Roughing It | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Roughing It | Chapters 78–79 | Summary



Chapter 78

Mark Twain boards a ship return to San Francisco "after half a year's luxurious vagrancy" in Hawaii. Their ship hits a two-week dead calm on the return trip with no wind to propel them. The passengers amuse themselves by throwing bottles at whales and chatting with the passengers of another boat that is becalmed quite nearby. Back in the city, Twain is again without employment or money, so he cooks up a public lecture to try to raise some funds. His friends think it will be a failure, but an editor encourages him to try it: "Take the largest house in town, and charge a dollar a ticket." Twain can't resist this bold plan, so he books the opera house at $50 (on credit) and spends $150 on advertising. The event poster notes, "Doors open at 7 ½. The trouble will begin at 8."

Worrying that he won't make his money back, Twain is so stressed he can't sleep. He manages to sell 200 tickets to his friends, but then he's afraid they won't come. Worried that his material won't get laughs, Twain asks three loud friends to sit in the audience and laugh at appropriate times. He also persuades a popular citizen and his wife to attend and be seated in prominent box seats, where all will see them. The wife promises to laugh if Twain turns to her during the performance and smiles. Twain even gives a free ticket to a drunk named Sawyer who approaches him on the street with, "if you knew how bad I wanted to laugh, you'd give me a ticket."

The evening of the performance arrives, and despite his extreme anxiety of failure, Twain finds the house completely packed. He quells his stage fright by seeking friendly faces in the crowd and begins to speak. Twain's allies perform beautifully, supporting weak jokes with gales of laughter that incite the crowd to laugh, too. Twain then delivers a serious bit of lecture that he hopes will affect the audience emotionally, and it does. However, he accidentally smiles at Mrs. ----, and she "promptly delivered a mellow laugh" that sets the entire audience roaring. His show gets fabulous reviews the next day, and Twain reaps "an abundance of money" from the venture.

Chapter 79

Twain begins a career as a lecturer, one of the first to do so on the Pacific Coast, and he tours for a few weeks in Nevada and California. He lectures in Virginia City just two days after a daring stagecoach robbery, and then lectures in Gold City nearby. On the hike back from Gold City over a hill, Twain and his agent Mike are accosted by a half dozen armed bandits. One demands his money and watch but at the same time insists that Twain keep his hands up in the air. With six pistols in his face, Twain calmly tries to explain the problem. At last the men search him and Mike, taking their money and valuables, then demand they remain motionless with their hands in the air for 10 minutes while they make their escape. Twain then reveals that the robbery is all a practical joke, with Mike in on it, and only himself believing it to be real. Although it is freezing atop the hill, Twain insists they remain with their hands up longer than required. Twain finds some satisfaction in the fact that the "robbers" had waited for them in the cold for two hours. He then claims they hadn't really frightened him that much, he was only afraid their guns might go off accidentally. Unfortunately, Twain gets a terrible cold that leaves him sick for three months, so he now dislikes practical jokes.

Twain returns to San Francisco and then onward to New York, his old home. On the boat there, a cholera epidemic kills several passengers a day. Twain finds New York dismal now, for too much has changed with his old friends. Many are dead, in jail, or have moved away. Thus ends his "three month" trip to Nevada, which has stretched into seven years. The final moral of the story, writes Twain, is this: people who are hard workers should stay home and make good of their lives, while the lazy should leave home "and then you will have to work."


After bouncing from career to career for the last several years, Twain finally seems to find a profession that's well-suited to his skills and talents. He's an entertainer at heart, and thanks to his gift of storytelling, the lectures are a huge hit. The book's theme of language is demonstrated here again, this time as the means for Twain's success. Twain demonstrates his knack for drumming up interest and making things happen with ambition and passionate energy. Rather than simply letting the cards fall where they may, he sets the stage for success by planting ringers in the audience to help get the laughs going. His intriguing poster with its unusual message, "the trouble will begin at 8," is titillating and raises interest in the San Francisco lecture. For the first time in the book, Twain finally experiences "an abundance of money." This comes to him through his natural talents rather than through get-rich-quick schemes, such as mining, that don't really suit him.

There are still problems and dangers along the way, from the "robbery" outside of Gold Hill to the cholera epidemic on the boat. Twain, who is usually good-natured about being the butt of a joke, ceases to see the humor in practical jokes after the armed hold-up. Sadly, his nostalgia for New York evaporates with the reality of how life there has changed while Twain was away. His seven-year story, which has rambled on and digressed for more than 400 pages of stories, ends with a simple, humorous moral. In retrospect, Twain realizes that, despite his own lazy tendencies, being on his own in the world has forced him to work to make something of himself. His moral is a gentle warning to the starry-eyed that adventures are not always what they're cracked up to be; they can be a lot of hard work. It may be easier to simply stay home and build a good life there.

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