Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 56–58 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 56

Mark Twain describes the "grave and somber" landscape of California, with its "monotonous" conifer trees, "imposing" mountains, and sandy plains covered with "vindictively straight" grasses. He can't understand why people rave about the state's supposed beauty when compared to the "lavish richness, the brilliant green, the infinite freshness ... that make an Eastern landscape a vision of Paradise itself." He doesn't find the climate of San Francisco all that agreeable either, for all the months are relatively the same temperature. There are eight months of cloudless sunny days followed by four months of constant rain, and both wear on Twain's nerves after a while. The weather is so dull that he even misses thunderstorms and longs for a "playful earthquake." The city's sand hills and climate do, however, promote the lavish blooming of flowers that are hard to grow in the East. Twain then compares various spots around the state. San Francisco enjoys an "eternal spring," Sacramento sweats through an endless summer, and Mono Lake shivers under constant winter. Fort Yuma is so hot that legend tells of a soldier who died and went to hell, but "telegraphed back for his blankets." He concedes the loveliness of the Sacramento Valley when viewed from a distance aboard the Pacific Railway as it winds through icy mountains above. It is "a dreamy, exquisite glimpse of fairyland," its hazy warmth "infinitely softened and spiritualized by distance."

Chapter 57

Much of the early gold mining of California happened in the Sacramento Valley, notes Twain, some 15 or 20 years ago. Now what remains are scraped hillsides and empty meadows where booming towns once stood. The men who once lived there were strong, capable, brave, and energetic, "peerless and magnificent," with no "weaklings," women, children, or elderly. Now they're all gone—either killed in street fights or "dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts." Twain laments such a waste of human potential, commenting that this breed of men is what earned California its reputation for daring new ventures and astonishing accomplishments. Those times were full of rough living—whiskey, gambling, fights, fortunes gained and lost in a day—and the people were "unspeakably happy." There were few women around, and once, a crowd gathered simply to look at an emigrant woman passing through via wagon. The men were so gratified at seeing and hearing her that they donated $2,500 to the family and sent them off with cheers. One miner even paid $150 for the privilege of kissing a toddler. ("That anecdote is true," declares Twain.) Twain himself even once lined up for a chance to peek through a crack at "a genuine, live Woman," a 165-year-old, toothless woman flipping pancakes.

Chapter 58

Mark Twain spends a few months of idleness in San Francisco, falling in love with the friendly city. As he expects to be a rich man soon, he spends money freely and lives high on the hog. Then word comes back that the state constitution has passed its vote in Nevada. Despite his earlier worries that the economy will come crashing down, Twain decides to hang onto his mining stock there. Everything continues to rise in value—people are mad with trading and speculation—but suddenly the bottom drops out. Everyone is ruined, including Twain, who quickly moves out of his expensive hotel and into a boardinghouse. He finds work as a reporter, still hoping to hear back about the New York opportunity, but needing money in the meantime. One day when he misses work, a note comes to the office asking him to meet that evening about the mining venture. Twain doesn't get the note until the next day, and by then, the mining party has already sailed East. Twain kicks himself for leaving such an important matter in another man's hands and for missing work on the one day that mattered. He returns to his "slavery, resolved to put up with my thirty-five dollars a week and forget all about it."

A month later, Twain experiences a powerful earthquake while walking down the street. The stillness of the scene is broken by shockwaves that roll the ground, shaking it up and down. Brick buildings collapse into heaps of dust and smoke, and people pour out of houses into the street. Some are half-shaved from the barber chair, and others are clothed only in their undergarments or a towel, fresh out of the bathtub. Churches empty of worshippers as organ pipes fall, and many people become seasick from the "rolling and pitching of floors and streets."

For several days, people eye the cracks in buildings, expecting them to tumble down at any moment. After a while, life resumes its course, and one day Twain picks up a copy of his old paper, the Enterprise. In it is a report of the mining party in New York, who have sold 6,000 feet of mine for $3 million. Twain writes, "Once more native imbecility had carried the day, and I had lost a million! It was the 'blind lead' over again." He falls into such a depression that his work suffers. He is asked to resign from the newspaper, at least saving him the humiliation of being fired.

Analysis

In Chapter 56, Twain offers a visual tour of California, with plenty of his own opinion thrown in—this is no unbiased report. He contrasts the region's features to Eastern landscapes to help readers get a better idea of what the state is really like. To Twain, there is no comparison: the East is a beautiful, lush paradise, while California's nature is dull and off-putting. The descriptive adjectives Twain uses have mostly negative connotations: "grave," "somber," "monotonous," "imposing," and so forth. Even the wild grasses are spiky and unwelcoming. He dislikes the weather, too, missing the four seasons of the East. In profiling the various regional climates of California, Twain highlights its great diversity of landscapes. And as usual, he manages to throw in a dash of humor in the anecdote about the Fort Yuma man who finds hell too cold for his taste.

Twain again romanticizes the old West in Chapter 57, feeling regret that the manly men who once thrived there are now gone. He idealizes the rough life of times gone by, finding glamour in its whiskey glasses and lost fortunes. When Twain characterizes the people as "unspeakably happy," this probably tells more about his own daydreams than about how life really was for these pioneers. He imagines only the most attractive (to him) aspects of life, never comparing this idealized vision with his actual experiences of mining life in Nevada. The lack of women and children makes the region seem like another world. The miners almost deify women, and having a glimpse of one serves to remind them of a gentler life. Twain writes that the miners view the passing emigrant woman "with the look of men who listened to a memory rather than a present reality." This implies a nostalgia for the women of their past, be they mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. Perhaps they also dream of a day when women will again be present in their daily world—the dream of a thriving, diverse mining community with a full contingent of citizens. Of course, when Twain steps up to get a peek at "a genuine, live Woman," the joke's on him—it's an old lady rather than a peepshow beauty.

Twain makes more poor decisions in Chapter 58. He hangs onto mining stock in the greedy hope that it will go up in value, even though his gut tells him the market is going to crash. He also loses the New York opportunity because he didn't have the patience to stay in Virginia City and take care of the matter himself. Twain is young, restless, and constantly pushing his luck—usually to his own detriment. He seems to have blind faith that somehow his dreams of riches will come true, despite numerous failures and bad decisions. On the one hand, the reader must admire this optimism and determination; on the other hand, it's hard not to think, "Will Twain ever learn?" If even once he had done the sensible thing, he could have been a rich man many times over. Much as his failures pain him, though, he never dwells on them overly long but continues to press forward, "resolved to ... forget all about it." Twain's self-pitying description of his job as "slavery" seems rather facetious, considering the Civil War and slavery were real issues in the United States at the time. He is far removed from those events, though, still playing at life with his self-focused attitude. Twain lives in such a dream world of imaginary riches that he loses touch with real life. He allows the real blessings he does have (such as a paying job) to evaporate as he wallows in his own misery.

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