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Roughing It is a partly fictional account of Mark Twain’s travel to the Nevada Territory and to California, his varied life there, colorful personalities he encountered, and his visit to the Hawaiian Islands (then called the Sandwich Islands). Interspersed throughout are factual and semifactual journalistic reports as well as tall tales. The book covers Twain’s stagecoach trip with his brother Orion Clemens, the newly appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada (July to August, 1861); Twain’s unsuccessful efforts to stake a timber claim and to prospect for silver (until August, 1862); his reporting and freelance writing for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada (until May, 1864); his reporting for the San Francisco Morning Call (1864 to 1865); his trip to Hawaii (March to August, 1866); his work in San Francisco (until December, 1866); and—much more briefly—his return to the East Coast through the isthmus of Panama (December, 1866, to January, 1867).

Between the time of his return to the United States and the publication of Roughing It, Twain enjoyed a varied life. Details of his trip in 1867 to Europe and the Holy Land were converted into his best seller The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. Soon after Twain married Olivia Langdon of Elmira, New York, his publisher persuaded him to follow up on the success of The Innocents Abroad with an account of his earlier travels in the Far West. Promising to deliver a manuscript in January, 1871, Twain wrote furiously for a time, but his work was interrupted by his father-in-law’s death and his wife’s illness. He then grew so dissatisfied with his writing that he extensively revised and padded the work with additional source material, partly by including some of his own Western journalistic pieces, to make a substantial book—for he always felt that it was necessary for a subscription book to be both a critical and a financial success. The final version, delivered to the publisher in November, 1871, was flawed and uneven, but when it appeared in the United States and London in February, 1872, Roughing It was a success. Critical opinion regards Roughing It as one of Twain’s best travel books, along with The Innocents Abroad. Furthermore, because Roughing It reveals a great deal about the United States at a crucial period in its history, it is a more significant cultural document than The Innocents Abroad, which mainly relates the responses of a set of unrepresentative American tourists in the Old World.

The seventy-nine chapters of Roughing It fall into six separate and uneven parts. Getting to Carson City occupies chapters 1 through 20. Twain’s wandering, timber work, and efforts at mining are covered in chapters 21 through 41. Chapters 42 through 61 describe Twain’s work as a reporter in Virginia City, Nevada, and his renewed attempts to strike it rich, this time in the California mine fields. The parts concerning the Hawaiian Islands (chapters 62 through 77) betray both haste and padding, and represent little in the way of “roughing it.” Ever desirous to swell his production, Twain added three appendices: “Brief Sketch of Mormon History”; “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” about the Mormon slaughter of travelers in a California-bound wagon train in September, 1857; and “Concerning a Frightful Assassination That Was Never Consummated,” about the alleged near murder in 1870 of Conrad Wiegand, a naïvely idealistic, whistle-blowing journalist from Gold Hill, Nevada.

An excellent way of enjoying Roughing It is to notice how skillfully the narrator traces his evolution from a tenderfoot to an old-timer. After naïvely dreaming of “Indians, deserts,...

(This entire section contains 1563 words.)

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and silver bars,” he gladly agrees to accompany his brother to Nevada and plans to have fun in the Far West for three months. Twain, a lover of numbers and arithmetic, regularly records distances covered and successive stops during their glorious twenty-day stagecoach trek. For example, he reports that on the tenth day they arrive at Green River, then proceed to Fort Bridger, 1,025 miles away; next, a two-day stop at Salt Lake City, with 600 final miles to go. Early in the going, they discard unneeded items of fancy dress, ineptly strap on weapons, and stand in awe of Homeric stagecoach drivers, picturesque way stations, and colorful workers.

