Lately, however, I’ve been reading less and less, not so much because I’ve lost my fondness for reading, but because I’ve become more preoccupied with other matters. It’s been increasingly difficult to find time to simply sit down and read a book, as was my wont throughout my years in childhood and adolescence.
Indeed, save for finally finishing a compilation of all of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, a carryover from my last year’s reading bucket list; and for rereading (for the umpteenth time) the entirety of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I haven’t read any other books since this year 2020 began.
This coronavirus lockdown, however, gave me an opportunity to rekindle my passion for reading, lest it wane even further and altogether vanish. But I must admit I didn’t recognize, much less seize, this opportunity immediately. It was already far into the lockdown when I finally resolved to get some serious reading done.
But where to begin? I thought it was only fitting to start with travel literature, in part because I am immensely delighted in such genre, and in part to assuage my painfully burgeoning fernweh, which had grown so severe following the shuttering of all forms of leisure travel.
I decided I would begin with Mark Twain’s Roughing It. There was no lengthy consideration behind the decision, mind you. I simply consulted my trusty friend Google for some recommendations on excellent travel books. Mark Twain’s Roughing It came up among the search results, and I grew curious and thought why not give it a read.
I won’t lie. Though Mark Twain is of worldwide renown, and is counted among the literary greats of all time, I know only little of him or of his works. I knew, of course, that he was the author of the celebrated classics The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but regrettably, I’ve never read either of those books.
But when I was searching for and compiling quotes and sayings about travel and adventure, and otherwise, Mark Twain’s name would every now and then come up, being credited as the author of a number of quotations which I thought were rather clever and occasionally amusing.
Because I didn’t have money for books (or for anything, really, as I am poorer than even a church mouse), I simply downloaded Mark Twain’s Roughing It in EPUB format from Project Gutenberg, a vast online repository of thousands of mostly older books and literary works, all in digital and electronic formats, all available for free for anyone to access, download, and read.
Though I think myself as quite the fast reader, all things considered, it still took me some time to finish Roughing It, perhaps because I could only allot a few hours a week at most to reading it, and because I only read late at night or in the early hours of dawn, right before I slept. I tried devoting more hours, but laziness (and YouTube) kept me busy most of the time.
But now that I’ve finally completed Roughing It, I thought I would make some sort of a review of it, and post it here on my blog. I mean, I’m sure no one would ever find such a review, whether by choice or by chance, much less be bothered to read it, but I decided I’d write it nonetheless. Not only that, I thought I’d also write reviews for all the books and literary pieces I’ll read in the future – travel genre and otherwise – and share them here on my blog.
Anyway, you should know that I’ve never written a book review since my days in elementary and highschool, so I’m not sure how to write one now. But I thought, maybe, that there ought to be a structure to my approach, or at least a semblance of it. So to that end, I decided to provide both an overview and a review of the book. The overview would simply be a summary of the book, and the review would be hopefully not so ill-guided an attempt at a slightly deeper examination of the book (the key word is slightly).
Please bear in mind that I’m not a literary critic, nor intend to be one, and that this review (if it be called that) is not in any way an attempt at a critique. I am simply a humble reader desiring nothing more than to share my own experience with this particular book. So please indulge me in this moment.
Roughing It is a semi-biography of a young Mark Twain (real name: Samuel Langhorne Clemens), a recount of his adventures and misadventures, his exploits and escapades, and his feats and failures, in the Wild West of the United States, and even in the Far West, which he wrote in 1870–71, and which was published in 1872.
Twain begins his story by providing the reason for his need to leave ‘the States’ and set out for the West, specifically to Nevada. Twain was to accompany his older brother, Orion Clemens, who was to journey to Nevada following his appointment as Secretary of Nevada Territory, and who, in turn, appointed Twain as his own private secretary. It was then only 1861, and Nevada, along with most of the lands in the so-called Wild West, were not yet full-fledged States, but were designated only as ‘Territories’.
