Sunday, November 15, 2020

Roughing It (1872)

I haven't read widely in travel literature but I generally enjoy Mark Twain's forays into it. Though he can bog down in description when he huffs up too hard, he usually redeems himself with anecdotes and an easygoing rambling style—I like the rambling style, on balance. His sentences threaten to turn into mush sometimes with an excess of words, but he maintains a certain dry tone that makes the jokes work, sneaking up on you in the earnestness of their exaggerations: "The simple child of nature, yielding momentarily to sin when sorely tempted, acknowledged his error when calm reflection had shown it to him, and came forward with noble frankness and offered up his grandmother as an atoning sacrifice," and so forth. In Roughing It, Twain takes a stagecoach in about 1861 out of Missouri and into the North American Wild West. He spends a good deal of time traveling and finally lands in Nevada in the midst of mining boom times. Eventually he makes his way to San Francisco and, from there by ship, to Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. In light of renewed activity in recent years, it was interesting to read his reports of Kilauea, reminiscent for how striking across time it is of the account by Lewis and Clark of Mt. St. Helens. But Hawaii is well the dullest part of the book, with long passages of description. Much better are the sections on Nevada, where the economic mania looks a lot like our own booms and busts, built around feverish speculation. The opening sections are also fine—it's startling to see the American West without a railroad and with quite hostile Indians to contend with, and no shortage of white miscreants either. Horses were the only way to make the trip—or walking. Twain also spends some time in Salt Lake City and on Mormons, which is often interesting though his biases color the accounts. His own judgment seems to have been set by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the story of which he includes in an appendix. His encounters with Native Americans, especially the aboriginals in Hawaii, are a typical 19th-century white man's response of reflexive loathing. He can speak of them in such belittling terms that it is shocking and distracting, which is unfortunate. He's much better on the foolishness of white people, including, often, himself. Good one, mostly.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

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