Two American originals, Mark Twain and the West, come together in this documentary of the author's seven-year "pleasure trip" to the silver mines of Nevada. Twain had originally planned the trip to be a three-month "vacation;" not surprisingly for someone of Twain's temperament, the trip lasted seven years. His journey, like his book, has a way of taking ever-unexpected turns.
During the 1860s, the United States of America was still largely unformed, and pioneers had shown to path to the West. Their trail was followed by fortune hunters, and a colourful, adventurous and lawless medley of immigrants, who settled in the new territories, and tried to carve out a livelihood. Samuel Clemens and his brother Orion Clemens were among them, and Roughing it is a semi-autobiographical novel based on their adventures, under the sole authorship of Mark Twain.
Roughing it is the story of travelling and short-term jobs of a young man in the "Wild West". It is a kaleidoscopic work of fiction, which consists of numerous anecdotes, stories, true, perhaps, and fictional, experiences and descriptions of all youngman Clemens saw and experienced at that time. All is described with a remarkable degree of detail, which forces the reader to slow down in order to be able to take it all in.
In the early 1870s, Mark Twain looked back on this period of his life, just five to ten years earlier, and realized he could remember hardly anything about it. With trhe help of his brother's diaries, and invention, he was able to recover the spirit of the times, and Twain's superior penmanship shines through on every page. Besides that, Twain was an excellent story teller, a quality that accounted for much of his early success, as much of the income of novelists in the Nineteenth century came from public readings. In some parts of the story, the reader can imagine the impact of "telling" the story to an audience, carefully timing jokes. Some stories are funnier than other stories, and probably drew laughter from different kinds of people. Some are difficult to appreciate by modern audiences, either because modern readers are out of tune with what would provoke laughter at the time, or because the written consumption of the book leads to less hilarity. The narrative of Roughing it is enlivened with a number of "nuggets" short episodes embedded in the story that capture the audience more intensely and create memorable vignettes of heightened observation. One of these stories is for example the story of surveyors spending the night in a barrack in pitch dark, when one of them upset and breaks the glass terrarium that contains 16 tarantulas. The fear of sixteen large, black, hairy spiders at large in a bedroom in the black of the night creates a tension that is at once horrifying and humourous:
The surveyors brought back more tarantulas with them, and so we had quite a menagerie arranged along the shelves of the room. Some of these spiders could straddle over a common saucer with their hairy, muscular legs, and when their feelings were hurt, or their dignity offended, they were the wickedest-looking desperadoes the animal world can furnish. If their glass prison-houses were touched ever so lightly they were up and spoiling for a fight in a minute. Starchy?—proud? Indeed, they would take up a straw and pick their teeth like a member of Congress. There was as usual a furious "zephyr" blowing the first night of the brigade's return, and about midnight the roof of an adjoining stable blew off, and a corner of it came crashing through the side of our ranch. There was a simultaneous awakening, and a tumultuous muster of the brigade in the dark, and a general tumbling and sprawling over each other in the narrow aisle between the bedrows. In the midst of the turmoil, Bob H——sprung up out of a sound sleep, and knocked down a shelf with his head. Instantly he shouted:
"Turn out, boys—the tarantulas is loose!"
No warning ever sounded so dreadful. Nobody tried, any longer, to leave the room, lest he might step on a tarantula. Every man groped for a trunk or a bed, and jumped on it. Then followed the strangest silence—a silence of grisly suspense it was, too—waiting, expectancy, fear. It was as dark as pitch, and one had to imagine the spectacle of those fourteen scant-clad men roosting gingerly on trunks and beds, for not a thing could be seen. (...) Presently you would hear a gasping voice say:
"Su—su—something's crawling up the back of my neck!"
Not one of those escaped tarantulas was ever seen again. There were ten or twelve of them. We took candles and hunted the place high and low for them, but with no success.
The story is littered with several such gems, each entirely pleasing when read and many memorable. There are stories about outlaws, Indians, bandits and bravados, told in a jumble as Twain saw it, in the real or in his inner eye.
The second part of the book, describing the narrator's travels to the Sandwich Islands, now better known as Hawaii, is a bit different in tone than the first part of the book. It is more descriptive, and less jocular, perhaps reflecting the more mature traveller.
