Reconstructing Twain @ MLA

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Every now and then you go to an academic conference and actually run across people who take close reading literally. “Richard Slotkin, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Amy Kaplan, Ned Blackhawk and Jodi Byrd have all dissected Mark Twain’s passage on the GoShoots Indians in Roughing It,” Alex Trimball Young of the University of Southern California pointed out at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Chicago in January. “Few read the final paragraph on GoShoots from Roughing It: ‘a class who have a hard enough time of it in the pitiless desserts of the Rocky Mountains. Heaven knows!’”

Thus do efforts to paint Twain as another insensitive, Caucasian lout fall flat. Of the aforementioned quintet:

  • Slotkin is the Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan;
  • Limerick is the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a Professor of History;
  • Kaplan is an English professor at Penn;
  • Blackhawk is a Professor of History & American Studies; Director of Undergraduate Studies, American Studies at Yale; and
  • Byrd is an Associate Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

As with most authors, and people, for that matter, the real Twain is much more interesting than the caricature his modern-day critics would make of him. “There are many humorous things in the world,” Twain once wrote, “among them, the white man’s notion that he is superior to the other savages.”

“His observations of bodies of color led to his eventual and adverse reaction to his own race,” Susan K. Harris of the University of Kansas averred when she spoke on the same panel that Young addressed. For example, “Twain loved India.”

Indeed, Harris noted that he contrasted the attire of Indian women unfavorably with the apparel of American ladies.