Pretty Rough Going

Roughing It

by Mark Twain

I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s writing, and usually of his views and perceptions of the world. But this book, I’ll confess, was not one of my favorites.

It was bigoted, for one thing. It’s a younger Twain writing about his own life experiences, essentially in memoir form but with some exaggerations (a few stretchers) and finding humor in some places that were worth a good laugh, and some others that were not. Mormons, for instance. He’s pretty hard on the Church, accusing them of recruiting the most ignorant and degraded people, and then getting them to treat Brigham Young as an absolute monarch. He mocks Joseph Smith for his revelation, and then mocks Young harder for adding the doctrine of polygamy, which Twain claims Smith was always against. And then he tells an extended joke about Brigham Young’s hundred plus wives – so many that the man can’t remember who they are, and refers to them by numbers. Now, I’m not a Mormon; I don’t think much of organized religion, nor of polygamy, nor of men who claim to be prophets who have received the word of God inscribed on golden tablets, delivered directly by angels. But I don’t know that any of it is a good source of humor.

And then he gets going on the Indians.

There were some genuinely funny parts, particularly when he mimics the Western slang, as he did so well with Missouri slang in Huck Finn; and there are some absolutely wonderful descriptions, of the desert, the mountains, and of course rivers; he talks at length about the volcanic craters in Hawaii, which he visits in the last few chapters, and which were great fun to read about. There’s some interesting information, particularly when he describes the process of mining silver, as the book is about Twain and his older brother traveling to the territory of Nevada, where his brother was named Secretary to the Governor of the territory, and young Mark Twain tried to get rich along with everybody else off of the Comstock Lode. (Twain failed, of course – otherwise he may never have become a writer.) He’s quite self-deprecating for most of it, describing so miserably his opportunities to become rich, at least two of which he wasted or lost through his own mistakes, that it made me want to cry – or maybe to dope-slap the poor guy.

But the biggest problem I had with this book?

Actually kinda boring.

So: good if you really love Twain’s writing, especially semi-wacky humor about fools and blackguards in the Old West; good if you are interested in frontier living, and the world of silver mining in Nevada, and then life as an itinerant journalist in San Francisco; otherwise, let this one pass.

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