Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 62–66 | Summary



Chapter 62

A penniless Mark Twain returns to San Francisco and picks up work as the San Francisco correspondent for his old paper, the Virginia City Enterprise. He tires of the work, though, and wants a change. Luckily, he scores a job that sends him on a trip to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to write letters for the Sacramento Union. On the sea voyage there, he meets "the old Admiral," who is not actually an admiral. He has been bestowed the title by the islanders, who admire him greatly. A retired seaman from a whaling ship, the Admiral is sometimes fearsome on the outside but tenderhearted on the inside. He champions the underdog, hates drunkenness (though he himself drinks a great deal of whiskey), and is covered in sailors' tattoos. He dotes on his terrier, Fan, and reads only one newspaper, a paper supporting the South's secession from the Union. The Admiral also completely makes up history to suit his own arguments, and he is such a formidable speaker he usually gets away with it. His political rants often clear the room, as listeners flee from his profanity, table-pounding, and chair-kicking antics. People on the ship begin to avoid him when it looks like he is spoiling for an argument.

At last, though, the Admiral is challenged by a quiet passenger named Williams, who questions a "fact" the Admiral had previously stated about the Civil War. (This "fact" was that two Northern clergymen had precipitated the secession of South Carolina by burning Southern women and children alive.) The other passengers are amazed at his deliberate baiting of the old sea captain and watch with interest as he responds. The Admiral erupts with profanity and indignation while Williams waits calmly for his turn to speak. Unexpectedly, he thanks the Admiral for clearing up the confusion on the matter at hand and confirming its authenticity again. The Admiral is entirely pleased, for "nobody had ever received his bogus history as gospel before," and he is left speechless. Williams then continues by laying out an even more preposterous piece of made-up history to counter the Admiral's original story. He cites a similar but earlier episode in which two South Carolina clergymen burned at the stake a Northern widow and her adopted, epileptic orphan child. "You are too well informed a man not to know all about that circumstance," he says to the Admiral. This incident caused the Northern clergymen to act in retaliation, he claims, and he charges the Admiral to admit that it is so, for "it is only fair." The Admiral is flummoxed and must concede. He does not know how to argue against "his own invincible weapon—clean, pure, manufactured history, without a word of truth in it." He makes an excuse to leave the room, and the passengers erupt in cheers and laughter. The Admiral stops talking politics on the ship entirely, and the people are left in peace to enjoy the voyage.

Chapter 63

The ship arrives at Honolulu, and Twain admires its straw huts, white cottages with green shutters, lush foliage, and abundance of flowers. There are fat, contented cats everywhere, and the people are mostly "almost as dark as Negroes." The women are exotic and beautiful, wearing loose dresses and flowers in their hair. Some of the men wear only a breech-clout and a stovepipe hat, while some of the children are "clothed in nothing but sunshine." It is a calm place, fragrant with flowers, offering tall, green mountains and cool, deep valleys. The ocean and shore, too, have their charms, and fresh fruits are abundant. However, "these enchanted islands" also have scorpions, mosquitoes, tarantulas, and poisonous centipedes that make it impossible to sit on the grass or get a good night's sleep.

Chapter 64

Twain arranges a pleasure excursion by horseback to Diamond Head with a party of nine ladies and gentlemen. He is running late to meet them, so Captain Phillips gives him a carriage ride which covers a half mile in sixteen minutes. "That's over three miles an hour," Phillips crows. When he arrives at the meeting spot, the American Hotel, they've already departed, so Twain tries to catch up by horse. The horse has a mind of its own, taking him from one home's gate to another while a frustrated Twain sweats in the hot sun. The horse falls asleep walking, and after Twain wakes it up, it tries to climb over a high stone wall. They come to a grove of coconut trees, a plant Twain describes as "a feather duster struck by lightning."

Not far off is the ruin of "an ancient heathen temple—a place where human sacrifices were offered up" in the past. This happened well before the missionaries arrived to make the native islanders "permanently miserable," says Twain. The missionaries taught of heaven (and how hard it is to go there) and of hell (and how easy it is to get to). They also encouraged the islanders to work for money to buy food (instead of fishing for food and then taking it easy). The temple is made of lava blocks and once had three altars, and according to hearsay, thousands were sacrificed there surrounded by "naked and howling savages." Further, King Kamehameha was said to have impaled the heads of his enemies on the temple's walls after he invaded and conquered the island (Oahu). Twain writes that Kamehameha forced the people to do his bidding and then had them killed "for trifling offenses" or as sacrifices. He then notes that, in contrast, the missionaries fed, clothed, and educated the islanders. Moreover, the missionaries had gotten rid of the "tyrannous" chiefs and introduced laws and punishments that were equal for all.

