Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 52–55 | Summary



Chapter 52

It is 1863 now and at the height of "flush times" in silver mining country. Mark Twain takes the opportunity to explain some of the logistics of local business to the reader. Shipments of goods travel to and from Virginia City to California by stagecoach or by wagons drawn by mules over the mountains, a distance of 150 miles. Twain lists the prices of various tonnage of freights, noting that it's significantly more expensive to ship goods during the winter. Much of his information comes from a local Wells Fargo agent (a stagecoach company and bank). The figures show that the company expects to ship $6 million in bullion that year from Virginia City alone. Six stages run constantly on the route, carrying not only silver, but also passengers and other express shipments. One estimate holds that Nevada produced $20 million in bullion that year (roughly $1 million for every 800 residents), with even greater numbers expected upon the completion of a new tunnel at the Comstock Lode.

There are mining tunnels that run for 30 miles beneath the city, supported by wooden frameworks made of giant timbers. Shafts can run 1,000 feet deep (and sometimes miners fall down them). Up to 6,000 miners swarm the tunnels, climbing ladders, traveling by cramped boxcars, and moving ore in tubs, bins, and wagons. Regular citizens may also visit the mines, where they carry candles and pocket souvenir samples of rock. Cave-ins happen at the mines sometimes, and Twain says "it is worth one's while to take the risk of descending into them" to see the great force a mountain exerts as it presses down under its own great weight. Twain offers an excerpt from a piece he published in the Enterprise about this experience, which happened at the Ophir mine. He witnesses "vast masses of earth and splintered and broken timbers piled confusedly together," with bits continuing to fall nearby. Other timbers can be heard cracking and look as if they are about to break, which makes Twain uneasy. They come to a flooded area and must backtrack, eventually emerging from the mine "all dripping with candle grease and perspiration."

Chapter 53

Twain's pals urge him to hear miner Jim Blaine tell the story of "his grandfather's old ram," and that the time to do so is when Jim is drunk. At last, Jim tells a group the story at his cabin. He rambles on about a vast number of people who are only remotely connected to the ram. There is poor Miss Wagner, who has to borrow a glass eye, a wig, and a wooden leg. And there's Jacops the coffin peddler, who lurks around the homes of the sick like a vulture waiting to pounce. He tells about Maria, daughter of the widow Billings, who "married a missionary and died in grace—et up by the savages." The stories continue until Jim nods off to sleep, and the men cry with laughter. Twain figures out that he's been tricked, for whenever Jim starts to tell the story of his grandfather's ram, he never finishes it.

Chapter 54

Mark Twain now profiles the Chinese population of Virginia City, whom he admires as hard-working, peaceful, clean-living folks who bring many benefits to the town. About 1,000 Chinese live in a separate "Chinese quarter," marked by one-story wooden buildings crowded together and very narrow streets. Twain offers an excerpt of an Enterprise article he wrote about the quarter, Chinatown. He describes "yellow, long-tailed vagabonds" smoking opium listlessly and a grocery store with birds' nests, duck eggs, and jugs of imported alcohols. There are multiple lottery schemes going at any time in the quarter. One Chinese man tells Twain, "Sometime Chinaman buy ticket one dollar hap, ketch um two tree hundred, sometime no ketch um anyting." Twain visits a "fancy store" which offers feathered fans, perfumes, and jade watch-charms and then eats lunch with chopsticks.

The main occupation of the Chinese men is washing clothes, which costs $2.50 per dozen garments—a cheap price. The men (and some of the women) are also house servants, and Twain characterizes them as obedient, quick, fast learners. They can read, write, and do math; they are frugal and let nothing go to waste; and they are sometimes swindled by tax collectors. The Chinese immigrants also observe the practice of ancestor worship. In China, deceased relatives are often buried on the family property, and many of the Chinese in America insist on being buried in China. Twain notes that at one time, every ship sailing from San Francisco took with it a great cargo of Chinese corpses. (Regulations ended this practice, mostly "as a neat underhanded way of deterring Chinese immigration," says Twain.) Twain ends the chapter by saying that the only people who treat the Chinese poorly are the "scum" and "policemen and politicians, likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum."

Chapter 55

Feeling bored with his own town and region, Twain is antsy to travel to San Francisco or some other new place. He is also wary because a state constitution is up for approval, and he fears it will ruin the region's prosperity through imposed taxes. (Twain further proposes that much money could be raised for the government if only they would institute a fine for murder.) He hopes to sell his mining shares for $100,000 and get out while the getting's good, but he bides his time instead. Meanwhile, Mr. Goodman leaves him in charge of the paper for a week, and Twain botches it up thoroughly. He complains of how difficult it is to write editorials, for it is a strain to think of new topics to write about every single day. It is much harder work than simply gathering and relaying facts, as a regular reporter does. Even so, Twain disdains to return to the lowly position of reporter now that he's been in charge, so he resigns. "I could not serve in the ranks after being general of the army," he says. Luckily, he is offered an opportunity to travel to New York to help two men sell a silver mine, an opportunity that is sure to make him a fortune.

