Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872) 462 p.

I bought this when I was travelling in Beijing a few years ago and the only English-language bookstore I could find was something churning out endless public domain texts, presumably for students. Mark Twain is by far the most readable of any 19th century author, so I picked this up, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently.

Roughing It is an account of Twain’s journeys across America’s western frontier when he was a young man in his twenties; it was apparently written in 1872, but the actual journey took place in the 1860s, while the Civil War (rarely mentioned in this book) was raging in the east. His brother Orion had been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and Twain (or Clemens, at the time) went along with him as an assistant. He remained with his brother in Nevada for some time before, as youth are wont to do, he went gallivanting off on his own adventures. What was supposed to be a three-month journey ultimately ended up being seven years.

Roughing It takes place, as I said, before the events of Twain’s more famous travelogue The Innocents Abroad, but it was written after the success of that volume, collated from various old diary entries, correspondence pieces and Twain’s imperfect memory. Apparently the first third of the book, detailing their journey to Nevada, is heavily based on Orion’s journals. This may be why I found it dull, dry and difficult going, since it lacked Twain’s personal spark.

The book picks up a bit more as Twain begins his own travelling, and branches out into other work – prospecting, mining, real estate speculation, and eventually journalism, in the confusingly-named town of Virginia, which is where he first adopted his famous pen-name. (A recent theory suggests this didn’t come from riverboat slang, as originally thought, but was perhaps something Twain would cry out at the bar in Virginia when putting new drinks on his tab.) Towards the end it also details his time in San Francisco, and a trip to Hawaii – which would have seemed a bit tacked-on to the book in 1872, but now slots in with the theme of America’s West quite well.

I mentioned earlier that Twain is the most readable of any 19th century writer, but that is of course a relative measure – his style is long, verbose and drawn-out, and to a 21st century reader it can often become tedious, especially when he’s taking you through the finer points of gold mining or relating a somewhat amusing 12-page-long shaggy dog story. But there are also moments which, even 150 years later, are quite amusing. My favourite anecdote comes when he and two friends become lost in a blizzard, their horses bolting into the blinding snowstorm. As they huddle together in the cold and await their certain death they pray to God to deliver them, swear off all their sins, apologise to each other for past grievances, and slowly come to accept their demise. In the morning, clinging to life, they wake to find the snowstorm has cleared – to reveal the inn from which they had departed a mere fifteen feet from where they sat.

For two hours we sat in the station and ruminated in disgust. The mystery was gone, now, and it was plain enough why the horses had deserted us. Without a doubt they were under that shed a quarter of a minute after they had left us, and they must have overheard and enjoyed all our confessions and lamentations.

It’s interesting to see the trace of humour, and Twain’s use of sarcasm and deadpan – he’s clearly not a man to let the truth stand in the way of a good yarn – mixed with overwrought 19th century prose. I always wonder whether people actually spoke like that in the 19th century (think the movies True Grit, or Lincoln), or whether they just wrote like that, and modern filmmakers interpret it as a speech pattern as well, based on reading letters and journals. (Westerns from the 1950s and ‘60s were pretty plain-talking, weren’t they?) And, if people did actually speak like that, when in the course of history they stopped.

In any case, Twain’s non-fiction – as always – can be difficult and sometimes tedious for the modern reader to follow. The jokes and amusement sprinkled throughout the book are not a reward for effort, but rather a sweetener for a reader who wants an insight into the real Old West – not cowboys, Indians and train robberies, but rather mining, prospecting and the sheer majesty of an untouched wilderness. Roughing It is an excellent first-hand account of life around Nevada and California in the mid-19th century, but be warned that it can be difficult going.

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