Thursday Reviews: Roughing It by Mark Twain

Roughing It

Mark Twain

The original American smartass tells tales of the origins of his career in Nevada, dedicated to a partner in a mining venture, along with whom they were “millionaires for two weeks.”

This could be considered The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Version 1.0 when coupled with The Innocents Abroad. Young Samuel Clemens heads east during the Civil War to become private secretary to the new territorial secretary of state of Nevada. There, he catches mining fever during the territory’s silver rush and becomes a paper millionaire. Of course, it’s not that easy. He has to deal with rough weather, questionable business deals, his first turn as a newspaper editor, gunslingers, and periodic bankruptcy.

From there, Twain makes his way to San Francisco, flush with silver stock that, like the dotcom stocks of 125 years later, will be completely worthless within a month of his arrival. He has to “lower himself” and become a reporter. When he loses that job, he tries his hand at gold prospecting and is a miserable failure. Returning to San Fran, he lands a difficult gig to rescue him from poverty. He will have to spend a few months in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he is to report back to his newspaper on life in the tropical kingdom. Yeah. Life sucks, even in 1870.

Upon his return home, he’s unemployed with no prospects. To make a living, he embarks on a lecture tour of the Pacific coast. It’s a novelty as no one lectures on the Pacific Coast. And thus, a star is born, though Twain seems to be loathe to call himself that. He seems rather shocked anyone wants to hear him speak about anything at any length.

At a time when essays and fiction tended to be long-winded, even today, Twain’s prose reads as easily and accessibly as anything one might read online. Better, actually, because the misspellings are the result of the grammar rules of the day and not the sloppy editing that plagues even the major news feeds. There are some things that give pause. Twain is not skittish about quoting someone dropping an N bomb, though he refers to black people himself as “Negroes” (which was still valid as recently as the 1960’s) and clearly has a dim view of the Anglo-Saxon superiority complex. Even with biases in evidence, Twain is more forward thinking than most of his contemporaries than terms of race, to the point where he talks about missionaries in Hawaii with dripping sarcasm. It really puts some of the squick moments in Huckleberry Finn into perspective. (Then again, Huck’s pa was too racist for the slaveholding south, so you get the idea that Twain knows there’s a better way.)

Twain spares no one from his sarcasm. Presidents such as Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson were given barbs we normally reserve for George W. Bush or Barack Obama. (He does give Lincoln, president when the book begins, a free pass.) He rips on the Indians, then white people for taking the Indians’ land. He calls out Brigham Young on polygamy since, as he cites, Joseph Smith was actually against the practice. He doesn’t even spare himself. Twain freely, even gleefully, admits he was after the fast buck in his Nevada days and seems amused whenever his plans would be foiled by nature or by that pesky silver vein being nowhere near where they discovered it.

Twain is funny, slightly raunchy, and not the least bit pretentious. We need more Twains and few pundits. America would be a happier place for it.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Reviews: Roughing It by Mark Twain

  1. Read aloud his section about “Coyote” from Roughin’ It. Absolutely beautiful. That Twain essay was the true roots of Wile E. Coyote, by the way. Also, Twain surfed naked on the long board in Hawaii. He was thirty years old, a flaming redhead!

    • I had to bite my tongue as I was sitting in the breakroom when I read the part about surfing. 1868 and Mark Twain is on a surf board. And he did not seem to mind the native girls choice of swimming attire, either.

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