Book Review: Roughing It by Mark Twain

miners_dream

Mark Twain in the Old West. It doesn’t get much better than that.

When most people think of Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemens), they think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. What most people don’t know is, aside from writing the tales of these two boys wont to misbehave, he also wrote some very interesting books on his world travels.

In my junior English class in high school, we spent half of the fall semester learning about Mark Twin: his life, his writings, etc. I don’t remember a lot of that, but what I do remember was mention of two of his travelogues: The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It. The brief overview I heard in class was enough to intrigue me to check out these books of his. The Innocents Abroad tells of Twain’s travels, well, abroad, through Europe and the Middle East. Roughing It, written after the former, actually happened first, so I chose to read it first.

What ensues is a mostly-believable tale (Twain had a knack for stretching the truth just shy of the breaking point) that starts at the eastern end of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, Missouri, and heads west from there. Twain and his brother Orion Clemens, who was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, travel together and experience all manner of situations, most of which Twain makes humorous in hindsight with his unique wit. He visits Salt Lake City and tells of his observations of and interactions with the polygamous Mormons (and even provides a candid appendix at the end of the book chronicling Mormon history to the date); he presses on to Nevada and tries to “get rich quick” from mining for gold and meets all kinds of interesting characters there; he then heads to California and spends some time in San Francisco before finally setting sail for the Sandwich Islands (now the state of Hawaii) to describe the “conversion” of the natives by missionaries and explore volcanoes.

All along the way, Twain relates humorous conversations, tall tales, and plenty of profound thoughts (such as the fact that the Sandwich Islanders, who squatted on their hams, may have been the first ham sandwiches). As with anything Twain writes, the line between what really happened and what he embellished is blurred, so the reader must take a lot of what he says with a grain of salt. Still, he paints a vivid picture of life in the western part of the country during the 1860s that is worth the read for the history alone, but entertaining because Twain wrote it.

The book also includes illustrations that, along with the anecdotes, are downright hilarious. Below is an excerpt that made me laugh out loud, from Twain’s experiencing a terrible earthquake in San Francisco, and the accompanying images.

The “curiosities” of the earthquake were simply endless. Gentlemen and ladies who were sick, or were taking a siesta, or had dissipated till a late hour and were making up lost sleep, thronged into the public streets in all sorts of queer apparel, and some without any at all. One woman who had been washing a naked child, ran down the street holding it by the ankles as if it were a dressed turkey. Prominent citizens who were supposed to keep the Sabbath strictly, rushed out of saloons in their shirt-sleeves, with billiard cues in their hands. Dozens of men with necks swathed in napkins, rushed from barber-shops, lathered to the eyes or with one cheek clean shaved and the other still bearing a hairy stubble.

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[…]

A certain foreign consul’s lady was the acknowledged leader of fashion, and every time she appeared in anything new or extraordinary, the ladies in the vicinity made a raid on their husbands’ purses and arrayed themselves similarly. One man who had suffered considerably and growled accordingly, was standing at the window when the shocks came, and the next instant the consul’s wife, just out of the bath, fled by with no other apology for clothing than—a bath-towel! The sufferer rose superior to the terrors of the earthquake, and said to his wife:

“Now that is something like! Get out your towel my dear!”

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Another tale that struck me, that also ironically involves clothing, happened during Twain’s visit to the Sandwich Islands. I’ll save my remarks until after the excerpt.

In the rural districts of any of the Islands, the traveler hourly comes upon parties of dusky maidens bathing in the streams or in the sea without any clothing on and exhibiting no very intemperate zeal in the matter of hiding their nakedness. When the missionaries first took up their residence in Honolulu, the native women would pay their families frequent friendly visits, day by day, not even clothed with a blush. It was found a hard matter to convince them that this was rather indelicate. Finally the missionaries provided them with long, loose calico robes, and that ended the difficulty—for the women would troop through the town, stark naked, with their robes folded under their arms, march to the missionary houses and then proceed to dress!—

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The natives soon manifested a strong proclivity for clothing, but it was shortly apparent that they only wanted it for grandeur. The missionaries imported a quantity of hats, bonnets, and other male and female wearing apparel, instituted a general distribution, and begged the people not to come to church naked, next Sunday, as usual. And they did not; but the national spirit of unselfishness led them to divide up with neighbors who were not at the distribution, and next Sabbath the poor preachers could hardly keep countenance before their vast congregations. In the midst of the reading of a hymn a brown, stately dame would sweep up the aisle with a world of airs, with nothing in the world on but a “stovepipe” hat and a pair of cheap gloves; another dame would follow, tricked out in a man’s shirt, and nothing else; another one would enter with a flourish, with simply the sleeves of a bright calico dress tied around her waist and the rest of the garment dragging behind like a peacock’s tail off duty; a stately “buck” Kanaka would stalk in with a woman’s bonnet on, wrong side before—only this, and nothing more; after him would stride his fellow, with the legs of a pair of pantaloons tied around his neck, the rest of his person untrammeled; in his rear would come another gentleman simply gotten up in a fiery neck-tie and a striped vest.

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The poor creatures were beaming with complacency and wholly unconscious of any absurdity in their appearance. They gazed at each other with happy admiration, and it was plain to see that the young girls were taking note of what each other had on, as naturally as if they had always lived in a land of Bibles and knew what churches were made for; here was the evidence of a dawning civilization. The spectacle which the congregation presented was so extraordinary and withal so moving, that the missionaries found it difficult to keep to the text and go on with the services; and by and by when the simple children of the sun began a general swapping of garments in open meeting and produced some irresistibly grotesque effects in the course of re-dressing, there was nothing for it but to cut the thing short with the benediction and dismiss the fantastic assemblage.

You can decide for yourself if the above is (completely) true. In my not-so-humble opinion, the missionaries would have done well to bring only the Gospel and leave the clothes, and their prudish mores, at home.

Nevertheless, if you want a good laugh and a good history lesson, then pick up a copy of Roughing It. It is anything but a rough read; in fact, it is Mark Twain at his wittiest.

Buy Roughing It on Amazon

Read Roughing It for free or read it online at Project Gutenberg