Roughing It Summary
by Mark Twain

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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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, 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...

(The entire section is 1,563 words.)