Saturday, November 3, 2012

Book Review: Roughing It, by Mark Twain (1870-1872)

One of the best, funniest Mark Twain books.  It's a history of his early years.  I have read this book more times than I can count.  It is the story of his time out west.

Many people would be surprised at the idea of Mark Twain as a cowboy.  I don't mean he herded cattle, but I mean he lived out west in Nevada and California in the 1860s.  He wrote extensively of western life, from the Mormons to the American Indians to the gold and silver miners to the outlaws.  This is a jewel for anyone interested in frontier life, or life in the old west.  Roughing It is a wonderful period piece.

But it's far more than that.

This book is one of the most amusing Mark Twain books I have read.  Parts of it are hilarious.  Parts of it, I read over and over again.  Sure, there are passages, even whole chapters, that are downright boring.  But what a gem the rest of the book is!

The premise is simple.  At the beginning of the Civil War, Mark Twain's brother, Orion Clemens, is appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory by Abraham Lincoln for campaign work he did.  Twain is jealous, he wants to go out west as well.  He's been a riverboat pilot for several years but the war shut down river traffic.  So he goes out west with his brother.

The first part is a wonderful tale of the ten weeks it took them to travel by stage coach.  He describes all the various people he meets, the stage coach hands, the outlaws, the Mormons, and so many others.  Then he tells the tale of life in Nevada.  There's a nice chunk about Lake Tahoe that can put a smile on your face.  And it just goes on and on.  He's a silver miner, then a gold miner, then a reporter, not necessarily in that order.

Mark Twain has a way of telling common stories as rich, beautiful tales.  You may say, "I bought a horse."  But Twain gave us a wonderful chapter on his purchase of "a simon-pure, out-and-out, genuine d—d Mexican plug, and an uncommon mean one at that."

Well the whole book is nothing but that same thing.  He's rich, he's poor, he's a wealthy owner of a gold mine, he's a poor out of work reporter.  This is a full tapestry of what he calls, "several years of variegated vagabondizing."  He states the following in the preface.
"...there is quite a good deal of information in the book. I regret this very much; but really it could not be helped: information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses out of the otter. Sometimes it has seemed to me that I would give worlds if I could retain my facts; but it cannot be. The more I calk up the sources, and the tighter I get, the more I leak wisdom. Therefore, I can only claim indulgence at the hands of the reader, not justification."
That is Mark Twain, pure and simple.

The book is not a novel, just like his other travel books.  Don't look for a plot, don't look for a defined storyline.  But it does have a happy ending.  Mainly, it fills in the gaps of his life.  This is the time span between his years as a riverboat pilot and his time as a lecturer/writer.  For those interested in the life of Mark Twain, it's interesting to note that he spent just as much time out west as he did on the Mississippi River, more or less.  And, although this book doesn't cover it, he spent most of his life living in New England, after his marriage.  Over all, his time on the Mississippi was only a short piece in his life.  He later lived in France for a time, and spent his declining years in Bermuda.  The point is Mark Twain was not just "THE American", as he described himself.  He was a man of the world.  And this book, his life out west, was part of that struggle to find himself, part of that piece of the puzzle to build him into the person we know of as the master American story teller.

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