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Kerry Driscoll, "Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples" (Oakland: U of California P, 2019), 464 pp.:

Kerry Driscoll, Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples (Oakland: U of California P, 2019), 464 pp.

Kerry Driscoll’s Mark Twain among the Indians and Other Indigenous Peoples sets out to address a major gap in the extensive research on Mark Twain and his oeuvre: the writer’s relationship to and views of Indigenous peoples. In the opening of the book, Driscoll gestures to the history of this research, arguing that it largely relies on overgeneralizations that pigeonhole Twain either as harboring racist sentiments towards Indigenous peoples all his life or paint the picture of a subtly redemptive arc in Twain’s life and career which mirrors, even if not as consistently, the progression of his stances on slavery, racism towards Chinese and African Americans, or U.S. imperialism abroad (7). According to Driscoll, however, neither of these positions encapsulate Twain’s stance fully, but rather mirror the unpredictability with which he seems to have almost erratically changed his views throughout his long career as a writer—changes which, conversely, make capturing his definitive position difficult. While the necessity to supplement the preceding scholarship does of course warrant further critical inquiry alone, Driscoll makes the point that the urgency also derives from how the uncertainties surrounding Twain’s relationship with Indigenous peoples seems to complicate his widely popularized reputation as a “champion of the oppressed of all races” and as a national icon (4). The book draws on both points for its sense of direction and attempts to create a definitive archive of Twain’s engagement with Indigenous peoples without “defending or defaming” him (13), while also trying to make sense of how this relationship connects to Twain’s well-explored stance on racism and imperialism as such.

And the book does indeed live up to its self-ascribed status of a work of “literary archaeology” (7): Driscoll presents her readers with an impressive and meticulous excavation of basically anything that Twain has ever written, said (on record) or even may have read or experienced in connection to Indigenous peoples. She offers new readings of Twain’s classics, such as Tom Sawyer, Roughing It, Following the Equator, and his unfinished “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians,” and delves deeply into an impressive variety of letters, articles, and essays authored by Twain during his career—many of them little-known to a wider audience. Driscoll deftly contextualizes this material by embedding it in local events, political currents and public sentiments that marked the locales of Twain’s lifelong journey across the United States and the globe. Through this, the book traces Twain’s relationship with Indigenous peoples geographically and chronologically from the fireside tales of frontier battles of the Clemens family against “Indian marauders” told by his mother during his youth in Missouri (ch. 1), to his time in the American West where his pen name and public persona was born (ch. 2-3), to his final years on the Eastern Seaboard (ch. 4-6) interrupted by travels to Europe and especially Australia and New Zealand (ch. 7-8). This mapping refutes, Driscoll argues, a simplified redemption arc in which Twain’s open racism towards Indigenous peoples was sparked in the South in his youth, stoked in his time in the West, and began to fade in the East later in his life and in context of his criticism of European and U.S. colonialism abroad (9). Instead, the book documents Twain’s seemingly random alternations between racist vitriol, satirical condescension, and romanticization of Native Americans throughout his life. Driscoll seems to have a hard time coming to terms with this pattern, especially Twain’s steadfast justification of and subscription to the doctrine of discovery, Manifest Destiny, and settler colonialism, which is starkly contrasted by his vocal anti-imperialism abroad and his sympathetic view of Indigenous peoples in Oceania (352). It is at this intersection of Driscoll’s analysis that her approach would have profited from a stronger commitment to the scholarly work in Indigenous studies and the study of U.S. imperialism on settler / Indigenous relations and discourses of U.S. expansion. Here, scholars like Jodi Byrd, Amy Kaplan, and John Carlos Rowe (among others) discuss how a seemingly disparate odd couple of criticism of colonialism abroad (including the United States’ own overseas expansion) and a (at times) celebratory discourse of “domestic” colonialism, is not so much indicative of an inconsistent but ultimately anti-colonial position, but is rather a quite common trope of the nineteenth century that legitimizes and glorifies U.S. continental expansion via its rejection of overseas imperialism (Driscoll 352; see Byrd; Kaplan; Rowe; Temmen). If Twain’s casual and intermittent racism towards Native Americans can be read as related to this discourse, the “mystery” of his relationship to Indigenous peoples, which Driscoll considers still unsolved at the end of the book, is revealed not to be the mystery of a lack of a coherence in Twain’s position, but rather of how Twain, who is revered as ahead of his time on so many other issues, could have been simply a man of his time in his perception of Indigenous peoples (369-70). Coming to terms with this question is essential, and Driscoll’s impressive historical archive compiled in this book is a definitive sourcebook that invites such further excavation.

Jens Temmen (HHU Düsseldorf)

Works Cited


Byrd, Jodi A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2011. Print.


Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.


Rowe, John Carlos. Literary Culture and Imperialism from the Revolution to World War II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.


Temmen, Jens. The Territorialities of U.S. Imperialism(s): Conflicting Discourses of Sovereignty, Jurisdiction and Territory in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Legal Texts and Indigenous Life Writing. Heidelberg: Winter, 2019. Print.

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