The men have not yet arrived in town, so in the meantime, Twain decides to go to San Francisco. A colleague at the newspaper promises to send the two men along to him. At a stop along the route, a vagabond with a false leg tricks the stagecoach workers into giving him two bottles of brandy. This reminds Twain of other drunks, and he and his companions tell stories of drunk men for a while. Upon seeing the flag atop Mount Davidson as they leave town, Twain recalls the time the flag was lit up by the sun during an ominously dark, rainy day. It was the same day Vicksburg had fallen back East and the Union army had won the battle of Gettysburg. The telegraph operator was not allowed to reveal these incidents that day, though, since the news had to go to California first. Twain thought this a shame, for it would have been a great excuse for revelry in town and saluting the lit-up flag of Mount Davidson.


Twain becomes a tourist in his own city in Chapter 52, where he leads the reader on a guided tour of the mines after a cave-in. The author brings the visit to life using sensory descriptions that help readers imagine themselves there. He writes of the cracking sound of overburdened timbers, the vision of dark tunnels lit by flame, the feel of candle grease, and the smell of perspiration. For reasons of suspense, heightened interest, and personal bravado, Twain emphasizes the tremendous danger undergone by miners. It also shows his sarcastic streak, as clearly the rewards are not worth the risks, and certainly not for tourists. Twain has certainly done his research about the mining industry, drawing on helpful locals for pertinent information (such as the Wells Fargo agent). The facts and figures Twain cites offer perspective on the enormous importance of mining to the Nevada economy at the time and in the near future.

Chapter 53 is a comic interlude meant to further showcase the character of the West. Jim Blaine perfectly fits the stereotypical role of the funny, rambling drunk who falls asleep in his cups while telling tall tales. Jim's tales certainly seem far-fetched. To know even one of the outlandish characters he describes would be unusual, but to know so many of them seems impossible. Once again, though, it is actually Twain who is the butt of the joke. The other listeners take pleasure both in Jim's story and in having suckered Twain into listening to it. It is a story that has no actual story, and Twain is the only one who doesn't know it.

The Chinese population depicted in Chapter 54 adds an exotic flavor and welcome change of pace to the text. For once, it seems that Twain approves of a race that isn't Caucasian, assigning the Chinese immigrants all sorts of positive qualities. (This is in marked contrast to his previous assertions about Indians, in particular.) Some of the scenes he portrays are unflattering, such as that of the opium smokers. However, for the most part Twain seems to greatly enjoy his visit to Chinatown and to approve of what he finds there. Still, he is no less stereotypical or racist in his descriptions, even if flattering. His comments on their language, professions, and religion show no real understanding of their culture.

As in previous chapters, Twain includes a few samples of speech to give the reader an idea of how the Chinese communicate. He uses incorrect spellings and improper grammar on purpose to imitate their imperfect English. Their speech is but one more example in Nevada's vast melting pot of language and slang. Twain also offers a bit of insight on the religious practices of the Chinese community, a topic he hasn't commented on much since he passed through Mormon country. He explains the customs surrounding ancestor worship and burials in a fairly straightforward matter, hardly mocking it at all. Moreover, Twain seems genuinely outraged at the injustices the Chinese in America have faced, from being cheated at taxes to poor treatment at the hand of "scum." Twain's name-calling at the end of the chapter is a bit shocking, as it departs from his usual humorous style. However, he leaves the reader in no doubt as to his true feelings on policemen and politicians, and perhaps that was his intent.

Twain relies heavily in this section on previously published newspaper pieces, in violation of his contract to deliver 600 pages of original text and illustrations to his publisher. For this reason, he includes complaints about how difficult it is to write new material. And some of the rambling storytelling of his characters appears to be rambling storytelling of his own, inserted to divert the reader from the fact that he's not providing any new information about life on the road.

Just when it appears Twain has finally settled into life in Virginia City, his restlessness returns and he starts looking for an exit in Chapter 55. This time, it's San Francisco that lures him; it seems to be on his bucket list of places to see. Instead of cashing out his mining stocks and simply moving there, he takes a gamble that they'll be worth more in the future. (Once again, Twain has an opportunity to make some actual money, but he fails to grab it while he still can.) If Twain weren't itching to leave town, he might have deigned to return to his reporting job. Since he wants to leave anyway, it doesn't really pain him to quit. His pride (or even arrogance) has a bit to do with it too, for now that he's been the boss, he doesn't want to backpedal. Yet another get-rich-quick scheme lands in his lap, this time in the New York venture. Twain takes a risk by traveling to San Francisco anyway, rather than waiting for the two men in Virginia City, but risk seems to be his game. The offhand mention of Civil War battles reminds readers that all of this is taking place while the nation fights bloody battles. These are battles that Twain avoids while living it up in the Wild West.

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