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

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook’s bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ship.” (919)

What does the killing of Captain Cook in Hawaii have to do with territorial Nevada, despite both appearing in Mark Twain’s Roughing It? Both are part of the scope of American imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century and both constituted domains of the emerging American empire, eventually to reach beyond the continent into the Pacific. The scale of the second half of  Roughing It is much larger than the first half. In the first half, we follow Twain as he travels by Overland Stage Coach to Nevada, via Mormon Utah. We learn about the Pony Express and the mythology of frontier desperadoes. When Twain arrived in Nevada he quickly got caught up in the silver mining bubble economy and makes an attempt at prospecting. This effort is a failure (although he was a theoretical millionaire for a few days). This put Twain into a hopeless quandary. He had gotten used to the idea of not working and now he was in need of a job. Twain documents his work history, which is quite impressive. I particularly liked his stint at a bookstore. “I had been a bookseller’s clerk for awhile, but the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort, and so the proprietor gave ma  furlough and forgot to put a limit on it.” (744) Ah, that is how I felt as a copy-editor, although my furlough was self-imposed. I am in common cause with Mark Twain. Work (if we absolutely must) should be our own benefit, not for the employers.

Etching from "Roughing It"

Etching from “Roughing It”

Contained within Roughing It is an explanation of how Twain entered into work as a journalist in Nevada. It was not hard for him. Some of his writings had appeared in print before and he was given a staff job as a junior city editor with a salary of $25 a month (later raised). And then he walked a beat around Virginia City. We learn how he managed slow news days, how he got the scoop on the school budget form a competing newspaper. Most interesting is the all too familiar journalistic fascination with conflict, scandal, and violence. Murders, apparently made Twain the happiest man in the territory for it promised something to writer about.

With his job as a journalist secured, Twain eventually become a Western writer of some renown, but he does not focus too much on his career, using the space in Roughing It to discuss the social and economic conditions of the territory. The chapters on the silver boom are a useful study of an economy based on speculation. It was much like a game Old Maid where the deck had 50 Old Maid cards. Most people’s claims were worthless or near enough. So the game became convincing others of the inherent wealth of this claim or that claim. In some cases, this meant even “salting” mines with silver in order to create the impression of future wealth, but only long enough to sell the shares in the mine to some sucker. However, since everyone was in on the game, it does not seem that “exploitation” is the right word to use. Twain says less about the working class in the territory. We know that there were people who worked for wages. This did not mean they forsook the brinkmanship of prospecting.

Much of his concern is with with violence and the legal order. It is not quite right to say that the violence was a product of a lack of state presence. There were courts, juries, police, and executions. None of this really prevented the violence that was integral to the social network. If we take him seriously people’s reputations were tied up into their histories of violence. “If an unknown individual arrived, they did not inquire if he was capable, honest, industrious, but — had he killed his man?” (781) Juries existed but seemed to not convict many people (“only two persons have suffered the death penalty.”) Twain associates this violence and vice with the prosperity of the region. “A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.” (798) But crime was not the only sign of vibrancy. Twain puts the emergence of a literary journal at the same level.

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Twain next takes us on his adventures in California and Hawaii before closing the narrative. Roughing It is as much a story of Twain’s quest for fulfillment and satisfaction with life as it is a document on the Nevada frontier. I find some commonality with Herman Melville’s early work, where characters existed in a constant state of discontent. As he described the thoughts that led him on his first trip to Hawaii, he confessed this nature. “I was out of debt, but my interest in my work was gone; for my correspondence being a daily one, without rest of respite, I got unspeakably tired of it. I wanted another change. The vagabond institute was strong upon me. Fortune favored and I got a new berth and  delightful one.” (862) His “moral” at the end of the book addresses how creativity emerges from this spirit. “If you are of any acocunt, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are ‘no account,’ go away from home, and then you will have to work.” (960)

The final section of the book explores his half year in Hawaii as a journalist and lecturer. Here we are given a darker side of the U.S. Empire as it was completing its conquest of the islands. Of course, the Empire was alive and well in Nevada as well, but since we only see the frontier there from the perspective of white men. He has a few asides about Chinese, but he simply repeats the stereotype of the model minority: well-behaved and hard working. In Hawaii, we see the full extent of American commercial power over other people through his tour of the islands and his visits to the plantations. This is carefully set aside a retelling of the story of the killing of Cook, one of Hawaii’s first blows against Western imperialism in the Pacific. However, Twain is not really interested in a story of economic exploitation in the empire (this would come later in his work). He is acutely aware at this point of the culture wars, between the missionaries and Hawaiian society. We meet, for instance, Christian converts but no plantation workers.

Early American Honolulu

Early American Honolulu

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.

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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.