Chapter 65

Twain and the party come to an old battleground, where they gather "the bleached bones of men" as souvenirs from the ground. The place is a mystery, its story unknown. Some believe it is an ancient site, while others say Kamehameha fought there. One legend holds that defenders of the island drew a line on that very field and swore never to let Kamehameha's army cross. They failed, and either died there or were driven over a nearby cliff. The party returns to town at nightfall, quite worn out. Twain then relates how difficult it is to hire a reliable horse on the island. He does not trust the "Kanakas" (native islanders), whom he claims will overcharge or otherwise cheat a person given the chance. The horses are overworked, and some have open sores or other defects (such as being blind in one eye). It is cheap to buy a horse, though, and hay and grain to feed it are also cheap. The saddle and bridle, though, are expensive ($20–35), but these can also be rented for much less.

Chapter 66

Twain goes to the crowded marketplace on Saturday afternoon, where native girls ride up and down the street in colorful clothing, from flowing scarves to silk robes. There are a few "heathen" islanders from the South Seas, with blue-tattooed faces and "light yellow skin." Poi merchants sell the paste-like food by the gallon in gourd bowls. Made from the taro root, poi is a nutritious, starchy staple of the local diet and is eaten with the fingers from a community bowl. Also for sale is the awa root, which is used to make an alcoholic drink that is believed to have medicinal properties. Fish, too, can be had at the fish market, though "the native ... eats the article raw and alive! Let us change the subject," says Twain. He then tells how Saturday used to be a "grand gala day" when everyone came out to feast and dance "the lascivious hula-hula." This tradition, which interferes with "labor and the interests of the white folks," has been mostly killed by various laws implemented by the white community. Missionaries have also done their share to change the culture of the islands through the Christian religion and education. The islanders can all read and write in their native language, and they love to go to church. Strangers visiting are always thought to be either preachers or whaling captains, which "form one-half of the population." (The remaining population is one-quarter common native islanders and one-quarter high-ranking government officers, notes Twain.)


Chapter 62 provides a humorous look at human nature through the personalities of the Admiral and Williams. Politics is never an easy topic to discuss when people have differing opinions, and a person like the Admiral makes such discussion even harder. His ranting and violence intimidate those around him, and it is impossible to disprove his made-up stories. While the opinionated Admiral may be admired in Hawaii, he is an unpleasant annoyance on the ship. Mild-mannered Williams finally decides to put him in his place—possibly to show that the seemingly meek can indeed defeat the mighty through cleverness. Williams handles the seaman deftly, flattering him and making a big deal out of his extensive (false) knowledge of history. By validating the Admiral's statements completely (saying they are true when he knows they are not), Williams sets up a situation in which the Admiral must do the same or lose face in front of everyone. The Admiral will never admit that he hasn't heard of the case Williams mentions, and he can't disprove it either—just as no one could disprove his own earlier fabrication. He is defeated by his own "weapon" of untruths and the cleverness of Williams. This story may also be a reminder from Twain to the reader not to take everything they hear at face value, particularly when it comes to politics.

In Chapters 62 through 65, Twain returns to straightforward travel narration, relating his observations on the landscape, people, customs, and history of Hawaii. His role now, though, is purely as a tourist rather than as a resident, so most of what he writes about are tourist attractions or oddities. He depicts the native islanders as exotic and not quite civilized, with naked children running about and a history of human sacrifice and illiteracy. There is clearly a line of separation between the native islanders and the whites and missionaries who came later. The whites seem to have the upper hand, controlling the islanders both subtly (through religion and education) and not-so-subtly (through legislation against local traditions such as the hula dance).

Twain's stance on the missionaries is unclear. On the one hand, he notes the benefits they brought to the islanders, such as education, religion, and clothing. On the other hand, he says the islanders became "permanently miserable" after learning of heaven and hell and getting jobs to earn money. The "benefits" of the modern world may not really be benefits after all, but just a different form of misery or oppression. Before the missionaries came, the islanders presumably lived naked and free, gathering food from nature, enjoying life, and occasionally being sacrificed to the gods. After the missionaries came, they had to learn to wear clothes, go to school, get jobs, and so forth, leading to a life full of work and out of touch with nature. (And though their bodies weren't sacrificed anymore, there was always the threat of going to hell looming.) Whatever his personal beliefs, Twain makes the most of a sensational subject, throwing in plenty of phrases like "naked and howling savages" to titillate the reader. Just as it does today, gore and war made for exciting entertainment, so Twain throws in a battle story and the bones of dead warriors, too.

Twain also writes a great deal about horses. Horses were not merely ridden for pleasure on the islands, but were a viable mode of transportation. There were few roads and no railroads, so people got around on foot, by boat, or by horse. Twain slides a few jokes into these descriptions, too, such as the one about the proud Captain Phillips, whose horse can trot at "over three miles an hour!" (An average person can walk a mile in about 20 minutes ... three miles an hour.) Twain's inability to control his headstrong horse also adds a note of comedy.

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