Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 12–16 | Summary



Chapter 12

Twain's party continues on the overland route, overtaking a wagon train of emigrants and passing various local landmarks along the way. "We were in the heart of the Rocky Mountains now," Twain writes, and they are also entering into Mormon territory. They exchange news with the mayor of South Pass City, who is also "the hotelkeeper, the postmaster, the blacksmith," and several other small-town jobs. The travelers marvel at the wonder of snow on the mountains in summer ("Seeing is believing," notes Twain) as they reach the summit of the Rockies. The passage seems like "a suspension bridge in the clouds," so high are they above the deep valleys and plains below. When they overtake another emigrant train, Twain recognizes a childhood friend amongst the party, and they catch up on news before parting again. The coach rides through a landscape of endless graves and skeletons (horse and oxen), and at night these bones emit an eerie, phosphorescent glow. A terrible rainstorm begins and the driver loses the route, almost plunging the coach into a gulch. The next day, now ten days out from St. Joseph, they cross the Green River, pass Fort Bridger, and reach Echo Canyon. A fight between U.S. soldiers and 400 Indians has just happened the day before, with more fighting possible, so the coach hurries ahead on its way. As they approach Salt Lake City, the coach pauses to admire a great rainbow arching over the mountains. They have supper with a Mormon "Destroying Angel" (Twain describes these as persons who "conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens" for that Church). Multiple wives serve the supper, Twain's first encounter with polygamy, that "peculiar institution" of the Mormons. That night, the coach arrives at Salt Lake City, "the capital of the only absolute monarch in America."

Chapter 13

Salt Lake City is a "fairyland" to Twain and the other passengers, who gawk at the local Mormons with curiosity. They are introduced to other "Gentiles" (non-Mormons), and Bemis gets drunk on "valley tan," a local whiskey made by the Mormons. Twain notes that public drinking saloons are not permitted "in the kingdom of Brigham Young," so the faithful don't imbibe—except for valley tan. The next day, the travelers see the sights of the city, a clean, industrious, and prosperous community. The following day, they meet Mr. Street and have an audience with Brigham Young himself, who "seemed a quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, self-possessed old gentleman." Twain becomes annoyed when Young ignores him. Young then "put his hand on my head and beamed down on me" and asks his brother, "Ah—your child, I presume? Boy or girl?"

Chapter 14

Twain describes Mr. Street's "vast work," which is to oversee the construction of telegraph lines over "eight hundred miles of rugged mountains and dismal deserts." Street has hired a crew of Mormons to do the hardest part of the building work. However, when the workers discover the job isn't worth the money or effort, they all quit—even though they "were under written contract." The workers refuse to heed this "Gentile" contract, which is essentially "worthless" in Utah. Street is at his wit's end, as it looks as though his project will now fail, but then he is advised to "Go to Brigham Young!" Young reviews Street's contracts and finds they are without flaw, and he commands the workers to appear before him. They arrive, and Young instructs them to live up to the bargain they've struck in the contracts, even "if it makes paupers of you! Go!" The workers do as he bids without question. Street observes that, even though there are government officials from Washington in the state, "Utah is an absolute monarchy and Brigham Young is king!" Twain then switches subjects to polygamy. He remarks that he better understood the practice when "I saw the Mormon women ... poor, ungainly, and pathetically 'homely' creatures." He then states that "the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity," and so the Mormons should not be judged for the practice.

Chapter 15

Twain recounts the subjects local Gentiles like to discuss, such as other Gentiles who've been assassinated by Mormons, as well as polygamy. He writes that younger wives may supplant older wives in their husband's favor, and that the women allow the practice because they believe bigger families gain higher standing in heaven. Brigham Young is said to have dozens of wives and over 100 children, who live together in the "Lion House." Mr. Johnson, who breakfasted there once, tells Twain how Young couldn't tell his children apart nor remember his wives' names. Johnson also relates how Young had to buy decorative pins for all of his wives to wear after gifting a pin to (wife) "No. 6." Young had complained to Johnson that "once a gentleman gave one of my children a tin whistle," and then all the children had to have one, too. He also told of a woman who had foisted her child off onto him by swearing "that the child was mine and she my wife." Johnson's final tale is that Young once built a single bed for his 72 wives, but the snoring was "deafening" and nearly shook the house to pieces. The wives would all breathe in at once "and you could actually see the walls of the house suck in," Young supposedly said. His final advice to Johnson was, "Take my word for it, ten or eleven wives is all you need." Twain questions whether Johnson is a reliable storyteller, but he is nonetheless entertained by the tales.

