Mark Twain: Inexcusable racist or man of his time?


The author Mark Twain was a lot of things to a lot of people: cigar-chomping social critic, curmudgeon, knee-slapping loose cannon who would have frowned at -- and mocked -- the phrase “politically correct.”

A decision by a Nevada state panel sheds light on another descriptor for the American man of letters held by many, even today: racist.

The Nevada State Board on Geographic Names has voted to delay a decision on whether to name a cove on Lake Tahoe for Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name, after a local tribe complained that the author held demeaning views of Native Americans.


The panel put off the vote until at least September after a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, whose ancestral land includes Lake Tahoe -- a name derived from the Washoe word “da ow” for lake -- object to the naming on behalf of the tribe.

Darrel Cruz, the tribe’s cultural resource director, told the Los Angeles Times that he sent a letter to the board and then showed up on the night of the vote.

“I am obligated to the tribal membership,” he said.

Cruz said he did some Internet research on Twain after learning of the bid to rename a scenic cove on the lake’s northeast shore near Incline Village, Nev., where some scholars believe Twain camped and accidentally started a fire as he cooked dinner in September 1861. Others say the incident happened on the California side of the lake.

“I read some of his book ‘The Noble Red Man,’” Cruz said. “That’s where you can read some of his hard words on Native American people.”

Cruz told The Times he also objected to a Twain quote about Lake Tahoe in which he refers to the Washoe as the “digger tribe.” The phrase applied to some area tribes that dug roots for food.

“He was opposed to naming the lake Tahoe,” Cruz said. “And then turn around and include his name on the lake that was named for Native Americans just didn’t make sense.”

Jeff Kintop, chairman of the state’s naming board, told The Times that postponing the vote included a debate about the politics of naming present-day sites after people whose views have come to be considered controversial.

“We talked about whether we should change the places named after Washington and Jefferson, who were slave-holders,” he said. “One member wanted to know how long it took before a harsh judgment on any historical figure starts to lessen.”

Supporters of the name change say the move is a small gesture to honor one of the nation’s best-loved authors whose book, “Roughing It,” helped popularize Nevada. In 2011, Twain’s legacy received a similar knock when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names rejected a similar name change after officials decided Twain’s influence on the Sierra Nevada lake was minimal and that the honor should go to another historical figure.

Kintop said the state board was ready to approve the new name before hearing from Cruz. He said the panel is seeking further clarification from several historians before the next vote.

“Obviously, Mark Twain was a man of his times who reported on things as he saw them,” he said. “He ridiculed and made fun of everybody, indiscriminate in his criticisms. I mean, he wrote these things 150 years ago, at a time when this was how most people thought.

“Twain wrote to be funny and controversial, like the comedians of our era who routinely insult audiences. He was the Lenny Bruce of his day.”

Cruz didn’t buy that argument.

“That doesn’t make his words hurt any less,” he said. “That doesn’t make it right.”

James Hulse, a history professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno, said he has been contacted by several members of the state naming board for guidance.

“It seems reasonable to name something up there after Twain -- he made so many lovely descriptions of the place,” Hulse, 84, said. “The Washoe may think he was racist, but so was everyone else at that time.”

He called Twain a misanthrope who cultivated his insults as part of his character.

“You can call ‘Huckleberry Finn’ a racist book,” he added, ‘but you can also see it as one of the noble tributes to a runaway slave as you’re ever going to find.”