Roughing It by Mark Twain

(1835-1910)

Excerpted from White on Red, Eds. Black, Nancy B. and Bette S. Wiedman, New York; Kennikat Press, 1976.

Introduction:

Although Mark Twain's skepticism increasingly led him to question American pieties, he remained a child of the frontier in his most memorable treatments of the Indian. In his first book, Innocents Abroad (1869), he showed that he could muster critical detachment; describing Moorish prisoners in Tangiers, who must make mats and baskets, he comments: "This thing of utilizing crime savors of civilization." Yet, in another mood, he speaks irritably of Syrians and their sore-eyed children, who remind him of Indians: "These people about us had other peculiarities which I had noticed in the noble red man, too: they were infested with vermin, and the dirt had caked on them till it amounted to bark." He calls the Bedouins "Digger Indians," a mythical tribe invented by Americans to give full expression to their contempt.

The selection excerpted below, from Roughing lt, Mark Twain's account of his western adventures, presents an image of the Indian that powerfully and explicitly challenges the literary "noble savage." Its tone of intense bitterness, relieved only at the end by a bit of literary criticism and an amusing swipe at railroad employees, shocks the reader, who knows that Mark Twain here is expressing attitudes on which his countrymen were acting. A more sustained piece of literary criticism can be found in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895). In a broadly comic sketch, "Niagara" (1871), Mark Twain exhibits a naive narrator speaking to "Indian" souvenir hawkers (really Irish immigrants) in language learned from fiction.

Mark Twain's inheritance of frontier prejudice is perfectly clear in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). The Indian blood of the half-breed, Injun Joe, is made to account for his vicious vengeance on young Dr. Robinson. He stands for evil in the boys' world; when he dies, in a cave triple-locked by the judge, an enormous "weight of dread" drops from Tom, and the author mocks those "sappy women" who would have had Joe pardoned.

Three years later, in a passage eliminated from the published version of A Tramp Abroad (1879), Mark Twain returns to a more skeptical use of Indian material. In "The French and the Comanches," he satirizes the highly civilized Europeans and their religion, by showing how they outdid the Indians in refinements of brutality. One American prejudice vanquished the other.

From Roughing It, 1872

On the morning of the sixteenth day out from St. Joseph we arrived at the entrance of Rocky Canyon, two hundred and fifty miles from Salt Lake. It was along in this wild country somewhere, and far from any habitation of white men, except the stage stations, that we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent; inferior to even the Tierra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa. Indeed, I have been obliged to look the bulky volumes of Wood's Uncivilized Races of Men clear through in order to find a savage tribe degraded enough to take rank with the Coshoots. I find but one people fairly open to that shameful verdict. It is the Bosjesmans (Bushmen) of South Africa. Such of the Goshoots as we saw, along the road and hanging about the stations, were small, lean, "scrawny" creatures; in complexion a dull black like the ordinary American negro; their faces and hands bearing dirt which they had been hoarding and accumulating for months, years, and even generations, according to the age of the proprietor; a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other "Noble Red Men" that we (do not) read about, and betraying no sign in their countenances; indolent, everlastingly patient and tireless, like all other Indians; priceless beggars-for if the beggar instinct were left out of an Indian he would not "go," any more than a clock without a pendulum; hungry, always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline; hunters, but having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jackass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers, and embezzle carrion from the buzzards and cayotes; savages who, when asked if they have the common Indian belief in a Great Spirit show a something which almost amounts to emotion, thinking whisky is referred to; a thin, scattering race of almost naked black children, these Goshoots are, who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities­a people whose only shelter is a rag cast on a bush to keep off a portion of the snow, and yet who inhabit one of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit.

The Bushmen and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the selfsame gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to.

One would as soon expect the rabbits to fight as the Goshoots, and yet they used to live off the offal and refuse of the stations a few months and then come some dark night when no mischief was expected, and burn down the buildings and kill the men from ambush as they rushed out. And once, in the night, they attacked the stage-coach when a District Judge, of Nevada Territory, was the only passenger, and with their first volley of arrows (and a bullet or two) they riddled the stage curtains, wounded a horse or two and mortally wounded the driver. The latter was full of pluck, and so was his passenger. At the driver's call Judge Mott swung himself out, clambered to the box and seized the reins of the team, and away they plunged, through the racing mob of skeletons and under a hurtling storm of missiles. The stricken driver had sunk down on the boot as soon as he was wounded, but had held on to the reins and said he would manage to keep hold of them until relieved. And after they were taken from his relaxing grasp, he lay with his head between Judge Mott's feet, and tranquilly gave directions about the road; he said he believed he could live till the miscreants were outrun and left behind, and that if he managed that, the main difficulty would be at an end, and then if the Judge drove so and so (giving directions about bad places in the road, and general course) he would reach the next station without trouble. The Judge distanced the enemy and at last rattled up to the station and knew that the night's perils were done; but there was no comrade-in-arms for him to rejoice with, for the soldierly driver was dead.

Let us forget that we have been saying harsh things about the Overland drivers, now. The disgust which the Goshoots gave me, a disciple of Cooper and a worshiper of the Red Man­even of the scholarly savages in The Last of the Mohicans, who are fittingly associated with backwoodsmen who divide each sentence into two equal parts: one part critically grammatical, refined and choice of language, and the other part just such an attempt to talk like a hunter or a mountaineer, as a Broadway clerk might make after eating an edition of Emerson Bennett's works and studying frontier life at the Bowery Theatre a couple of weeks­I say that the nausea which the Goshoots gave me, an Indian worshiper, set me to examining authorities, to see if perchance I had been over-estimating the Red Man while viewing him through the mellow moonshine of romance. The revelations that came were disenchanting. It was curious to see how quickly the paint and tinsel fell away from him and left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive­and how quickly the evidences accumulated that wherever one finds an Indian tribe he has only found Goshoots more or less modified by circumstances and surroundings­but Goshoots, after all. They deserve pity, poor creatures; and they can have mine­at this distance. Nearer by, they never get anybody's.

There is an impression abroad that the Baltimore and Washington Railroad Company and many of its employees are Goshoots; but it is an error. There is only a plausible resemblance, which, while it is apt enough to mislead the ignorant, cannot deceive parties who have contemplated both tribes. But seriously, it was not only poor wit, but very wrong to start the report referred to above; for however innocent the motive may have been, the necessary effect was to injure the reputation of a class who have a hard enough time of it in the pitiless deserts of the Rocky Mountains, Heaven knows! If we cannot find it in our hearts to give those poor naked creatures our Christian sympathy and compassion, in God's name let us at least not throw mud at them.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Roughing It (Hartford, 1872), pp. 146-149.

Scanned by John Puckett, tagged and corrected by Adriana Rissetto 12/96 at the University of Virginia

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