Twain forthwith chronicles their journey to the West, which began after they embarked on a ferry from St. Louis to St. Joseph, Missouri; and from there to Carson City, Nevada, via stagecoach through the long and arduous Overland Trail (there were no trains back then). He gives an account of all the sites and scenes they passed, and narrates the adventures he and his companions had along the way, including their encounters with coyotes, buffaloes, and jackass rabbits (jackrabbits); and with desperadoes, Pony Express riders, Indians (Native Americans), and the Mormons of Salt Lake City, Utah (then an entirely Mormon enclave), where they paid a brief visit.
He continues the story with their arrival in Carson City; his explorations of Nevada Territory’s towns and the surrounding lands, including Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake; his exposure to the politics, customs, and culture of the Wild West; his engagements with various local personalities; his attempts to make a fortune through silver and gold prospecting in the mining towns of Humboldt and Esmeralda (Nevada was then in the midst of a mining boom), and through other miscellaneous enterprises, all of which ultimately failed; and his subsequent career as a newspaper reporter in nearby Virginia City (then a flourishing mining town), where he accumulated a ‘fortune’ from mining ‘stocks’.
Twain then recounts that after several years in Nevada, he moved to California, where he lived in relative luxury for a while, thanks to his mining ‘investments’. But when he lost all such investments, he tried to make ends meet as a reporter in San Francisco, and by taking on other jobs, even trying his luck at ‘pocket-mining’ gold in Tuolumne, which also ended in failure. It was in San Francisco where he experienced a violent earthquake, to which he devotes an entire chapter or so in his book.
He briefly traveled to the Kingdom of Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, where he spent six months as a correspondent, exploring the islands and engaging with their inhabitants. He then sailed back to San Francisco, where he finally succeeded in a bid at public lecturing.
He was eventually overborne by homesickness, however. When he first set out for Nevada, he thought his trip would last no more than a few months, and that it would a pleasurable one. But now some seven years had already passed since his fateful departure, and he had borne his fair share of misfortunes. And so he resolved then to go back home in New York.
He found no comfort upon his return, however, for much has changed since he left. The story ends with a brief mention of his subsequent embarkation upon another journey, this time to Europe and the Holy Lands, the whole account of which forms the entirety of Twain’s first ever novel The Innocents Abroad (published before Roughing It).
Roughing It is my very first introduction to Mark Twain and his literary craft. I must say I did enjoy the book, but not in its entirety. I suppose I must explain why, beginning with a rundown of the things I especially liked about the book, and then followed by the things I disliked about the book.
First of all, I found the historical setting of the book incredibly fascinating, especially because I am an ardent fan of history. Reading Roughing It is akin to taking a trip back in time. Twain gives a very vivid account of life in the latter half of the 19th century in the American frontier. His extremely detailed and colorful description and narration of the peoples he met, the places he traveled to, and the experiences he underwent kept my imagination pleasurably busy, and even my emotions actively engaged.
I especially liked his account of a journey he undertook to Lake Tahoe along with a companion. The painstaking and passionate manner with which he described Lake Tahoe was so powerful and so evocative, so that it almost felt as if I, too, saw the lake with my own two eyes. Out of everything Twain wrote in Roughing It, his adventure to Lake Tahoe is to me the most enjoyable – and most enthralling – bit. A close second is his narrative of his hikes to the volcanoes of Hawaii.
And while Roughing It is mostly a retelling of his personal adventures in the West, the book is also considerably stuffed with his critiques and commentaries on a varied selection of topics, including local American politics and even Mormonism; and detailed accounts and anecdotes of places, peoples, events, and other things, ranging from the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the silver mining fever in Nevada, to the very workings of a quartz mill, so that the book is a veritable trove of insight and information, even if Mark Twain himself said that this was not intentional, but merely an unavoidable product of his proclivity to ‘leak wisdom’. Ha ha!
Of course, his words are to be taken with a grain of salt, as he is, after all, renowned as a humorist, and in Roughing It, his early attempts at humor, which would become the staple in his subsequent writings, are visible in almost every page. He exaggerates a lot, so that there were times when I found it somewhat difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. And he lavishly uses personifications, which to me was entertaining, especially when I read his descriptions of coyotes, jackass rabbits (jackrabbits), and camels.
