Saturday, April 30, 2016

Roughing It by Mark Twain

On the inquest it was shown that Buck Fanshaw, in the delirium of a wasting typhoid fever, had taken arsenic, shot himself through the body, cut his throat, and jumped out of a four-story window and broken his neck--after due deliberation, the jury, sad and tearful, but with intelligence unblinded by its sorrow, brought in a verdict of death "by the visitation of God." What could the world do without juries?

Roughing It is Mark Twain's account of his travels to and through Nevada, continuing to California and then Hawaii. I was mainly interested in the book because, while reading Harry Reid's book, I came across a lengthy and hilarious passage from this book. I figured it would be a funny way to learn a bit about this state that I've now been living in longer than anywhere other than my hometown.

Mark Twain's reputation as a humorist is well-deserved. Using a combination of pithy characterization, much hyperbole (so much hyperbole), and funny situations, Twain describes a crazy Nevada. It's not the wild west that we usually think of, but a land of unique absurdity.

In one episode, for example, Twain and some fellow miners strike it rich when they find a strand of gold that is sure to render them all rich. All they have to do is remember to start working the mine within a set period of time. Instead, they spend all their time planning how they will use their wealth. Of course, they forget to actually start working their mine, and so their riches are lost. The epitaph to the book, refers to this episode, and will probably always be one of my favorite epitaphs of all time:

To Calvin H Higbie, 
of California, 
An Honest Man, a Genial Comrade, and a 
Steadfast Friend,
By the Author
In Memory of the Curious Time
When We Two
Were Millionaires for Ten Days

The book is a series of anecdotes, that are chronological but not more than loosely connected in terms of plot. Indeed, there is not really a plot at all for the whole thing. Nonetheless, it hits upon some recurring themes, one which is particularly interesting now: this idea that people came to Nevada with the hope for easy riches. Many of the anecdotes are about the narrator's hard luck and his turn to mining as a get-rich-quick scheme. Because of Las Vegas's (well deserved) reputation as a land of--if you're lucky--easy opportunity, I cannot help wondering if there is a connection.

However, I would not recommend reading this book if what you're looking for is a deep analysis of contemporary Nevada culture. Rather, it's worth reading simply because it's so funny. In a, I hope not misguided, attempt to capture this hilarity, here is an abridged version of one of the stories. Twain is traveling by stage coach on his way to Nevada. At one point the stage coach driver shares this story:
I can tell you a most laughable thing indeed, if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once. When he was leaving Carson City he told the driver Hank Monk, that he had an engagement to lecture at Placerville and was very anxious to go through quick. Hank Monk cracked his whip and started off at an awful pace. The coach bounced up and down in such a terrific way that it jolted the buttons all off of Horace's coat, and finally shot his head clear through the roof of the stage, and then he yelled at Hank Monk and begged him to go easier--said he warn't in as much of a hurry as he was a while ago. But Hank Monk said, "Keep your seat, Horace, and I'll get you there on time"--and you bet he did, too, what was left of him!
A couple days later, the coach that Twain is riding in picks up another passenger. They get to talking and then the passenger says, "I can tell you a mot laughable thing indeed, if you would like to listen to it. Horace Greeley went over this road once . . . ." Twain (the author) then re-writes, word for word the same story about Horace Greeley. A couple days later, after some more changes of passengers, they have a cavalry sergeant in their stage coach; after talking a little while, this sergeant recounts, again word for word, the same story about Horace Greeley. In this chapter, Mark Twain has four different people recount this story; each time Twain reprints each word. They encounter another person who begins to tell this story, Twain cuts him off and says:
Suffering stranger, proceed at your peril. You see in me the melancholy wreck of a once stalwart and magnificent manhood. What has brought me to this? That thing which you are about to tell. Gradually but surely, that tiresome old anecdote has sapped my strength, undermined my constitution, withered my life. Pity my helplessness. Spare me only just this once, and tell me about young George Washington and his little hatchet for a change. 
Twain the author then describes what happens:
     We were saved. But not so the invalid. In trying to retain the anecdote in his system he strained himself and died in our arms.
     I am aware now, that I ought not to have asked the sturdiest citizen of all that region, what I asked of that mere shadow of a man; for after seven years' residence on the Pacific coast, I know that no passenger or driver on the Overland ever corked that anecdote in, when a stranger was by, and survived. Within a period of six years I crossed and re-crossed the Sierras between Nevada and California thirteen times and listened to that deathless incident four hundred and eight-one or eighty-two times. I have the list somewhere. Drivers always told it, the very Chinaman and vagrant Indians recounted it. I have had the same driver tell it to me two or three times in the same afternoon. It has come to me in the multitude of tongues that Babel bequeathed to earth and flavored with whiskey, brandy, beer, cologne, sozodont, tobacco, garlic, onions, grasshoppers--everything that has a fragrance to it through all the long list of things that are gorged or guzzled by the sons of men. I never have smelled any anecdote as often as I have smelled that one; never had smelled any anecdote that smelled so variegated as that one. And you never could learn to know it by its smell, because every time you thought you had learned the smell of it, it would turn up with a different smell. Bayard Taylor has written about this hoary anecdote. Richardson has published it; so have Jones, Smith, Johnson, Ross Browne, and every other correspondence-inditing being that ever set his foot upon the great Overland road anywhere between Julesburg and San Francisco; and I have heard that it is in the Talmud. I have seen it in print in nine different languages; I have been told that it is employed in the inquisition in Rome; and I now learn with regret that it is going to be set to music. I do not think that such things are right.
A made-for-TV movie.
(Forgive the nineteenth century language and the self-indulgently long block quote). I hope I have not butchered this anecdote.

I will refer to one other anecdote from the book, but because it was so good, and because I don't think there's anyway to do it justice, I link to it here. In it, Mark Twain describes how the fine citizens took to the new United States Attorney sent to Carson City. The entire thing had me laughing outrageously. In fact, I took a part of it and made it my facebook cover photo. If the block quote was insufferable, please take 10 minutes and read the linked anecdote.

Recommended for anyone who wants a fun read, a read about Nevada's early days as a territory, or just a chance to have fun with Mark Twain.

1 comment:

Brittany said...

In other words, Mark Twain can smell the sandwich you're making.