Written for 002 Nevada History about a book by Mark Twain
Neva F. Darbe
by Mark Twain
002 Nevada History
Roughing It, by Mark Twain, is a narrative covering several years of the author's life. It begins with the appointment of Twain's brother to the post of Secretary of Nevada Territory, which paid "eighteen hundred dollars a year." And ends with Twain leaving San Francisco for a second time, this time for New York instead of Hawaii.
In the author's prefix Twain tells that his purpose in writing this book was "...rather to help the resting reader wile away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science." Twain does this ver y well. He also gives the modern reader an excellent picture of what the "far west" was really like.
Most people thin of, what Twain refers to as the, "far west" as being an exciting and romatic place where you could tell the good guys from the bad guy s by the color of their hats. Twin burst this bubble. But in doing so he vies us a picture of human nature, at both its best and its worst, which reveal a great deal about us today .
Mankind has not changed all that much since the 1800s. /we stull try to "make a heavy traveling trunk stand for twenty-five pounds of baggage." We still react to difficult situations in the same ways as did Bemis, Slade and Brigham Young. However, as Twain sh ow us throughout the book, there is away s hope, as long as we keep our sens of humor.
In Roughing It Twain gives us a view of Nevada History that cannot be matched by any history book, historical novel or movie. He tells us of the little things that make up the everyday lives of ordinary men and women. An innocent remark about mosquitoes, which begins a non-stop dialogue; or the chance meeting of an old friend. Incidents that appeal to us in a personal way, because they could just as easily happen today as a hundred years ago. It is thing like this that bring history of life and make Twain's book believable.
One of the attributes of a good author is the ability to describe unfamiliar items in such a wa y that the reader can immediately envision them. Twain's descriptions are so good that, not only do they let you see the object, but they allow you to visualize the results of its use. Twain's description of the "Allen" is a good example--every time it's mentioned I can see everything, but the target, diving for cover.
Than there are the descriptions of the animals and people Twain met in his wanderings. The best example of this type of description is that of the coyote. "The coyote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth." This sentence embodies the very essence of the coyote and the rest of the description enhances what we have already been told. It is descriptions such as this that bring Roughing It to life and feeds the reader's desire to "while away an idle hour."
Another of Twain's talents is his ability to make the reader understand the meaning of words or phrases they have encountered in history books. A good example of this is his description of "sinks." How one might say that the sink of a lake is not hard to comprehend, but until you've seen one or at least read Twain's descriptions you cannot understand the concept. "Water is always flowing into them; none is ever seen to flow out of them; and yet they remain always level full, neither receding nor overflowing."
Twain tells us in the author's prefix that there is "a good deal of information in the book." This is quite true, but it is interesting information. Information given to us through the ey es of a man who has seen and lived it. Information that is filtered through memory and tempered with imagination.
When Twain tells us about the silver strikes in Nevada, he tells us from the point of view of a man who has suffered through a bout of "silver fever." Through his adventures with a prospecting party he show us how much work it took fofind and work a silver mine. And he teills us what many inexperienced miners of the day probably felt. "I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground."
One can almost feel his disappointment when he realizes that he cannot gather in a short time enough silver to make him "satisfactorily wealthy." However, he did not give and and event though his adventures in silver mining did not add to his material wealth it did add in other ways to his life. And it gave those of us living in the lat 1900s as clear a picture of Nevada's mining history, from the view point of an individual, as we will ever get.
Until you read Mark Twain's Roughing It you cannot understand no appreciate the determination and strength it took for the early settlers of Nevada to survive. although Twain does have a tendency to enhance the truth sometimes, he does give a fairly factual account of the hardships and joys of early Nevada life. Indeed he id achieve his purpose in writing this book and supplied a moral as well. "if you are of any account, 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, whether you w ant to or not."
1. On page 27-38 Twain describes the "jackass rabbit" as it appears both moving and at rest. According to Twain this rabbit "is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass." He then goes on to tell how this creature moves across th3e plain by firing an "Allen" at it.
2. On page 64 Twain describes the passage of a pony express rider. He tells us that "man and horse burst past" so suddenly that it was "like a flashy of unreal fancy." The rider had came into view was past in a few second giving them time enough only for a "whoop and a hurrah"
3. On pages 120-125 Twain describes an oft repeated but untrue anecdote about Horace Greeley and o n Hank Monk. When he ask the fifth person not to tell it to them again. The man dies from trying to hold the anecdote in.
4. On pages 127-128 Twain describes a "Washoe Zephyr" which begins at "two o'clock" and ends at "two the next morning." Twain tells us that this "is a peculiarly scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth 'whence it cometh.'" And that this is the reason there are so many bald-headed men in Nevada.
5. On page 138 Twain describes the beauty and serenity of Lake Tahoe. "So singularly clear was the water that when it was only twenty or thirty feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air!" This the picture of the perfect lake, which is very rare in our present world.
6. On page 163 Twain describes the frustration and work of prospecting for gold and silver. "We climbed the mountainsides, and clambered among sagebrush, rocks, and snow till we were ready to drop with exhaustion, but found no silver--nor yet any gold." Indeed these prospectors mush have been a special breed of men to continue tunneling, climbing and digging, with only their belief that "someday" they would find "the hidden ledge where the silver was."
7. On pages 202-203 Twain describes some of the interesting features of Mono Lake which he says is "nearly pure lye." "Millions of wild ducks and sea gulls swim about the surface, but no living thing exists under the surface, escept a white feathery sort of wom, one-half an inch long, which looks like a bit of white thread frayed out at the sides." He goes on to tell us that it is this worm which gives Mono Lake its"sort of grayish-white appearance."
8. On pages 220-222 Twain contemplates the obstacles to his success and asked, the oft repeated question, "What do I do next?" He tells us that he "had gone out into the world to shift for" himself at thirteen because he needed "occasional bread", which is as good a reason as any to try "various vocations" to gain a livelihood. Unfortunately he had not been all that successful, at least according to his view of what success was.
9. On page 224 Twain finely discovers his legitimate calling. In order to fill "two columns" in a newspaper he put a "wagon through an Indian fight that to this day has no parallel in history." True it was based upon areal incident, tut then so are a great many myths.
10. On pages 327-330 Twain tells about an character by the name of Dick Baker and his cat Tom Quartz. Of the two, Tom Quartz was the most interesting. Tom was a cat that knew his own mind, had good "natchral sense" and "power of dignity." Tom, like every other cat in the world, was unique unto himself. Unlike most other cats he "never ketched a rt in his life."
My overall evaluation of this book is that it was quite good. Twain succeeds in allowing the reader to "while away an idle hour" and give you a good deal of interesting information and unusual facts in the process.
Yes, I would recommend this book to a friend; in fact I already have recommended it to several friends. I recommend it because it gives you a more or less true view of life in the 1800s and it is funny. The book is lacking in the quality of the chapters on Hawaii, which are not as good as the chapters on Nevada and the far west.
Author's Note: ▼