Roughing It

by Mark Twain

In 1861 Samuel Clemens accompanied his brother west on a stagecoach, apparently because he had nothing better to do. His brother had a new appointment as Secretary of Nevada Territory, and the author tried his hand at lots of odd jobs- including mining, labor in a silver mill and editor of a small newspaper. He kept going west- stopping a two days in Salt Lake City, spending time in California and finally taking a ship to Hawai\’i (then known as the Sandwich Islands). He wasn\’t quite yet a writer by trade, and the stories are kind of rough. Lots of tall tales and anecdotes told many times over by other folk. Tons of exaggeration, which can be laugh-out-loud amusing or just plain tedious. I was intrigued to read his description of traveling by stagecoach and of the early Pony Express, of frontier life, of the craze for silver mining prospects in Nevada, of his visit to Utah where he reports that he met Brigham Young- his description is not very flattering but then he makes fun of most of the people he meets in this book. He writes about the lawless situation in the territories, and there are many episodes showing how people tried to enforce law or impose order on desperadoes, outlaws and swindlers galore. The accounts of trials and hangings got to be long-winded and boring. The detailed descriptions of mining assessments and operations were interesting only to a point, then I didn\’t want to read about that anymore (I was astounded that they would handle \’quicksilver\’ or mercury- in their hands while using it to extract silver from other base metals in the crushed rock- it ate the ring off his hands). The native americans are portrayed as being weak and depraved, but the vistas of wilderness are full of grandeur. The description of a visit to Lake Mono and a claim on Lake Tahoe (where they started a fire that burned up the camp) was particularly interesting.

Most of the stories are funny, if you can wade through all the flowery prose and rough vernacular to get to the punch line.

Even though I read the last few chapters to the end, in all honesty I have to mark this book as \’abandoned\’ because I skipped well half the middle of it. In fact, if I hadn\’t seen a few other readers\’ remarks about how interesting the section on his travels to Hawai\’i were, I might well have ditched the book sooner. Glad I didn\’t though, it was a pretty interesting account! A mix of introduced \’civilized\’ culture and \’pagan\’ native ways, many of the Hawaiians were still not used to things like wearing clothing. Twain tells some curious stories about how they abandoned their traditional gods for christianity, accepted european ideas of government, and how they loved ceremony- yet so many traditional ideas and superstitions obviously still believed in regardless of how much they appeared to have adapted to \’white man\’s ways\’.

Abandoned        421 pages, 1872

more opinions:
Fifty Books Project
Avid Reader\’s Musings

7 Responses

  1. Come to think of it, this book reminded me a lot of Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour. Both a tongue-in-cheek collection of character studies and anecdotes that really is a picture of its times.

  2. I remember reading a bit of this years ago when I was reading quite a bit of Twain's travel writing. I enjoyed the two European ones (sorry, precise titles escape me at the moment) and then tried this, which for some reason I didn't take to. I have a couple of new to me ones to read this year, Life on the Mississippi and Following the Equator. Hopefully those will be more to my liking.

  3. I think I might like his other travel writings, too- I found out that he actually wrote Innocents Abroad first. When that met with success, he wrote Roughing it- about the earlier journey. By that time he had forgotten many of the details and had to ask his brother to remind him of incidents. So perhaps that is why it isn't quite as good.

  4. I really liked Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad. One of them has a nice account of staying in the Alps and climbing… I can't remember whether he did it or just watched others. So I want to reread that. I see there's also a book called The Innocents at Home; I didn't know about that so will investigate.

  5. Oh! OK. Thanks for warning me. I'll make sure before I buy it because I already own Roughing It. Not that I was seriously thinking of buying it.

  6. There's something so depressing about finding authors mired in the yucky prejudices of their time, isn't there? Even if depictions of American Indians as weak and depraved aren't the main event of the book, it still leaves such a bad taste in your mouth.

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