Mark Twain, “Roughing It” (1872): Part One

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.

cover

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.

Drawing of Slade

Drawing of Slade

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.

Overland Stage Coach

Overland Stage Coach

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.

Nevada capital at Carson City

Nevada capital at Carson City

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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Stories (1832-1835), Triumph of the Vernacular

“She feels that impulse to go strolling away—that longing after the mystery of the great world—which many children feel, and which I felt in my childhood. Little Annie shall take a ramble with me.” (228, from “Little Annie’s Ramble”)

I am finding in Nathanial Hawthorne’s short stories a touching documentation of the endurance and power of the American vernacular. I will confess to being heavily influenced lately by James Scott’s newest book Two Cheers for Anarchism, which suggests that the anarchist tension of everyday life exists in the many vernacular processes at work in all social spaces (whether in traffic, the workplace, or in the actual functioning of a city). Take for instance, “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” first published in 1834. The story is about a traveling tobacco peddler, who makes his way through New England. This man, Dominicus Pike, plays a role in the area far beyond his selling of various grades of tobacco and seducing local farm girls. He was a reporter of sorts, “always itching to hear the news, and anxious to tell it again.” (188) When hearing the news about the murder of Mr. Migginbotham by “an Irishman and a nigger.” He begins to make a name for himself retelling the story in every town on his circuit. The story develops with each telling. This is the power of an oral culture. With stories written down, confirmed, and supported by evidence, they become reified and quickly stale. With rapid retellings it becomes possible to improve on the truth. This tension is worked out when the lawyers get involved and try to get Pike to write down his deposition. As it turns out, Higginbotham is not dead, a fact confirmed by lawyers and members of the Higginbotham family. The one telling the story to Pike was a conspirator hoping to commit the murder but was stopped by Pike’s fortunate arrival. Another benefit to having plenty of well-natured people wandering civilization seems to be that they work as a set of eyes that reaches places the state  cannot. Hawthorne does touch on the more insidious nature of vernacular myth-making, such as the real threats it posed to a black man, deemed by listeners to be the murderer. This aside, I want to touch on the joy created by Pike’s constant retelling of the tale. He did this not as an authority (as an author) but in a more popular format, laced with uncertainty. “He deemed it advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto, or by the son of Erin along. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority, or that of any one person; but mentioned it as a report general diffused.” (192) This way, the tale could evolve on its own right.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

Brother Jonathan, the Yankee pedlar, makes an appearance in this blog. It is about time.

“The Gentle Boy” is a nice little story about a Puritan family taking in the surviving son of a persecuted Quaker family. They are conflicted between their desires to take in this wounded child, but their duty to the Puritan community which saw Quakers (even children) as unredeemable. Their solution—not unexpected—is to raise the child in a good Puritan fashion. Although this turns out to be easier vowed than achieved. When the boy’s mother returns to preach Quakerism and mostly against Puritan persecution, she initially attempts to take her son with her but changes her mind due to the potential of a good home, even if it is bought at the price of her religious values. Her sacrifice is total. When persecution ends due to royal order, it is too late. Interesting for us is how both the boys natural and adopted parents attempted a more practical and humane approach to the one offered by religious doctrine.

The Hawthorne stories for this post cover the period from 1832 and 1835, consisting of “The Gentle Boy,” “The Seven Vagabonds,” “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” “Sir William Pepperell,” “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe,” “The Haunted Mind,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “The Vilage Uncle,” and “Little Annie’s Ramble.” As you can see from some of the titles, the marginal, mobile person is prominent in these texts. At times, Hawthorne all but shouts at us to break free from our provincial, hometown perspective and venture out. Sometimes, that requires uncovering the truth behind the local history, so important to the New England setting for Hawthorne.

As “Alice Doane’s Appeal,” opens we meet a trio walking up a hill on the outskirts of town. It is “Gallows Hill,” a place of executions in an earlier era. “But the curious wanderer on the hill will perceive that all the grass, and everything that should nourish man or beast, has been destroyed by this vile and ineradicable weed [wood-wax]: its tufted roots make the soil their own, and permit nothing else to vegetate among them; so that a physical curse may be said to have blasted the spot, where guilt and phrenzy consummated the most execrable scene, that our history blushes to report.” While a horrifying place in many ways, deemed off limits by the society, the narrator urges its exploration. “[H]ow few come on pilgrimage to this famous hill; how many spend their lives almost at its base, and never once obey the summons of the shadowy past, as it beckons them to the summit.” (205–206) This place of horrible punishment and Puritan tyranny is confronted, imagined, and ultimately challenged by the boldness of the narrator and his two companions. The community’s silence and isolation of Gallows Hill allowed the suppression of this historical memory. The past may not be fully escapable but it can often be forgotten. This is another role of the vernacular in our communities. They hold onto memories that would more likely be forgotten by institutions and too often by communities (e.g. violent labor conflicts, lynching).

I started here with “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which I found breathtakingly beautiful in its celebration of the optimism, curiosity, and moral courage of children. (I cannot help but be reminded of Huck Finn in a story like this.) “Is not little Annie afraid. . . No; she does not even shrink closer to my side, but passes on with fearless courage. . . . Many, many have leaden feet, because their hearts are far heavier than lead.” (229) Ah the contrast here almost does not need commentary. During the ramble we learn that Annie is not bound by the burden of the written word but consumes literature for the pictures, which create new worlds in her imagination. The story is mostly a journey through Annie’s imagination and her creative reworking of the tales and folklore of her culture. Along with her is an older companion who appreciates her freedom and dwells on the comparative confinement and banality of the adult world. When we come to the community of the beasts, so important to the minds of children we find this lovely thesis on liberty, lost on so many of our leaders. “But they are choosing neither a king nor a Presidents; else we should hear a more horrible snarling! They have come from the deep woods, and the wild mountains, and the desert sands, and the polar snows, only to homage to my little Annie.” (232) Later, the related statement: “Are there any two living creatures who have so few sympathies that they cannot possibly be friends?” (232–233) If to make his point about the huge divide between the mind of the child and the adult world, the only animal that Annie dislikes is the monkey, because it looks just too human.

Ah, Hawthorne’s advice for us is well-taken. “When our infancy is almost forgotten, and our boyhood long departed, though it seems but as yesterday; when life settles darkly down upon us, and we doubt whether to call ourselves young any more; then it is good to steal away from the society of bearded men, and even of gentler women, and spend an hour or two with children.” (235)