Four episodes combine to demonstrate the foolishness of Mark Twain’s eastern training. A coyote, “not a pretty creature, or respectable,” is observed; he stays just out of pistol range, teases a town-bred dog with his “fraudful smile” only to outrun him, and thus becomes a symbolic King of the West—scrubby-looking, perhaps, but certainly in charge of the situation (chapter 5). Later, the narrator is persuaded by an auctioneer to buy a horse, the “Genuine Mexican Plug,” which immediately bucks him off, darts away, throws other riders, and is finally given away to a passing emigrant more ignorant than its unhappy owner (chapter 24). (Here, Twain parades his genius in describing animals, as he does again in chapter 61, which features the biography of Tom Quartz, a pocket-miner’s cat.) Caught overnight in a Nevada snowstorm later, the narrator and two friends find their book-learning of no use: They cannot start a fire by discharging their pistols, and their horses do not stand loyally by (chapters 32 to 33). In “The Great Landslide Case,” which is often anthologized separately, conniving Westerners relish fooling a pompous attorney from the East into thinking that his client must lose his ranch when a neighbor’s ranch has slid downhill intact and buried it (chapter 34).

Twain gradually recasts his narrator—first as a prospector and then as a journalist. In both endeavors the fellow sheds his greenhorn personality and grows pro-Western and knowledgeable—though often remaining humorously unsuccessful in his new pursuits. So mature and acclimated does he eventually become that he can simultaneously appreciate Western storytellers and report their vernacular style a bit superciliously. When, for example, the miner Scotty Briggs goes to a Virginia City parson at his “gospel-mill” to arrange for the funeral of his lamented partner Buck Fanshaw, the conversation is a mixture of colorful Western slang and sacerdotal locutions. The episode spoofs both men’s speech patterns and inability to understand each other, even while remaining aware of Scotty’s total and utter sincerity (chapter 47).

Western topics covered in the chapters preceding the narrator’s Hawaiian junket are quite varied and include criticism of the Western jury system, respect for education and professionalism, grudging admiration for a burly sea captain’s hanging of his black mate’s killer, proof of flush-time vices (gambling, crime, brothels, jails, and “the birth of the ’literary’ paper”), and praise of Chinese laborers for their many admirable traits and their contempt for the politicians and police officers who abuse them. Twain surely reveals his writer’s fatigue when he invites the reader to skip chapter 52, which he announces will discuss silver mines in detail. The chapter that follows is graced with one of his most lovable literary triumphs—the story of Jim Blaine’s grandfather’s ram. Admirers get Jim “comfortably and sociably drunk” and then invite him to talk about the ram. Jim drones on and on, with each topic reminding him of another: a woman who loans her glass eye to a friend, a coffin peddler’s bewigged wife, a deacon whose first wife’s daughter married a missionary and “died in grace—et up by the savages,” a dog that upsets Calvinistic theories of predestination by nimbly avoiding an accident that cripples a fated human victim, a man “nipped” by a carpet-weaving machine that speedily turned him into a fourteen-yard rug, and so on. Old Jim discusses no fewer than twenty-seven named characters but nods off without ever getting to that ram.

Twain enjoys the Hawaiian Islands because he can respond to their pristine scenery, criticize soul-deadening missionary work there, visit sites of historic importance, describe native tattoos and poi and hula dances, and report how he generously guarded lady bathers on whose clothes he sat to prevent their being stolen. He probably expends too many words on Hawaiian politics, in a section of the book that seems dated and somewhat stale now, but his thrilling description of volcanic eruptions—a stylish set piece reminiscent of several in The Innocents Abroad—is positively Miltonic. With fatigue clearly evident, Twain closes Roughing It with quick accounts of lecturing about Hawaii back in Nevada and California, and then returning aboard a cholera-infected steamer to New York, where he lugubriously notes many changes. Children he once knew now sport “whiskers or waterfalls,” and many grown friends have been jailed or hanged.

Roughing It defies easy categorization. Above all, it is a touched-up autobiography, the main purpose of which is to be a vehicle for Mark Twain’s boastful account of his troubled maturation under Western skies. It is also a travel narrative that satirizes sentimental examples of the moribund genre even while it is a pioneering example of what became known as New Journalism, or the nonfiction novel. Above all it is a mini-anthology of delightful Western tall tales and anecdotes. Twain wrote three more travel books: A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897). The first part of Life on the Mississippi contains some of his best reminiscences, but the second part, as well as the other two travel books, betray a strained falling-off in quality. Roughing It, flawed though it is, remains universally regarded as one of the most durable books in its genre.