Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 47–51 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 47

Funerals, writes Mark Twain, tell a lot about a community, and the most noteworthy funerals in Virginia City are for "the distinguished public benefactor or the distinguished rough." As an example, he describes the funeral of Buck Fanshaw, a respected saloon owner, politician, miner, and fire department officer. The entire town goes into mourning, and various townspeople resolve to make a grand funeral for him. Local rough "Scotty" Briggs is appointed to meet with the minister, "a fragile, gentle, spiritual new fledgling from an Eastern theological seminary." Meanwhile, Twain explains to the reader how "slang was the language of Nevada," since everyone who has moved there has brought their own regional slang with them. This diversity of language presents a problem for Briggs and the minister, neither of whom can understand what the other is saying. Briggs's speech is peppered with local idioms and phrases from cardplaying or bowling, while the minister's language consists of large vocabulary words and formal grammar. At last the clergyman understands that Briggs wants him to write an oratory for the funeral. Briggs sings Fanshaw's praises, such as being good in a fight, holding his whiskey well, and having a glass eye. The minister asks whether Fanshaw had any religious beliefs or was "a good man." Briggs tells how he quelled a riot the previous year by beating up 14 men, saying "He was always for peace, and he would have peace." Fanshaw took good care of his mother, Briggs adds, buying her a house and looking after her when she had the smallpox. The minister agrees to deliver the sermon at Fanshaw's funeral (complete with a grand military parade), and he does so. In the end, Briggs is converted to religion and even teaches Sunday school. Twain notes that he once heard Briggs tell the story of Joseph to his pupils, and jokes that the reader must imagine for himself what such a retelling was like.

Chapter 48

Killing a person is a badge of honor in Virginia City, where "the first twenty-six graves in the Virginia cemetery were occupied by murdered men." Twain writes that the men are all eager to gain respect by killing someone, and they may kill on the slightest pretext. (The most respected members of society are saloonkeepers, followed by bankers, lawyers, editors, and successful desperadoes and gamblers.) Desperadoes are more respected the more men they kill, and people treat them with great deference—even like royalty. Twain names many well-known desperadoes, who are more famous locally than the governor or prominent businessmen. Twain points out that these criminals mostly kill each other, rather than private citizens, since it's no challenge to kill a civilian. They also hope to die in a gunfight themselves, "with their boots on." Twain relates how, one time at a restaurant, a stranger is challenged to a duel for sitting on a man's hat. The stranger offers to let his challenger off the hook, for "I am more than a match for all of you," he boasts. To prove his skills, he then picks up a table with his teeth, bites through a glass, and shows off his knife- and bullet-scarred chest. Then he gives his name—and he is a famous desperado. The challenger promptly backs down, and in fact, invites him to dinner.

Twain also harangues the local justice system, maintaining that trial by jury does not work like it was intended to originally. When such trials were instituted by Alfred the Great of England, honest and educated jurors could be easily found who had not heard of the case. Now, contends Twain, the fast spread of news by telegraph and newspapers ensures that most educated, respectable citizens already know about the cases. This eliminates them from the jury pool, leaving "juries composed of fools and rascals." Twain concludes that the system now promotes ignorance and stupidity while excluding "men of brains and honesty," and it's no wonder justice is sometimes miscarried.

Chapter 49

Twain offers excerpts from several local newspapers to give readers a glimpse into the lives of Virginia City desperadoes. The first excerpt relates the inquest of Billy Brown, who had started shooting in a saloon while drunk and spoiling for a fight. Brown was shot dead by Deputy Marshal Jack Williams, who also appears in the next newspaper story Twain shares from four months later. A German named Charles Hurtzal had gotten drunk in a "hurdy-gurdy house" (music hall), where Williams then robbed him at gunpoint of $70. Twain notes that Williams, although an officer the law, had "the common reputation of being a burglar, a highwayman, and a desperado" who had several times robbed citizens. Five months after that, Williams was assassinated while playing cards by one of his fellow desperadoes, Joe McGee. McGee was, in turn, murdered within a year. A third newspaper report tells how Tom Reeder is badly injured during an argument with George Gumbert about Williams's assassination. Gumbert stabs him and then turns himself in to the police. Justice Atwell releases him "on his own recognizance" and orders him to appear in court that night. Meanwhile, Reeder gets his wounds treated and then hunts Gumbert down and threatens to kill him. When they part, Gumbert procures a gun and goes after Reeder, finds him in the street, and shoots him twice. Onlookers were "much excited and laughing—declaring that it looked like the 'good old times of '60.'" Gumbert is marched off to jail again (but is never charged with a crime), while Reeder dies two days later of his wounds. Twain laments that justice is lacking in Nevada, where at least a hundred men have been murdered but only two murderers have gotten the death penalty. In addition, a handful of murderers "who had no money and no political influence" went to jail, though none for longer than eight months.

