Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 4–6 | Summary



Chapter 4

The men attempt to sleep through the overnight journey but are bounced around as the coach crosses streams with steep banks. They arrive at a coach station in the morning, where the driver is treated with deference by the workers as the horses are changed out. These hostlers and station keepers are beneath the driver's notice, but to them, "the stage driver was a hero." They "received his insolent silence meekly," they laugh uproariously at his lame joke, and they fall all over themselves trying to be of service to him. Twain describes the adobe station buildings, each of which has an earth-covered roof with "weeds and grass" growing on top of it. "It was the first time we had ever seen a man's front yard on top of his house," Twain observes.

The buildings are bare-bones inside, with just the basic necessities, including a few bunks for sleeping and a fireplace but no stove. There are no cupboards for storing provisions, which sit on the floor and are also very basic (flour, bacon, salt). A broken mirror and half a filthy comb are available for use, but the "towel" (a "hoary blue woolen shirt") is reserved for the station keeper, coach driver, and coach conductor only. The furniture and dishes are equally pathetic. Twain then describes the clothing worn by the workers: "coarse, country-woven" pantaloons patched with buckskin, stuffed into high boots studded with "great Spanish spurs." Beards, mustaches, wool shirts, and shapeless hats complete the look, along with weapons, of course. The station keeper serves a horrid breakfast of week-old bread, "condemned Army bacon," and "slumgullion," a vile sort of tea of the keeper's own invention. Twain's request for coffee is met with a glare of disbelief from the station boss. For this inedible meal, they pay $1 each.

Meanwhile, the six horses are switched out for mules, "the first diminution of our princely state," writes Twain. The coach flies up the road, crosses the North Platte River, and the reaches Fort Kearney late that afternoon, three hundred miles and 56 hours from St. Joseph. Twain marvels at the changes that have come since that time, sharing a New York Times article from the future called "Across the Continent." The article tells how a Pullman train makes a similar trip from Omaha to the North Platte in only 15 hours, complete with a fancy dining car, champagne, and luxurious sleeping couches.

Chapter 5

After another overnight in the coach, the men awaken to the fresh solitude of the plains. They ride atop the coach for fun, with a "wild sense of freedom" and excitement at "those fine overland mornings!" They spot prairie dogs, antelopes, and a coyote, which Twain describes as "a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton" and "a living, breathing allegory of Want." The "cowardly" animal may seem threatening, Twain notes, but it will quickly run away when pursued. Twain recommends setting a dog after the coyote for good sport, saying "you will enjoy it ever so much." He then writes that the wily coyote will toy with the dog, allowing it to come close before hurtling away in a sonic boom of speed. Twain also remarks that the ravenous coyote will "eat anything in the world that his first cousins, the desert-frequenting tribes of Indians, will." The author suggests, in fact, that the coyote competes with Indians in finding the carcasses of dead animals to eat.

Chapter 6

The coach takes on a new conductor who hasn't slept in 20 hours, which Twain remarks is common on the 1900-mile route between Missouri and California. Each 250 miles is called a "division, and is overseen by an "agent" who is authorized to carry out a wide variety of tasks. The division agent hires and fires, pays wages, builds stations, digs wells, and buys and distributes whatever his region might need, from horses to harnesses. Twain calls them the "kings" of the overland route, followed in importance by the conductors, the drivers, and then the lowly "station keepers, hostlers, etc." The conductor (often a gentleman) oversees the coach, mail, and passengers, and thus must be "a man of intelligence, decision, and considerable executive ability." The driver covers the same limited tract of ground back and forth endlessly, so a long-distance coach will have several drivers as the route unfolds. The drivers often work such long shifts that they sleep en route, with the conductor taking over the driving temporarily. The hostlers and station workers are sometimes shiftless outlaws. Occasionally "a division agent was really obliged to shoot a hostler through the head to teach him some simple matter."

Twain then mentions Mr. Ben Holliday, the head of the entire western half of the stagecoach route. The author quotes from his Holy Land travel notebooks, in which he describes Holliday as "a man of prodigious energy ... a very whirlwind" of efficiency. In the same excerpt, Twain describes a young man named Jack who had also met Holliday—and who knows nothing of biblical history. Jack is reprimanded by "an elderly pilgrim" who is a walking encyclopedia of biblical knowledge. The old man, scandalized that Jack doesn't know who Moses is, tells of Moses leading his people through 300 miles of desert in 40 years. Jack is shocked. "Forty years?" he exclaims. "Ben Holliday would have fetched them through in thirty-six hours!"

The coach arrives at Overland City at noon after five days of travel. It is "the strangest, quaintest, funniest frontier town that our untraveled eyes had ever stared at and been astonished with," notes Twain.


In Chapters 4 and 6, Twain gives his first descriptions of the social hierarchy of the West, which has classes of people unfamiliar back East. The highest man on the totem pole is Ben Holliday, followed by the division agents, who are viewed as rock stars or royalty in their own district. Each level of the hierarchy seems to look down on the ones below it, with conductors feeling superior to drivers, who in turn feel superior to the station workers. Here, Twain serves as cultural anthropologist, showing the reader how society works in the exotic West. His detailed descriptions of the buildings, furnishings, and meals of the station house have a National Geographic feel of curious observation to them. It's as if Twain is taking notes on a foreign culture—and technically, he is, since he is no longer in the United States proper. Twain sprinkles his writing with the usual witty cracks, such as his comment on the "front yard" growing on the station's roof.

Things are getting real, though, and Twain starts to get a taste of the hardships of the West. The farther West the party travels, the fewer luxuries are available. The coach's dashing horses are switched out for homely mules, "the first diminution of our princely state." Then the passengers find themselves paying for a breakfast of rotten bacon so bad that the Army won't feed it to the soldiers. Twain's request for coffee is utterly scoffed at; it is clearly a luxury that isn't often found along the route.

Twain's older persona comes out as narrator again when he compares "then and now" regarding the overland journey. While it takes the stagecoach 56 hours to reach the North Platte, in the near future, a train makes the journey in just 15 hours. (The first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, just 8 years after Twain's journey by coach.) Times were changing fast during Twain's lifetime, a phenomenon he comments on frequently in the text. Young Twain was experiencing the end of an era (the old "Wild West") just as a new one was beginning to unfold (a "Gilded Age" of railroads and increasing commerce). This offered Twain a unique vantage point as a witness to history, and his practical examples help the reader understand the vastness of the changes taking place.

One of Twain's more disturbing characterizations appears in Chapter 5 when he equates the coyote to Indians. In calling them "relations," he implies that Indians are animal-like, or less than human. His unflattering descriptions of the coyote as an ugly, cowardly, scavenger may also thus reflect his opinion of Indians. Twain's view was typical of his era, when many viewed the Indian tribes as a nuisance and an obstacle to the progress of Manifest Destiny. ("Manifest Destiny" was the belief that white settlers had a divine right to take over the West.) Indians were stereotyped as savages, while the white man believed himself to be superior. In the 1830s and 1840s, thousands of Indians died as they were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands east of the Mississippi. Indeed, Indians were still seen as "the enemy" during the 1860s due to continued conflicts between the tribes and white people.

The theme of travel is emphasized in Chapter 6 with Twain's anecdote from his trip to the Holy Land. Amazingly, he meets a man there (Jack) who has also met Ben Holliday of the stagecoach company. Such tie-ins were common in 19th century travelogues, where people with money and opportunity to travel were few; places to travel were restricted by politics, weather, and convenience; and thus people from similar social circles often found themselves traveling together.

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