Monday, October 8, 2007
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Roughing It is Twain's recollection of his trip out west during the Civil War. The excursion was supposed to last a few months, but it turned out to take seven years; as Twain says in his closing lines, the actual span of the trip was closer than many of his other calculations. Twain wrote the book in 1870-1871 and published it the next year. It was a more polished version of his first travelogue, Innocents Abroad.
The story starts with the Clemens brothers traveling over the Great Plains on their way to Mark's brother's government job in Nevada. There are some really nice descriptions of my home state, Nebraska, in this section. The mail coach method of travel sounds like a hell of a bad way to get from one place to another. Bad roads, heat, bad food, rain, rivers, lots of mail and gruff station masters made for a difficult voyage. Yet, Twain takes these frustrating experiences and turns them into funny stories.
Nevada truly was the wild west. Instead of cowboys roaming the plains, miners worked claims and ripped each other off. Twain described this world in glowing terms. A community of the strongest and most determined men in the world working and living in pursuit of fortune. Yet, Twain describes the spectacular violence that accompanies so must testosterone and alcohol. Men are gunned down without consequence. In fact, murderers are made leading citizens depending on their body count. Women are a rarity and made much of whenever they show up.
Mining is the center of the entire book. It's a strange and gutwrenching process of prospecting, disappointment and hope. Most of the money seemed to be made in the selling of claims to gullible buyers rather than in actual mining.
Mormons are also a frequent topic. The group was almost foreign to Twain. He made a trip to Salt Lake City to investigate the matter and did not come away with a good impression. Brigham Young ruled the city like a monarch and polygamy was rampant, although Twain certainly exaggerated its prevalence.
Twain's trip to Hawaii is also interesting. He sees many of the places I saw during my trip to the Big Island. His portrayal of poi's shittiness is spot on as his description of the awesomeness of volcanoes. The native Hawaiians are treated harshly at times, but at other instances Twain skillfully compares their lifestyle favorably against the Anglo Americans.
Twain also narrates his beginnings as a writer and lecturer. Both ventures came out of desperation for cash. The newspaper business was a wide open enterprise susceptible to political dealings, violent reprisals and fabrication. Twain himself often improvised stories and sometimes made things up.
The west was a wild place where people made and lost great fortunes daily. Twain's adventures and anecdotes, mot very funny, especially his continuous battle with horses, accentuate the opportunities and pitfalls that faced the fortune seekers.