy for the displaced Indians of the region just a few years later when he penned an essay about Keokuk for the town's first directory which he printed while Sam was in his employ.
But the brothers' attitude toward Indians did not remain in sync. During their years in Nevada, Orion continued to express sympathy for the local Indians, while Sam's view evolved in the opposite direction. With the exception of a single letter, he viewed the local Indians as violent, ignorant, lazy, untrustworthy, and filthy "savages"--describing them with contempt, amusement, and sometimes pity (72-73). Orion would retain his sympathy for Indians for the rest of his life, but not even the charitable views of Sam's friend William Wright (Dan De Quille) could soften Sam's bias. Twain could even distinguish cultural differences between the local tribes while sustaining his prejudices toward all of them. As Driscoll observes at one point, Sam Clemens "sees, in other words, but does not comprehend" (74).
After adopting his nom de plume and leaving Nevada, Mark Twain retained his contempt for Indians, and in 1870 published "The Noble Red Man," described by Driscoll as "the hateful crescendo of a racial bias rooted in the tales of frontier violence his mother had told him as a child" (144). In this piece, Twain authoritatively invokes his experiences with Indians in Nevada and declares that "all history and honest observation will show that the Red Man is a skulking coward and a windy braggart . . . [whose] heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts" and concludes that Indians are "a good, fair, desirable subject for extermination if ever there was one" (149). Twainians will be shocked and disappointed to know that in 2004 this essay was posted at Stormfront.org, the largest white nationalist website in the world, where it was praised.
In Roughing It, although Twain does not advocate genocide, he describes one tribe as "a thin, scattering race of almost naked black children . . . who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities" making clear that their extinction will be of no consequence (136). The kindest thing that can be said about Twain's attitude expressed in Roughing It is that he failed to see Indians as victims of colonialism, instead criticizing them for subsisting like parasites at the fringes of white settlements, the only adaptive behavior possible for them in response to violent displacement.
Earlier in her study Driscoll discusses Injun Joe, reviews Victor Fischer's debunking of Hannibal's Joe Douglas as the model for Injun Joe, and explores the implications of "playing Indian" in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but she does not mention the Mountain Meadow Massacre (cited in Roughing It), in which Mormons disguised as Indians murdered an entire wagon train of settlers and kidnapped the very youngest children. She also discusses James Fenimore Cooper's ridiculous Indians and points out that Twain lampooned Alexander Pope's Indians a few years before he got around to blasting Cooper's. Twain's attacks on Cooper began in 1869 and culminated in his famous essay on Cooper's "literary offenses" in 1895. But Twain was full of contradictions: He derided Cooper's praise of the tracking abilities of Indians, yet he was in awe of the tracking abilities of Aborigines in Following the Equator just two years later.
During Twain's Hartford years he encountered the CIA (the Connecticut Indian Association, of course; what were you expecting?) and his reaction--or rather non-reaction--to this active group is revealing. This group felt the best way to solve "the Indian Problem" was to Americanize them through detribalization, education, and Christianization. They and other groups endorsed an idea that was best summed up in a speech by the founder of an Indian boarding school: "Kill the Indian--save the man" (228). To modern ears such a group sounds misguided and paternalistic, but by contemporary standards they represented a progressive movement intent on helping Native Americans. Twain's next door neighbor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a big supporter (when she wasn't sneaking up behind Twain and cutting loose with a "war-whoop" as he once reported). But for some reason Twain and his wife Livy had almost nothing to do with the group despite the enthusiasm of their neighbors. Twain attended a benefit lecture for the group by Chauncey Depew, but that may have been a personal gesture or an indication of Twain's interest in the subject matter. Twain once gave $10 to a cause that was also championed by the CIA, but otherwise he is oddly absent from the events associated with this advocacy group, prompting Driscoll to title her chapter "The Curious Tale of the Connecticut Indian Association."
"Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians" is discussed at length. Although never finished, it provides clues to Twain's often ambivalent attitude toward Indians. One reason given for Twain's failure to finish this story is that he could not come up with a plot device to get around the fact that the kidnapped girl was almost certainly raped by her Indian captors, a topic he did not wish to inject into his fiction. Driscoll traces Twain's familiarity with this subject back to his days in California and presents a common source for both this unfinished story and "The Californian's Tale." She carefully reviews Twain's annotations in books by Francis Parkman and Richard Irving Dodge, and presents a lively account of Twain's writing of this aborted tale.
At times Twain's views toward Indians softened, and Driscoll cites numerous instances. Among them are the influence of Joaquin Miller's Life amongst the Modocs (Twain even nicknamed his fifteen month-old daughter Susy "Modoc" because of her hairstyle), his observations and encounters with indigenous people during his lecture tour around the world, how his own financial setbacks and geographic displacement made him more sympathetic to Aborigines and others impoverished and displaced under colonial rule, his endorsement of Indian music, and his comparison of the Christian God to the superior Gods of the Indians. But none of these redemptive moments seemed to endure. In Following the Equator, Twain wrote "There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages" (FE, 213). Driscoll points out that he recognized the humanity of indigenes people abroad but seemed unable to transfer that understanding to those at home
At home Twain could see the humanity in black people, but not Indians. Driscoll points out that he had grown up in the presence of slaves without ever questioning their humanity, but that his formative impressions of Indians came second-hand from newspapers, books, and grotesque family stories. She quotes from Twain's 1897 notebook: "Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned" (349) and demonstrates how Twain was unable to unlearn much of what he'd been taught about Indians, despite having moments of insight in the presence of other indigenous people. She pairs two quotes from the beginning and end of his career that show how his jaundiced view of western Indians as lustful savages remained essentially unchanged. He could denounce imperialism abroad while mostly ignoring it at home, making no public statements, for example, even when his daughter Jean wrote an impassioned letter to the New York Times protesting the mistreatment of Indians in 1909.
Driscoll admits that Twain's "erratic and deeply conflicted views" of American Indians "defy easy explanation" (369), and concludes that "Indians remained an enigma for him--objects of pity, loathing, and confused fascination--until the end" (370). Readers of this book will be disturbed, provoked, and disheartened, but not disappointed. They will find the excellent illustrations, bibliography, and index subentries extremely helpful and suggestive of further readings and research. Honest scholarly enquiry often leads to more questions than answers, and if there are unanswered questions at the end of Driscoll's superb enquiry, it is not the fault of the enquirer, but Mark Twain himself, who left us no clear answers on this subject--not because he knew the answers and chose to withhold them, but because he simply did not know himself.