"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Roughing It by Mark Twain

A record of several years of variegated vagabondizing

Written 1870 – 71 and covering Twain’s travels from 1861 – 66, Roughing It was a sort of ‘Innocents At Home’. For anyone interested in the West, fact or fiction, it is a rootin’, tootin’ delight.

When a book is written in the early 1870s and tells of the decade before, it’s about as authentic on the West as you are going to get. The language is of the time, not a modern author’s approximation of it. How they traveled, what things cost, what people wore, what they ate, what they read and what they said are all straight from the stagecoach horse’s mouth. It was the vernacular American experience - at which Mark Twain excelled.
"It is suited to the wants of the old, the young, the rich, the poor, the sad and the gay." Well, that covers most of us, I guess.
In 1861, Samuel Clemens’s brother Orion was appointed secretary to James W Nye, Governor of Nevada Territory, and Sam, 25, accompanied him as the secretary’s secretary. From St Joseph, in those pre-transcontinental railroad days, they took a stage West.
Sam Clemens as the young printer's apprentice
The stage journey is, for me, certainly the best part of Roughing It. I like the later part about silver mining and the time in California is OK. I was less keen on the later chapters about his time in the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then called. But the journey across country is amusingly told in the first twenty chapters and gives a real flavor of the West.
There's an excellent map of their route:
I was interested in the times taken by the various forms of transport moving West. Twain tells us with enthusiasm (his italics and capitals) that "at 5 P.M. we crossed the Platte itself and landed at Fort Kearney, fifty-six hours out from St Joe – THREE HUNDRED MILES!” I calculate therefore that they moved at an average of 5.3 mph. Only a few years later, the train would take passengers roughly four times as fast, at 19.1 mph. They are thrilled to see the Pony Express rider gallop past their stage and Twain tells us that the series of young horsemen carried letters from St Joe to Sacramento, nineteen hundred miles in eight days, or 235 miles a day. A wagon train would do approximately 100 miles a week. By the way, the fare from St Joseph to Carson City, Nevada was a hundred and fifty dollars – a monstrous sum at the time.
Twain is amusing about the firearms his party had with them. He himself was equipped with a derringer-like pistol (which appears in a fun Louis L’Amour novel, Showdown at Yellow Butte). Twain says:

I was armed to the teeth with a pitiful little Smith & Wesson’s seven-shooter, which carried a ball like a homeopathic pill, and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult. But I thought it was grand. It appeared to me to be a dangerous weapon. It only had one fault – you could not hit anything with it. One of our ‘conductors’ [shotgun messengers] practiced awhile on a cow with it, and as long as she stood still and behaved herself she was safe; but as soon as she went to moving about, and he got to shooting at other things, she came to grief.
You could not hit anything with it
Their fellow passenger had an old Allen pepperbox pistol, a revolver whose multiple barrels turned, with a kind of double-action in which it was only necessary to pull the trigger.

George’s was a reliable weapon … as one of the stage drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it.
The Allen pepperbox
The six-up stage, “of the most sumptuous description”, almost certainly a Concord (before they changed to a mud-wagon further down the trail) is described in detail. Twain says, interestingly, that it was the shotgun guard, whom he called the ‘conductor’, who was the princely commander of the vessel; the driver came next in the hierarchy but the conductor was regarded by all with reverence and awe, and his word was law.

Of course we get descriptions of the landscape they pass through, the flora and fauna. The sage brush in particular is a great ally. It burns hot and smokelessly and will keep in all night.

Twain loves the tall story (aka the whopper) which he tells disingenuously and straight-faced, but, you sense, with a wry smile. Occasionally he owns up to the falsehood. The description of the journey is punctuated with anecdotes, including the one about Horace Greeley’s trip West and the one about how their fellow passenger was treed by a buffalo.
Reviewer BB Toby in The San Francisco Call, April 28, 1872, wrote

One peculiarity in Twain is, that the reader is never deceived; there is not the least effort required to discover when he is in earnest and when he is joking. Even in those sudden transitions from solemn narrative to grotesque metaphor or absurd assertion, he does not offend, for the very grotesqueness and absurdity save the reader's vanity from affront; he feels that Twain is not laughing at, but with him that is, so the reader believes. In truth, Mark tells some of the most magnificent "whoppers" with an ease and seeming candor not to be controverted except by those who know the facts--witness his narrative of his first effort as a lecturer.

They are not troubled by Indians or outlaws, though you sense a certain disappointment about that on Twain’s part.

Several chapters are devoted to the story of Jack Slade, whom Twain met. Joseph Alfred Slade (1831 - 1864) was really the archetypal Western badman and gunfighter. His story fascinated many, East and West, including Twain. You get the feeling that Twain loves to tell of Slade’s victims and their grisly fates. It’s an interesting illustration of how even at the time exaggeration was an integral part of Western tale-telling. To read Twain, you’d think Slade was a bloodthirsty serial killer on an unprecedented scale, and we are told about his 26 shootings (in fact he certainly killed one man and possibly two). Slade appeared surprisingly rarely in Western movies. An entirely fictional Slade is in the 1941 Randolph Scott picture Western Union and there was a 1955 Stories of the Century TV episode about him, almost as fictional. The best screen Slade was in 1953, in the black & white ‘B’ Western Jack Slade, but that too was completely unhistorical.
The 'desperado' Jack Slade
Twain is informative about Utah, Salt Lake and the Mormons, though you sense that he was a little restrained about what he said. Still, he does not hesitate to apportion blame for the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 1857 to the Mormons, especially their Elders. He has a lengthy appendix on the matter (Twain was told that his book was too short and he had to pad it with appendices). He says that the Mormon bible is “chloroform in print” and declares that “if Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle – keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.” Later, he says:

The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable – it is “smouched” from the New Testament and no credit given.

On page 71, Twain declares himself “a disciple of [James Fenimore] Cooper and a worshipper of the red man”, yet by modern standards some of his comments on Native Americans are very hard to read. Of the Goshute Indians he says:

The Bushmen and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to.

When Roughing It came out, not all reviews were glowing.  The anonymous reviewer in the British Manchester Guardian of March 6, 1872 wrote:

A large part of Roughing It is devoted to the account of the journey by the already obsolete overland coach. And here our author treads on much the same ground as Artemus Ward in Among the Mormons, though his experiences were of a somewhat different character. He does not shine in comparison, as his humour, such as it is, is immeasurably inferior, though of the same school, depending on ludicrous exaggeration and quaint unexpectedness of comparison. Artemus amused us by his genuine fun and originality; but if there is one thing more than another that is spoilt by mannerism it is humour, and if the mannerism of an individual is offensive, the mannerism of a school is insufferable. Mark Twain, too, often falls into the slang of transatlantic journalism, and displays also its characteristic inability to distinguish between the picturesque and the grotesque.

The equally anon writer in The Sacramento Union, May 18, 1872, was even more scathing:

In these days, when linen and cotton rags are so dear and the demands of the American press are so pressing that we have to import paper material from Europe, it is a waste and a shame to throw so much trash in the shape of swollen volumes upon the market.

There’s a really excellent website devoted to this wonderful book and I do recommend it. Better still, though, read the book. You’ll have huge fun and if you are interested in the West (how odd you would be if you were not) you will learn a lot.

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