Mark Twain wrote Roughing It in 1872, just as he was giving up journalism. It is a heavily autobiographical look at the silver frontier in Nevada in the 1860s and covers Twain’s life between the end of his abortive adventures in the Civil War as part of a local Missouri militia and his travels to Europe, which became The Innocents Abroad. Using his own words it was “not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing.” (527) So much the better. The work is almost flawless as it is.
The first half of Roughing It is set wholly in 1861 (as far as I can tell). It describes his accompanying his brother, who received an official post in Nevada, on his journey West. It then takes on Twain’s experiences as a prospector and, as he describes his, his brief few days as a millionaire due to silver claims.
I have to say I enjoyed almost every page of Roughing It. It is presented as a series of eighty short chapters, so it can be picked up and read at just about any point and does not command a systematic study. While the line between myth and reality is sometimes blurred, this is part of the culture of the West that Twain encountered. Early on we learn about the story of the vigilante vagabond Slade. Of course, Twain only heard about him from the stories that he picked up during his travels West. His real life encounter with Slade was pleasant and did not seem to match the stories. According to the mythology, Slade was murderer, an outlaw, a skilled lawman when called upon, and vicious to his enemies. When Twain met Slade he noticed that “it was hardly possible to realize that this pleasant person was the pitiless scourge of the outlaws, the raw-head-and-bloody-bones the nursing mothers of the mountains terrified their children with. And to this day I can remember nothing remarkable about Slade.” (588) I, for one, cannot speak of any quasi-mythical figures from my childhood, although we had some notorious individuals. Nothing, certainly, reaching the status of Slade. Perhaps the best example is the fictional figure from The Wire, Omar Little, who over the course of the series reached almost mythical levels in West Baltimore before being ignobly shot in a store. Slade had a similarly pathetic death, which Twain dwells on. He seemed to lose some of his desperado reputation by his “cowardly” way he faced his death with tears and prayers. (I wonder if David Simon had Slade in mind when he wrote Omar.) There is an undergraduate paper in the comparison if anyone wants to pursue it. My attraction is in this vernacular myth making and how the formalization of literature and even folklore into canons undermined this. I suspect most children growing up knowing much more about the heroes of Greek mythology or Grimm’s fairy tales than their own local heroes and villains. Real or not, we need more Slades.
It took Twain around three weeks to travel to Nevada by stage coach. It was an uncomfortable trip but he learned a lot from it and got 25% of a book out of those two weeks. I recently heard about a environmentalist activist who only takes trains, even on a trip from Europe to Beijing. Along the way he wrote two articles. (If anyone knows the reference, I would be thankful.) It is not true that we lose time by travelling old fashioned slow ways. We cannot lose time, although we can certainly waste time. There is much life to be experienced and learned along the way to places. Now, I do not know if or when peak oil will hit, but from what I have read by the time I am old we will be back to trains, dirigibles, and passenger ships. After reading Roughing It, I cannot say I will miss airplanes. I have some personal experience with such types of travels; maybe all poor graduate students have. I took Greyhound buses from Eugene, Oregon to Albany, New York. I took trains along the same route. I do not think I will get books out of any of these experiences, but for a variety of reason they are much more memorable than the rushed transfers at airports.
Even Twain seems to morn the passing of the stage coaches across the West. “Stage-coaching on the Overland is no more, and stage drivers are a race defunct. I wonder if they bequeathed that bald-headed anecdote to their successors, the railroad brakemen and conductors, and if these latter still persecute the helpless passenger with it until he concludes, as did many a tourist of other days, that the real grandeurs of the Pacific coast are not Yo Semite and the Big Trees, but Hank Monk and his adventure with Horace Greely.” (639-640)
In Twain’s case, he not only learned about Slade, but he got a quick introduction to the Mormon migration to the West when be encountered a caravan of migrants and later visited Utah on the way to Nevada. Twain was interested in the Mormons and despite a quick and devastating deconstruction of the Book of Mormon saw them as mostly a harmless group and an interesting part of the American landscape. “The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings.” (624)
The next section of the book considers Twain’s arrival in Carson City and his unsuccessful period as a mine prospector. As a result, for ten days, Twain was a millionaire. One point that comes up again and again in this part of the book is how there was a degree of classlessness in Nevada because everyone had imagined wealth. Everyone seemed to have a good prospect (just undeveloped). People had ways of scheming each other into buying shares of worthless claims. Wages for workers were high, but that aside everyone was benefiting from the bubble economy. Not unlike an out of control housing market, which creates many wealthy people but little actual wealth, the Nevada silver boom promised everyone wealth for only a slight investment of time and effort. Twain, however, lost his claim because hew as not even willing to put in that token amount of work to develop his claim.
I am torn between the odiousness of bubble economies of invested wealth and my sympathies for egalitarian, post-scarcity, post-work cultures. Twain erred on the side of not working during these years in Nevada. For this I must tip my hat to him.