Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

Scholar Kerry Driscoll investigates Twain’s lingering prejudice against Indians

Kerry Driscoll was up-front with us: “I’m a bonafide Twainiac.”

Driscoll is an English professor at St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford, and she’s spent the last 10 years working on a book about Mark Twain’s relationship and multitudinous references to American Indians. While most of Twain’s backwater attitudes changed throughout his lifetime to reflect a more enlightened, tolerant man, he remained prejudiced against Indians. Twain’s remarks against Indians range from obscure references to “a polished-up court of Commanches” in A Connecticut Yankee to the recognizable “murdering half-breed” Injun Joe character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

“I’m not convinced I’ll ever get to the bottom of this,” Driscoll said. She did, however, share a few of her theories.

For one, Twain grew up in pro-slavery Missouri, but he had regular interactions with African Americans. The same can’t be said about Indians.

“There was a sense of familiarity to black people,” Driscoll said. “Twain never had a corresponding experience with Indians. They’re kind of an empty space into which imaginary things can seep.”

And after his marriage to Olivia Langdon in 1870 Twain adopted the role of male protector. In his fiction he typecast Indians as capable—metaphorically if not always literally—of sexual violence. “Indians are lustful,” Driscoll said. “They’re sexual predators.”

Another plausible reason is that Twain’s mother, Jane, “hated Indians to her dying breath.” Her ancestors had been massacred in Kentucky, which could be why Twain reacted to them so negatively.


Video by Dan

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