It is very likely that upon completing the reading of Roughing it the reader will feel exactly the same way as the writer felt when he embarked on the adventure of writing it, namely the inability to recall and remember all of it, or maybe even any of, or at most those sparkingly intense mini stories. If so, the reading would mirror the real life experience: living through a dazzlingly rich experience, and looking back with wonder.
"I never had been away from home, and that word 'travel' had a seductive charm for me. Pretty soon we would be hundreds and hundreds of miles away on the great plains and deserts, and among the mountains of the Far West, and would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero."
"We jumped into the stage[coach], the driver cracked his whip, and we bowled away and left 'the States' behind us. It was a superb summer morning, and all the landscape was brilliant with sunshine. There was freshness and breeziness, too, and an exhilarating sense of emancipation from all sorts of cares and responsibilities, that almost made us feel that the years we had spent in the close, hot city, toiling and slaving, had been wasted and thrown away."
However, I hadn't read any of Twains' work in many years but the accident of pickinig up "Roughing It" and reading a few pages had me laughing and thoroughly enjoying Twains' presentation style and self-effacing humor.
His descriptions of the events, adventures, and places are priceless. Exaggerations all, of course, but told in a style that is distinctly his own.
Humor doesn't get any better than this story. His version is humorous, but in reality, many of his stories are simply amplified versions of real events written in his own style.
This book prompted me to read his other books. He was a talented author which we may not see again. For me, he was to American English, what Shakespeare was to Englands' English.
His creativity is highlighted in "A Yankee iin King Arthur's Court." The "Prince and the Pauper" is another tal well told.
There were bits in the second half that I enjoyed more that the first half. Apparently the first half is based on this brother’s journals of the trip (I didn’t find that out until I’d finished the book) and that would explain why it comes across and a bit dull. If you can make it through those bits it picks up and fans will recognize Twain’s clever style. I loved his description of attempting to work as an editor. He has the job for only seven days before quitting. He decided it was much too hard to come up with something new to write about each day.
Twain’s anecdotes about his travels are wonderful. I particularly loved a story about planning his first public lecture. He was so nervous he took every possible precaution to ensure he would receive some laughs.
BOTTOM LINE: I would recommend only if you are a huge Mark Twain fan or if you love reading about the development of the west. Otherwise I would highly recommend most of Twain’s other work, including Huck Finn, Tow Sawyer, Prince and the Pauper, etc.
It is a mixed bag of stories and anecdotes, but most importantly it is one of the most influential books of early American travel literature genre and captured the imagination of the "Old West". Much of it seems cliche now, but it was in part Twain who helped invent and popularize it. It is an authentic primary source that captures the feel and flavor of its time, including a few tall tales. Having traveled out west myself on a number of exploratory mis-adventures I could really visualize and understand Twains sense of awe and wonderment, in fact its part of the American psyche, a part of me, and this book was a key in that mythical creation.
Gutenberg has a HTML version online which includes scans of the lithograph pictures from the original which is recommended since many books omit the pictures, which are otherwise numerous and good. It was originally released on a subscription-basis. Twain had difficulties completing it with deaths in the family and writers block (it was his 3rd book and by far his longest at 600 pages). It didn't sell well at first, his earlier book Innocents Abroad did much better, which takes place after the Roughing period, but was written before, and is also a travel narrative, about a trip to Europe and Asia Minor.
That said, among his talents is giving offense. The chapters on Brigham Young and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not be agreeable to Mormons. Blacks and Chinese aren’t often mentioned but when they appear are called names most of us reject. The Indians always come off poorly, some being described with terrible contempt, and even when they do something that favorably impresses Twain, well, it’s regarded as something akin to the mysteries of the animal kingdom.
The account is also rough on anyone believing that men of Twain’s time had better moral fiber than now. You’ll find plenty of stories here to refute the belief. The dishonesty of men assaying ore samples for gold or silver, and the scams conducted by mine speculators, were common examples. George Plimpton notes in his Intro to the Oxford edition that frontier sentiment held that “An honest judge is a son of a gun who will stay bought.” Must be a joke, one thinks, but then Twain calls policemen and politicians “the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum.” He’s not joking.
Christians will find Twain’s rude disposition toward their religion exercised as well, especially in his extended visit to missionary-altered Hawaii. He writes about how lucky it was for Hawaiians to be converted to a religion that would “make them permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there…how dreary a place perdition is and what unnecessarily liberal facilities there are for going to it…what rapture it is to work all day long for fifty cents to buy food for next day with, as compared with fishing for pastime and lolling in the shade through eternal Summer, and eating of the bounty that nobody labored to provide but Nature.”