Chapter 50

Twain digresses into a story from 20 years prior about Captain Ned Blakely (a fictitious name the author uses to protect his identity). Blakely, who captained ships out of San Francisco, was an honest, admirable, and hardheaded man who hated the red tape of business and law. To him, "the first and last aim and object of the law and lawyers was to defeat justice." On a voyage to the Chincha Islands (Peru), Blakely hears of a local ruffian Bill Noakes who terrorizes the island. Noakes pays a visit to Blakely's ship and challenges him to find out who is the "better man," so the Captain promptly beats him up and throws him into the water. About a week later, Noakes shoots Blakely's crewman, a "Negro" man Blakely holds very dear. Noakes retreats to his ship to avoid any consequences for the crime, but Blakely is furious and decides to take justice into his own hands. He kidnaps Noakes from his own ship at gunpoint and prepares to hang him at the harbor in the morning. He is stopped, however, by local sea captains, who convince Blakely that a trial is needed, even though many of them witnessed Noakes's crime themselves. Blakely reluctantly agrees and escorts Noakes to the trial himself. Noakes is found guilty and Blakely then gives him the opportunity to confess and repent of his crime. Noakes scowls and keeps silent, and Blakely hangs him.

Chapter 51

Mark Twain and several colleagues become contributing writers to the Weekly Occidental, a new literary journal in Virginia City. Together, they decide to write a serial novel, with each writer contributing one chapter in succession. The writers dream up a cast of ludicrous characters (a blonde heiress, a scheming lawyer, a French duke, and a "mysterious Rosicrucian") who become embroiled in love, drama, and danger. The story proceeds successfully through several authors until a new writer joins the crew. The new writer writes his chapter while drunk, and the result is a chaotic mess of marriages, scandal, wickedness, hallucinations, suicides, illness, long-lost relatives, and hell itself opening up to swallow the Rosicrucian. All of the original characters are killed off, leaving only one survivor and the devil.

The other writers are outraged and lambaste the new writer, who is bewildered at their anger and tries to appease them. He offers to rewrite the chapter, but alas, he gets drunk again and writes an even wilder version than before. The convoluted story shifts into a love-triangle, a long sea voyage in which the boat burns and sinks, a storm that drives the two true lovers more than a thousand miles apart, and the lawyer being swallowed by a whale and then coughed up just in time to stop the blonde's wedding to the hated duke. Furthermore, the writer supplies "extravagant" footnotes to the story in an attempt to show that the events are all possible. The other authors throw the manuscript at his head and kick him off the team, but it is too late to save the struggling literary journal, which ceases publication.

Twain then offers the reader an original poem titled "The Aged Pilot Man," in which a boat on the Erie Canal is beset by a terrible storm. The captain fears he will never see his family, while the frightened mules pulling the boat carry on through the heavy rain. The refrain is spoken by the pilot, Dollinger, who says "Fear not, but lean on Dollinger, / And he will fetch you through." The boat passes beneath a scary low bridge, and people along the canal fear for the lives of those on board. The crew huddles together in fear of the boat sinking, and they begin throwing heavy gear overboard, including 200 pounds of glue, "a cow, / a violin, Lord Byron's works," and other miscellaneous objects. The boat turns a corner of the canal, and a farmer lays a plank of wood from the shore to the boat, and the crew is miraculously saved.

Analysis

Once again, the differences between locals and outsiders in the West are brought into focus by Twain in Chapter 47, this time through the theme of language. Twain quotes both Briggs and the minister extensively, giving readers a thorough opportunity to compare the styles of speech for themselves. Nevada is a melting pot of slang that fascinates Twain, and Briggs's speech is particularly colorful and full of localisms that illuminate the culture. Briggs's use of phrases from playing cards or gambling, for example, indicates that it was such a common activity that most locals would understand his meaning. The minister was not only from a different regional culture (the East), but he likely did not play cards at all. (Playing cards was often viewed as a vice in the era, as seen in Chapter 32 when Mr. Ballou throws out his deck.)

Twain's boasts about killers and bravadoes are common Old Western fare. But Twain takes great pains to ensure his gunmen are as, or even more, respectable than local businessmen or politicians, both fulfilling and furthering the pastoral ideal of a lawless but democratic society where the thieves are all Robin Hoods and the sheriffs are all corrupt.

The sidenotes about the jury system serve Twain well as a way of touting his own reputation as a newspaper man. He implies that newspapers have become so ubiquitous that they serve an irreplaceable function within a democratic society. At the same time he praises his readership for being the only ones with enough brains to keep up on the news and thus become unfit for jury service.

Twain's literary journal is about as successful as any other business venture he has gotten into up to this point. No group of men he encounters can be relied upon to remain sober, sane, or even-tempered, or to work with a good will for any reasonable period of time, and writers are no different. Of course, the narrative calls into question the veracity of his own account. He is admittedly a terrible horseman, gunslinger, and miner. So why should the reader believe he fared any better as a memoirist?

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