Chapter 16

Twain obtains a copy of the Mormon Bible, which he calls "a pretentious affair" and so dull that "it is chloroform in print." He finds the book to be full of "imaginary history" and poorly modeled after the Old Testament. Its language is a jumbled mess of modern speech and outdated scriptural language, Twain maintains. Moreover, he says, the phrase "and it came to pass" is heavily, comically overused by the book's writer, Joseph Smith. Twain quotes several passages from the book to back up his opinion, such as the title page, which includes "The Testimony of Three Witnesses." These witnesses claim that "we know of a surety that the work is true" because God "hath declared it unto us." They further testify that an angel has shown them a set of engraved golden plates sacred to their religion. Twain declares that such testimony nearly convinces him of its truth, "no matter whether I ever heard of that man before or not, and even if I do not know the name of the angel, or his nationality either." In another passage, eight additional men swear to having seen the plates, which have "the appearance of gold" and "the appearance of ancient work." Twain comments that with such testimony, "I am convinced." Twain notes that the Mormon Bible has 15 books, the first of which tells how the "children of Lehi" leave Jerusalem and wander for nine years. Their leader Nephi builds a ship "in a single day" (which Twain likens to Noah's ark) and they all set sail. The people aboard then want to party, so they tie up Nephi, but the Lord sends a storm to frighten them, so they untie Nephi. They then reach the "promised land."

Twain then writes of various subjects from the book. Polygamy, he says, "was added by Brigham Young after Joseph Smith's death" even though the Mormon Bible calls it an "abomination." He also quotes passages which state that Jesus chose twelve Mormon disciples and that angels appeared to 2,500 people in a vision of fire. The Book of Ether recounts ancient "history," including a massive battle in which millions of people are slaughtered. In the end, only the opposing leaders Shiz and Coriantumr are left standing, and they too die. Twain concludes that while the Mormon Bible is "rather stupid and tiresome," its moral teachings are sound, since they have been plagiarized from the New Testament.


Chapter 12 returns to travelogue mode as Twain describes the small towns, landmarks, and wonders he passes for the reader. His amazement at seeing snow on the mountains in the summer may seem quaint today. However, it is worth remembering that in Twain's time, there was neither television nor Internet for learning about the world. Twain's comment that "seeing is believing" is ironic because he uses it to testify to the truth of his own experience, while it negates the possibility that his readers can believe him because they haven't seen what he has seen. Thus, it makes an interesting introduction to a section describing a different faith than the Christianity with which many of his readers were familiar

The "monarch" Twain mentions at the end of Chapter 12 is Brigham Young, sometime governor of Utah and leader of the Mormon church, whom Twain discusses further in the following chapters. Twain has the opportunity to meet the legendary man in person, but the meeting doesn't go as he had imagined. The way Twain chooses to portray this episode reveals much about his own personality. Twain wants to grill Young "on federal politics and his highhanded attitude toward Congress," but Young dismisses him as only a child. It is unclear whether Young truly thinks Twain is a child, or whether he pretends this in order to avoid Twain's pestering. "He merely looked around me," Twain writes, and the author lapses into angry silence at being ignored. Thus, Twain is forced to use features of Mormonism other than the leader's opinions to describe the faith. Readers are not interested in a dialogic treatise; they want a travelogue.

Twain's account of Mormons in Chapters 13 through 16 is unflattering, to say the least. He and his companions seem to view Mormons as an alien species to be examined and analyzed rather than real people. He calls Salt Lake City a "fairyland" in which he stares at every "creature" that may be a Mormon. He invasively peers into private homes as if they are mere peepshows, hoping to get "a good satisfying look at a Mormon family." Somehow, though, his interest does not seem genuine. It seems his mind is already made up about Mormons before he ever meets any. His curiosity seems aimed at finding information that reinforces what he already believes, rather than truly understanding Mormons more deeply. Twain does make note of some positive characteristics of Mormons, such as their industriousness and the cleanliness of the city itself. However, the majority of his observations relate negative characteristics or profile less-than-admirable people. Twain tells of a murderous, slovenly "Destroying Angel," a man supposedly directed to assassinate those opposed to the church. (Such incidents may or may not have taken place; the historical record is unclear.) He points out the hypocrisy of Mormons drinking "valley tan" despite their prohibition against alcohol. And he mercilessly satirizes the Mormon Bible both for its content and its language (a prominent theme throughout the text).

Twain also uses low humor to try to make the reader laugh, for example in insulting how Mormon women look, calling the whole lot "homely." Twain makes little attempt to actually understand Mormon women, but instead is content to make assumptions and write stereotypes about them. He claims that these women accept polygamy to improve their future in heaven, but it does not appear that he speaks to a single Mormon woman in person, perhaps because of contemporary social conventions. Most discouragingly, he turns the religion's leader and their practice of polygamy into tall tales of the most ridiculous sort.

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