Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 1–3 | Summary



Chapter 1

Twain's brother, Orion Clemens (unnamed in the text), is appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and Twain is envious of his upcoming adventures in the West. "He was going to travel! I never had been away from home," the author explains. Twain imagines his brother will get rich from gold and silver mines, and "maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time, and write home and tell us all about it, and be a hero." When his brother invites him to go along as his private secretary, Twain accepts eagerly. He plans to visit Nevada for three months, but actually stays in the West for "six or seven uncommonly long years!" The brothers travel for six days by steamboat up the Missouri River from St. Louis to St. Joseph, where they will begin the overland journey.

Chapter 2

Upon arrival in St. Joseph, the brothers buy tickets on the overland coach bound for Carson City, Nevada, at $150 per ticket. Before departing the next morning, they have to jettison some of their possessions because their luggage is over the weight limit of 25 pounds apiece. They leave behind their "swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves ... stovepipe hats" and other formal finery in favor of plain, practical clothes. "We were reduced to war footing," Twain complains. His brother takes along 10 pounds' worth books, including "United States statutes" and an unabridged dictionary, not realizing he could buy these in the West, too. Both men carry guns, though Twain's "had one fault—you could not hit anything with it." His brother's gun is "for protection against the Indians, and to guard against accidents he carried it uncapped." They travel in the coach with Mr. George Bemis, who carries an erratic "Allen" revolver that sometimes misfires. The gentlemen prepare for their trip by packing a few blankets, pipes and tobacco, water canteens, and silver coins for expenses.

The six-horse stagecoach leaves "the States" as it begins to cross the plains of Kansas. Twain admires the fine summer morning and the landscape, feeling "an exhilarating sense of emancipation from all sorts of cares and responsibilities." The three passengers are crammed inside with mountains of mail—720 pounds in all. They travel all day, changing horses every 10 miles, and are joined by a female passenger after supper. The woman silently swats mosquitoes until Twain remarks upon the bothersome creatures, and then she begins to prattle on incessantly. She "buried us under a desolating deluge of trivial gossip," Twain writes, that was made up of "dislocated grammar and decomposed pronunciation." The men suffer through her continual conversation until she disembarks early the next morning. She suggests that they wait for her at Cottonwood, farther along the route, as she'll be "along sometime tonight," but they decide not to do so.

Chapter 3

Overburdened with mail, the coach breaks down, and the passengers have to disembark into the cold rain. The men abandon half of the mailbags alongside the route for a station guard to pick up later. They then rearrange the mailbags to form a "lazy bed" on top of the seats, and "we never wanted any seats after that," says Twain. The coach continues onward as the men lounge on top of the mail, happily smoking pipes. The coach enters Nebraska, where Twain spots a "jackass rabbit" which he describes in detail. The men then take turns shooting at it as it streaks out of sight. Twain describes the "friendly sagebrush," as well, calling it "an imposing monarch of the forest in exquisite miniature." He marvels at its hardiness, for it can grow "in the midst of deep sand, and among barren rocks." The deserts are populated with this plant rather than trees "for hundreds of miles," and travelers use it for firewood. The author describes how fire pits dug into the ground stay warm all night and produce no smoke, which "makes a very sociable campfire." Speaking of mules and donkeys, Twain then diverges into camels, and tells how a camel in Syria once ate his overcoat. The camel tries to eat a newspaper, too, but "he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity." In fact, the camel "died a death of indescribable agony" from eating the paper.


Twain sets up the narrator's persona as a wide-eyed, innocent youth, a theme that he also employs in his 1869 travel narrative The Innocents Abroad. That book recounts the author's travels to the Holy Land (from whence the Chapter 3 anecdote about the camel makes its way into Roughing It.) There are really two Twains narrating the story, however. One has the innocent viewpoint of young Twain as the events unfold, while the other has the 20/20 hindsight and humor of the older, wiser Twain who is writing the book. (Twain's travels in the West happened from 1861–67, but he didn't write the book until 1870–71.)

Chapter 1 opens with the theme of travel, as seen through the eyes of young, eager Twain. He views the West through rose-colored glasses, romanticizing its dangers into exciting perks. It certainly can't be called a "fine time" to get hanged or scalped, though the enthusiastic Twain seems to imagine that it might be. Having never been away from home before the trip West, young Twain grabs onto stereotypes of the "Wild West" in imagining what life there must be like. This includes the hope of "getting rich quick," an idea that drives Twain throughout his Western adventure. In reality, the older, more experienced Twain believed that the trip would be a quick way to earn a few easy dollars. But he learned the hard way that writing a sequel did not come as easily as he had hoped, and his own get-rich-quick scheme backfired on him as he struggled to complete the necessary word count for his publisher.

In Chapter 2, the brothers show their worldly inexperience, packing poorly and having to leave many of their possessions behind. Luxury items such as top hats and white gloves will hardly be needed in the West, anyway, as Twain comes to discover later. The author doesn't seem terribly familiar with guns, and his descriptions show humorous understatement or willful misinterpretation. He claims that his gun "could not hit anything," but obviously, he is simply a poor shot. Twain also introduces the theme of language in this chapter with the talkative woman, whose grammar and pronunciation are so offensive to his ear. While this incident is brief, it is notable. It is one of the few appearances of a woman in the book at all, underscoring the idea of the West as a "man's world." (In Chapter 57, in fact, lonely miners even line up and pay for the privilege of simply looking at a real, live woman.)

The theme of travel continues in Chapter 3, as seen in Twain's description of the exotic flora (sagebrush) and fauna (jackass rabbit) of the region. The "older" narrator then takes the stage to relate the incident of the camel, from a trip that happens after Twain's travels in the West. This incident has more than a hint of satire in it, too, poking fun at the news, which the camel "can't swallow." Twain himself becomes a journalist while out West and finds out just how much of the news is fabricated. Such news was likely unbelievable, or "hard to swallow" for readers.

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