Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 26–28 | Summary



Chapter 26

Eventually, Mark Twain catches "silver fever" and believes that prospecting will bring him the riches he desires. He lists numerous mines that have produced rich payouts of ore, such as the "Gould and Curry," the "Ophir," and many others. To Twain, it seems like everyone in the territory is quickly getting rich from silver mines, and rags-to-riches stories abound. The local newspapers report on the happenings at the mines, with two new mines particularly making headlines, "Esmeralda" and "Humboldt." Twain includes an excerpt from the Daily Territorial Enterprise which describes Humboldt County as "the richest mineral region upon God's footstool." The persuasive article boasts of silver, cinnabar, coal, and other rich lodes of minerals just waiting to be discovered. Twain speculates that the worth of the ore is up to $350 per 100 pounds. This is far greater than the ore from nearby Gold Hill, which is valued at only $1 to $2 per 100 pounds. The same journalist later reports again on the potential riches to be had from various mines in Humboldt. He also writes of how the towns there are empty, for everyone is away prospecting. Twain and three companions decide to head immediately for Humboldt to cash in on the phenomenon while it lasts.

Chapter 27

Twain travels to Humboldt with a blacksmith, Mr. Ballou, and two lawyers named Clagett and Oliphant. They load 1,800 pounds of provisions in a two-horse wagon, but the horses are so weak that the men have to get out and walk. Soon, they find it necessary to push the wagon, a task that continues for the entire 200 miles of the 15-day trip. Twain takes note of Ballou's propensity to use big words he doesn't understand, which makes him incomprehensible at times. However, Ballou is also kind, unselfish, and a hard worker. The men sleep side by side on the trip to stay warm at night, and they enjoy the many small pleasures of being on the road. Each night they wolf down bacon, bread, and coffee then sing songs and tell tales around the campfire. Twain claims they travel 50 miles through the Great American Desert in one day "without halting to eat, drink, or rest." The party also stops at the "Sink of Humboldt," an alkali lake, but the water is too bitter to drink. Luckily, they find a spring of fresh water, where they settle down for the night.

Chapter 28

The party of four travels through a snowstorm to reach their destination, Unionville, a town of 11 cabins surrounded by looming mountains. They build a rough cabin with a canvas roof and steal firewood from Indians when they can; otherwise they endure the cold. Twain writes, "I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground." He eagerly imagines he'll be rich within a week or two. As soon as he can, he slips away from the cabin to look for silver. The search is a "delirious revel" that brings Twain "the nearest to unmarred ecstasy" he has ever experienced. When he finds a "bright fragment" on the ground, he is certain he's struck it rich. He pockets the find and keeps looking, next discovering "shining yellow scales" in a stream—surely a gold mine, Twain thinks. He spends an hour scooping up the flakes then returns home certain he is rich. Back at the cabin, he keeps his find quiet for a while, asking Ballou's opinion on the region's prospects for mining. Ballou, an experienced miner, isn't that impressed, saying they'll never get rich there. Twain begins to hint that a rich deposit lies very nearby, and the men press him for details excitedly. In triumph, he tosses his rock specimen onto the table and the men scramble to examine it. Ballou bursts Twain's bubble, though, and pronounces it "nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and nasty glittering mica." Crushed, Twain notes that "all that glitters is not gold," to which Ballou retorts that "nothing that glitters is gold." Real mined gold is dull in color, he explains.


Young Twain seems to notice only the success stories when it comes to mining, rarely mentioning the countless miners who tried and failed at the venture. His "silver fever" is whipped up even further by encouraging newspaper reports that seem designed to lure prospectors to places like Humboldt. Twain has nothing to lose by giving mining a shot, since he is mostly idle and doesn't earn a salary as his brother's assistant. Somehow, he always seems to find the money for new ventures, though, such as chipping in on 1,800 pounds of provisions to stock the wagon. It is unclear where Twain picked up his traveling companions; they may be fellow residents at his boarding house or even total strangers that he met in town. There seems to be no shortage of men looking to join a mining venture, and they all seem equally eager and certain of their imminent wealth. Twain's expectations are particularly high and unrealistic, and each story he hears makes his expectations (and greed) grow.

The party's trip across the desert is highly entertaining, as Twain jokes about pushing the wagon and about Ballou's ridiculous vocabulary. The trip also affords a peek at the simple pleasures of Western life, especially in Twain's descriptions of nights around the campfire. His claim of traveling nonstop for 50 miles in one day is certainly an exaggeration, though, given the difficulty of the terrain and the tired horses.

The men's new abode in Unionville is barely a shelter at all; they are truly "roughing it" in the cold December weather of Humboldt County. Chapter 28 hints that mining is a fool's errand, and that Twain is the fool. Despite his sky-high expectations and the delirious joy of searching for gold and silver, Twain returns to the cabin with only worthless rocks. His naiveté and inexperience show clearly here, especially when compared with the miner Ballou. Ballou seems to be the voice of reason in the bunch, likely because he is both older and more experienced at mining than his three young companions.

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