Roughing It teems with incidents, adventures, personalities, and opinions. Not each is gold. Still, someone’s reaction to this book may be a serviceable assay for how much you’ll enjoy liquoring up together at the local Wild West saloon.
Roughing It is an account of Twain’s journeys across America’s western frontier when he was a young man in his twenties; it was apparently written in 1872, but the actual journey took place in the 1860s, while the Civil War (rarely mentioned in this book) was raging in the east. His brother Orion had been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and Twain (or Clemens, at the time) went along with him as an assistant. He remained with his brother in Nevada for some time before, as youth are wont to do, he went gallivanting off on his own adventures. What was supposed to be a three-month journey ultimately ended up being seven years.
Roughing It takes place, as I said, before the events of Twain’s more famous travelogue The Innocents Abroad, but it was written after the success of that volume, collated from various old diary entries, correspondence pieces and Twain’s imperfect memory. Apparently the first third of the book, detailing their journey to Nevada, is heavily based on Orion’s journals. This may be why I found it dull, dry and difficult going, since it lacked Twain’s personal spark.
The book picks up a bit more as Twain begins his own travelling, and branches out into other work – prospecting, mining, real estate speculation, and eventually journalism, in the confusingly-named town of Virginia, which is where he first adopted his famous pen-name. (A recent theory suggests this didn’t come from riverboat slang, as originally thought, but was perhaps something Twain would cry out at the bar in Virginia when putting new drinks on his tab.) Towards the end it also details his time in San Francisco, and a trip to Hawaii – which would have seemed a bit tacked-on to the book in 1872, but now slots in with the theme of America’s West quite well.
I mentioned earlier that Twain is the most readable of any 19th century writer, but that is of course a relative measure – his style is long, verbose and drawn-out, and to a 21st century reader it can often become tedious, especially when he’s taking you through the finer points of gold mining or relating a somewhat amusing 12-page-long shaggy dog story. But there are also moments which, even 150 years later, are quite amusing. My favourite anecdote comes when he and two friends become lost in a blizzard, their horses bolting into the blinding snowstorm. As they huddle together in the cold and await their certain death they pray to God to deliver them, swear off all their sins, apologise to each other for past grievances, and slowly come to accept their demise. In the morning, clinging to life, they wake to find the snowstorm has cleared – to reveal the inn from which they had departed a mere fifteen feet from where they sat.
For two hours we sat in the station and ruminated in disgust. The mystery was gone, now, and it was plain enough why the horses had deserted us. Without a doubt they were under that shed a quarter of a minute after they had left us, and they must have overheard and enjoyed all our confessions and lamentations.
It’s interesting to see the trace of humour, and Twain’s use of sarcasm and deadpan – he’s clearly not a man to let the truth stand in the way of a good yarn – mixed with overwrought 19th century prose. I always wonder whether people actually spoke like that in the 19th century (think the movies True Grit, or Lincoln), or whether they just wrote like that, and modern filmmakers interpret it as a speech pattern as well, based on reading letters and journals. (Westerns from the 1950s and ‘60s were pretty plain-talking, weren’t they?) And, if people did actually speak like that, when in the course of history they stopped.
In any case, Twain’s non-fiction – as always – can be difficult and sometimes tedious for the modern reader to follow. The jokes and amusement sprinkled throughout the book are not a reward for effort, but rather a sweetener for a reader who wants an insight into the real Old West – not cowboys, Indians and train robberies, but rather mining, prospecting and the sheer majesty of an untouched wilderness. Roughing It is an excellent first-hand account of life around Nevada and California in the mid-19th century, but be warned that it can be difficult going.
However, it was an entertaining history lesson from Twain's opinionated and unapologetic perspective. If written today, it would take the form of a highly popular social networking site and easily make YouTube's top ten most watched videos.
Part autobiography and part travelogue, this novel is really a collection of short stories separated by chapters (79 in all). It encompasses time period from Mark Twain's teen to young adulthood years. The book is catalogued as non-fiction, but I wonder what the criteria is that separates fact from fiction? I estimate that about 50-60% of the author's recollections are true but interwoven with anecdotal hyperbole. Twain does stop at times to address the reader and admit these exaggerations or at least gives you a choice of how much of a particular story to believe. And it works!