A Hundred of Fifty Years of Roughing It, by Mark Twain
Roughing It, Mark Twain’s memoir about frontier life in the Nevada Territory in the 1860s, was first published in the spring of 1872, one hundred and fifty years ago. Twain had already achieved a measure of literary celebrity. He was known as the author of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867) and Innocents Abroad (1869), as well as dozens and dozens of short stories and essays, and he had a reputation as an entertaining public speaker. He was trying to settle down in Buffalo, New York, with his new wife and edit a newspaper. But the success of Innocents Abroad suggested that the travel narrative could be a money-making genre for him, and he put together his experiences in the West.
Sam Clemens was only 25 years old in the summer of 1861. Abraham Lincoln had been sworn in as President of the United States in March, and by that time seven states had declared their secession from the Union. Though Clemens briefly enlisted with some Missouri Confederates, he found military life tiresome. His older brother Orion, a newspaperman in Iowa, had campaigned for Lincoln and was rewarded with the position of Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Orion offered his brother a job as his personal assistant, and Sam thus threw his hat in with the Union government and boarded a stagecoach.
Roughing It is a memoir about this adventure into a new territory, but it’s also a book about myths. Here, in Nevada, is where a man becomes a myth. Sam Clemens assumed the pen name “Mark Twain” while writing for the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise newspaper. He knew a thing or two about humor from growing up in the backwoods, but the Silver State (Twain calls it “Silverland”) helped him to find his voice. “Slang was the language of Nevada,” he writes. And the many different dialects sported by immigrants from all over the country “made the slang of Nevada the richest and the most infinitely varied and copious that had ever existed anywhere in the world.”
But Nevada is also where myths become realities. Much of Roughing It plays with the fantasies that people brought with them to the “wild” West, only to have them punctured and deflated. Twain saw firsthand the incredible boom and bust cycles that accompanied the mining business, and he is especially eloquent when describing a ghost town:
You will find it hard to believe that there stood at one time a fiercely-flourishing little city, of two thousand or three thousand souls, with its newspaper, fire company, brass band, volunteer militia, bank, hotels, noisy Fourth of July processions and speeches, gambling hells crammed with tobacco smoke, profanity, and rough-bearded men of all nations and colors, with tables heaped with gold dust sufficient for the revenues of a German principality—streets crowded and rife with business—town lots worth four hundred dollars a front foot—labor, laughter, music, dancing, swearing, fighting, shooting, stabbing—a bloody inquest and a man for breakfast every morning—everything that delights and adorns existence—all the appointments and appurtenances of a thriving and prosperous and promising young city,—and now nothing is left of it all but a lifeless, homeless solitude. The men are gone, the houses have vanished, even the name of the place is forgotten.
Matt Seybold, a professor of Twain Studies at Elmira College (and the scholar-in-residence at the Mark Twain Center), has been hosting an asynchronous discussion of Chapters 42–45 (on Threadable, a mobile-only collective reading app) to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Roughing It. These chapters consider the mining operations and speculations in Virginia City in the 1860s, and Seybold notes that Twain’s book features “one of the finest on-the-ground descriptions of a speculative bubble in US literary history.”
The book was a hit—much more boom than bust. Featuring 304 illustrations, it sold 75,000 copies in its first year (big numbers back then). Twain took to the road to promote the new work on the lecture circuit, and some of those transcripts are available. The paperback edition of Roughing It issued by the University of California Press in 2011 (for $26.95) offers an “authoritative text” with all of the book’s original illustrations. To the extent that there is any plot in Roughing It (the literary critic William Dean Howells, reviewing the book for the Atlantic Monthly, observed that “excursions and digressions of all kinds are the very woof of it”), it’s the story of the narrator’s transformation from greenhorn to veteran. But, like any good account of one’s youth, it captures all the excitement and wonder at the world opening up before him—the “flush times” of Nevada.