I won’t lie, though. I found his humor amusing at best, but not hilarious. There were some instances in the book that made me smile, and some that made me exhale slightly louder than usual, but never once did I find any part that made me laugh out loud. I suppose Twain wasn’t going for that effect anyway. I don’t know.
Or maybe because he told his jokes in incredulously long and elaborate sentences, so that their comedic effect (which, in the first place, were never that great anyway) had already subsided long before I even reached the end of the sentence. I am well acquainted with extremely lengthy sentences, mind you, and before reading Roughing It, I already knew what to expect, the book being, after all, an older literary piece.
I must admit, however, that there were a few instances in the book where I hopelessly floundered in the convolution of words that made up just one sentence, so that I found it necessary to stop reading altogether and navigate myself to the beginning of that sentence. And there were not a few words in the book that are considered archaic today, or whose meanings have been completely altered since then. What I mean is that Roughing It is a very immersive read, so long as you can navigate your way through the unfamiliar words and see that you do not get entangled in the lengthy sentences.
But what I disliked most about the book in Roughing It was Twain’s disturbing (to say the least) display of racism, especially towards Native Americans. He claims in the book that he was a ‘worshipper of the Noble Red Man’, but he immediately proceeds to describe Native Americans in the most abusive and appalling manner possible. Note that he only had very brief encounters with Native Americans during his time in the West – he need not have written about them – but he still chose to, and he did so insultingly every time. And it’s not only the Native Americans he disparages. He also has some hard words for the Kanakas of Hawaii, the Bushmen of Africa, and other races besides.
It was both incredibly discomfiting and hurtful reading through Twain’s depiction of other races. But what me pained me most of all was the fact that the inexcusably abusive words came from Mark Twain himself, the very man lauded today as one of the more morally upright persons of his age, renowned as a staunch abolitionist and a firm supporter of women’s rights, and celebrated for his anti-imperialist views. I’ve even read a number of his quotes against racism, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and held him thus in admiration.
Now I know some people would readily jump to Twain’s defense with the classic response ‘it was a different time then’, or ‘everybody was racist back then’. But those aren’t excuses at all – they never were, and never will be. If you read through his text, you’ll find that there was virtually no need to include such prejudiced accounts, as these contributed very little, if at all, to the plot.
I won’t lie. Try as I might to forget his racist portrayals of Native Americans, I could not. His offensive words hung over me like a lowering cloud even as I read through the rest of the text, severely dampening my excitement with the book, and rendering what was supposed to be an entirely pleasurable reading experience rather disappointing and even upsetting.
Regardless, my admiration for Mark Twain has not been drastically reduced. It is true that he spoke harshly about Native Americans in his early writings, notably in Roughing It. But it is also true that he had a change of heart later on, and wrote about Native Americans in a more favorable light, after gaining much insight into their plight throughout his succeeding travels. Or so I’ve read.
Moreover, after reading Roughing It, my curiosity for his works has only increased. In fact, I am now even more interested in reading the rest of his literary pieces, if only to ascertain for myself if he truly is the genius that he is held to be today, and also to see how his anti-racist and anti-imperialist views evolved throughout his writing.
Anyway, notwithstanding Twain’s episodes of racism, I found Roughing It to be an immersive and enjoyable read, certainly a good book for fans of travel literature, especially for those seeking an insight into life in the American frontier. But don’t simply take my word for it. Instead, I recommend that you read the book for yourself, and afterwards make up your own mind about it.
Beyond that, I won’t give it a numerical or quantifiable rating. In fact, I won’t do such a thing for every book I’ll read and review in the future.
After all, reading experiences wildly vary, and each person is entitled to their own opinion. I believe that the only way a person can know if a book is truly worthwhile, is if they actually read that book for themselves. So instead of wasting time wondering if you ought to read a book, just pick it up and discover for yourself. And if you reach the end of the book and found it a delight, then good for you. But in the unhappy event that the book proved to you nothing more than a disappointment, then at the very least you found that out for yourself, and are richer for the experience.