Recently I started to reread Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I took it on a plane as Plan B. Plan A was dealing with our 1 year old’s daughter on her first cross country flight. As you might guess I didn’t get very far into the book. I’ve read it multiple times though and felt like I’d gotten enough of a refresher to not finish. On my next trip to a used bookstore I saw this copy of Mark Twain’s Roughing It and figured I couldn’t go wrong. The book is a memoir of sorts about Mark Twain’s travels with his brother by stagecoach from Missouri to Nevada silver mine country, then to California, San Francisco, and finally to the then-called Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). I was aware that Twain was well-traveled, but honestly it was hard to imagine Twain’s voice anywhere but in and around the Mississippi. Twain out west didn’t really seem to compute for me—until I started reading.
Roughing It was published in 1870 and as the introduction states, “has played a major role in shaping the myth of the “wild West.” So much of it is familiar in fact. Written only 20 years after the discovery of gold in California, Roughing It is almost an encyclopedia of all things western that you’re apt to see in movies and TV. Autobiographical, intertwined with history, masterfully embellished, and chock full of superbly tall “tall tales”, the book is Twain doing what he does best. And that ear for dialect he transposed in his Mississippi books is just as in tune with the dialect of the West. It is also a picture of some of America’s most scenic western landscapes—of Lake Tahoe, of the desert, and of Hawaii. Within it he weaves stories of his own brushes with wild riches and complete and utter bust.
Regretfully I didn’t take notes to highlight favorite passages. The chapter index is very detailed about what the chapters contain, and I foolishly thought I could just peruse those descriptions to jog my memory and pull out a few of the choicer gems. The problem is, there are too many such gems worth pointing out.
There is one anecdote that struck me as the oddest of all. But before that, I will say that after getting such a complete portrait of the West, it’s a jarring leap to go from dusty dirty silver mines to the tropical paradise of Hawaii. Then again, who cares? It’s great writing and as I read on I came upon Twain’s telling of the time he went “surf-bathing.” This sport as he tells it is an 1870 description of “boogie boarding.” Now, raise your hand if you could ever have imagined a young mustachioed Mark Twain, in Hawaii, trying his hand at boogie boarding. Well, apparently it happened, although as he tells it, resulted in “a couple barrels of water in me.”
At any rate, if you’ve ever enjoyed reading Twain for his humor and wit, and you’ve never read Roughing It, it’s worth seeking a copy. The copy I have also includes all 304 original illustrations by True Williams, Edward F. Mullen, and others (although perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention to them because they all looked to be the work of one person.)
Lastly, just a postscript to my previous three-part post on Dostoyevsky. Astute readers as you are, you may recall that I took on reading The Brothers Karamazov as a cure for depression, with my primary life pain point being the job I was in. Now, call it coincidence, but the primary reason my blogging has tapered off is because after 15 years working for the same company, I finally extricated myself from that hell and I’ve been working at a new job the last 6 weeks. I literally started the interview process with this company while I was finishing up that blog post. The takeaway here is next time you’re blue about something and need a diversion to get you through the next few months, you might want to pick up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Worked for me!