Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 42–46 | Summary



Chapter 42

At a loss for what to do next with his life, Mark Twain tells the reader how he had to strike out on his own at age 13 after his father's death. He had tried (and mostly been fired from) a series of jobs, including grocery clerk, blacksmith, printer, and riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. Now he longs to return to the riverboat life, feeling so ashamed of his recent failure he is sure he'll never return home "to be pitied—and snubbed." He decides to give mining another try with Higbie, but gives up almost immediately after dumping rock down his own back with a shovel. He returns to the cabin, where he finds a letter inviting him to become city editor on the Daily Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Virginia City. Though he feels the weight of his previous failures and questions his own fitness for the job, he can't pass up the salary of $25 per week.

He goes to Virginia City and begins the job, finding that he must trade his rustic style of dress for "a more Christian costume" in the city. The owner, Mr. Goodman, instructs him to "get the absolute facts" when investigating the news. He is not to use phrases such as "It is rumored" or "We understand" in reporting, for these show an uncertainty which may undermine the readers' confidence. Twain admits, though, that in his early days of reporting, he often embellished the facts when there wasn't much news to write about. He wanders about town trying to scare up stories, writing about the hay wagon trade and turning the sole hay wagon about into sixteen for publication. News is so scarce he's even glad when a desperado murders a man so he finally has something to write about. Then he writes about emigrant wagons that have passed through Indian country, making up a story of an attack and murders that never happened. Satisfied with his work, Twain comments, "I felt that I had found my legitimate occupation at last."

Chapter 43

Twain makes inroads in the publishing profession and develops relationships with colleagues on other newspapers. They exchange "regulars," or common sources of readily available news, in order to cut down the reporting work for everyone. These news sources include "courts, bullion returns, 'clean-ups' at the quartz mills, and inquests." Twain's biggest rival in reporting is Boggs, a Union reporter with a tendency to drunkenness. Boggs has an advantage over Twain because he has access to the monthly public school report while Twain does not. Twain bribes Boggs with the promise of a drink if Boggs will let him copy the report, and Boggs agrees. Boggs gets so drunk on the boozy punch while Twain copies the report that he doesn't make it back to his own office. Thus, the report doesn't make it into the Union and is instead published in the Enterprise (Twain's paper), for which "Boggs held me accountable." Twain thinks all is well between them, but Boggs pays Twain back when they both go to investigate and report on the "Genessee" mine one day. Boggs lowers Twain down into the mineshaft by rope so he can gather rock specimens. He then leaves Twain stuck down there while he goes to fetch the school report. (Twain is rescued after an hour by passing workmen.) Writes Twain, "We had no school report next morning; but the Union had."

Twain then relates the "flush times" that begin in the region, which furnishes ample content for his newspaper. Virginia City bustles with mining operations, various businesses, entertainment, parades and political rallies, violence, whiskey and breweries, jails and policemen, and a large number of government officials. Mining still drives the local economy in many ways, and it is a nonstop operation that employs huge numbers of citizens. Sometimes Twain feels the mining blasts shake the ground in the center of town, for the tunnels of the "Comstock" are located directly below. Twain also describes how the city is laid out on a steep slope and its atmosphere is thin due to the mountainous elevation.

Chapter 44

Twain gets a raise to $40 per week, though he rarely draws his salary. Instead, he lives on gifts (bribes) of money and mine stocks ("feet") from people who want to influence his reporting. Everyone is caught up in the mining frenzy, trading stock "with a feverish avidity" and expecting to get rich at any moment. Twain pities these miners, for their incessant labor and hopes will likely come to nothing. With each new claim, Twain is offered "feet" to publish favorable news of the mine. He obliges with vague reports of the mines' tunnels, machinery, and management, never mentioning the main point of interest: the ore's possible value. Twain regularly sells stock to raise cash, selling when its value reaches a thousand dollars a foot. Offers of gifted stock, though, don't last long and must be accepted right away. Twain tells of several residents who miss out on a great deal of money because they don't accept stock quickly enough, including himself. For example, Twain is offered a gift of stock worth 10 dollars a foot, but he neglects to pick up the stock in a timely manner. The offer is then withdrawn when the stock suddenly increases to $150 in value.

Twain also describes how claims are staked anywhere and everywhere, including in the middle of public streets, in exposed rock in cellars, and other ridiculous places. Many of these claims are never meant to be mined; they are established solely to sell stock as a moneymaker. Miners might also "salt" their claims with rich, imported ore to make their mines seem valuable when they are actually worthless. In one case, the owner of the "North Ophir" even melts down silver coins into lumps to make his mine appear valuable, though the ruse is discovered and the mine's worth plummets.

Chapter 45

The "flush times" continue in Virginia City. Twain tells of the humble beginnings and success of the Territorial Enterprise, founded by Mr. Goodman, his boss. The "Gould & Curry" mining company is building an expensive new mill, and everywhere, "Money was wonderfully plenty." The United States Sanitary Commission ("the sanitary fund") begins soliciting donations "for the relief of the wounded sailors and soldiers of the Union," and people are wild to contribute. Around the same time, a man in Austin named Reuel Gridley auctions off a 50-pound sack of flour to benefit to the sanitary fund. The winner of the auction redonates the flour, and it is sold again to another bidder for charity. This continues until the sack has been sold to 300 people, raising $8,000 ... and Gridley still has the "Sanitary Flour Sack" in his possession. When the Virginia City residents hear of this, they invite Gridley to auction the flour in their city, as well. So begins a three-month fundraising tour, with stops in Gold Hill, Silver City, Dayton, Carson City, San Francisco, St. Louis, and many other locations. Each city tries to outdo the others in generosity, with telegrams spreading the news and upping the level of excitement from city to city. In total, $150,000 is raised, making the flour worth $3,000 a pound.

Chapter 46

Next Twain profiles "nabobs," suddenly rich miners who are often of a working-class background. These rags-to-riches stories abound. One such is John Smith, a former hay farmer who strikes it rich. Smith travels about Europe, where he admires England's hogs, Spain's sheep, and the cattle of Rome. Twain offers several stories in which mine owners sell or trade their shares just before the mine hits a rich lode, including the Gould & Curry mine and the Ophir Company. In another case, a telegraph operator in Virginia City gets rich using insider information; he buys and sells stocks according to the reports he reads on the telegrams. Other scams are related, "But why go on?" says Twain; there are too many stories to tell. Most of the rich nabobs lose their money and return to "poverty and obscurity" again. Twain offers one last story of Colonel Jim and Colonel Jack, two Nevada nabobs who go on an adventure in New York. The unsophisticated Jack tries to hires a public city bus for the day, thinking it is a grand private carriage. As the driver stops for other passengers, Jack graciously welcomes them aboard and insists they keep their money. Soon, the confused passengers understand what's going on, and they watch the proceedings with quiet amusement. Jack declares New Yorkers to be incredibly friendly, and as the bus fills up, people begin to chuckle. As Jack and Jim exit the bus, Jack invites the driver to stop by his hotel later if further payment is required.


For the first time, the reader learns something of Twain's past in Chapter 42, and it helps to illuminate his character. He has had to fend for himself since age 13, and has never had any money to spare. Knowing this, his constant hustling and quest for riches are more understandable. Twain's reluctance to return home may in part be because his father was a failure in business when he died, and Twain doesn't want to be judged in the same way. The job offer from the Enterprise is a godsend when Twain needs it most. The job provides a steady income at a profession that actually uses his talents, unlike mining, for which he is ill-suited. (He has neither the physical stamina for the work nor the patience for the time it requires to make a profit.)

As Twain takes up the editor job, the theme of language comes to the forefront again. His boss has definite beliefs about the sort of language that should be used in reporting—strictly factual—yet Twain deviates from the facts without hesitation as needed. He doesn't seem to consider his exaggerations or fabrications as lies. Instead, he creates something to write about, which is what he's being paid to do, in his mind. Ironically, Twain's journalistic lies are rewarded with a raise. His competition with rival Boggs seems more good-natured than not, with each enjoying besting the other and printing the news first. Twain tells of his own triumphs but also of how he is tricked by Boggs, proving that he can take a joke as well as anyone.

The "flush times," an era of general prosperity and easy wealth, are a high point in Twain's experience in a Western mining community. Virginia City sounds just as exciting as any metropolis back East, and perhaps even more so, with the chance of instant riches always just within reach. The people are generous with their cash, as demonstrated in the heartwarming story of the Sanitary Flour Sack's extraordinary charity tour. Civic pride is shown there, too, with cities competing to top each other in the amount of funds raised. Despite these and other positive indicators of civilized life, though, Virginia City is still somewhat wild and unregulated. Miners are allowed to blast underneath busy city streets, and absurd claims (such as mines located in cellars) are never questioned. Bribery seems rampant, with untold numbers of people buttering Twain up by offering him complimentary shares of stock. (Twain's attitude to mining has changed greatly by now, though, as he pities the eager miners he was once exactly like.) Corruption and deceit are not uncommon, such as with the North Ophir owner who "salts" his mine with melted-down silver coins.

Bad timing and ill luck continue to plague Twain when it comes to wealth, and Virginia City is no different in this regard. Though he is rolling in pocket money and shares of (mostly worthless) mines, he misses out on a few golden opportunities that could have made him rich. As has happened before, it is usually Twain's own neglect that causes him to miss these opportunities. He delays accepting mining stocks that then become valuable, thus missing out on potential windfalls. Twain seems to take some consolation (or perhaps amusement) in the fact that he's not alone in this predicament, pointing out others who have lost fortunes within their grasp. He also makes fun of those people who do strike it rich with his "nabob" stories. Each anecdote makes the nabob either look like a crooked cheat (such as the telegraph operator who gets rich through insider trading information) or an ignorant rube (such as country bumpkin Colonel Jack, who has never been to a big city). Twain's stories taste a bit of sour grapes here—if he can't get rich quick, he'll make fun of those who do—but they are still entertaining. John Smith's story, for example, proves the old adage that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. When Smith travels to Europe, it isn't the museums or cathedrals or monuments he takes note of, but rather the livestock.

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