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Roughing It | Context


The Changing West

Countless tribes of Native Americans lived on the land west of the Mississippi, with a population originally numbering in the millions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, portions of the land were claimed or occupied by England, France, or Spain. Mexico was also a Spanish territory and at the time and was a much larger nation than it is today, consisting of much of what is now the American Southwest. Starting with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States began to expand into and settle the West purposefully, sometimes peaceably (through treaty) and sometimes forcibly (through war). Change escalated in the 1840s with milestones such as the annexation of Texas (1845) and the formation of Oregon Territory (1846). Moreover, in 1848, Mexico ceded a vast amount of territory to the United States, including the land where the majority of Roughing It takes place—the future states of Utah, Nevada, and California. This was the same year that gold was discovered in California, leading to a large migration of miners eager to cash in on the Gold Rush. These (mostly) men are the pioneers Twain refers to in his descriptions of the early mining population of California, with its stalwart specimens of manhood (Chapter 57).

Events fell into place rapidly after this, with the organization of the territories of New Mexico and Utah (1850) and the state of California (1850). In 1857 the U.S. Congress passed the Overland California Mail Act, which recruited stagecoach companies for mail delivery. Twain experiences this firsthand when he sleeps on sacks of mail on the Overland route just four years later. Change accelerated again with the discovery of silver at the Comstock Lode in Nevada (1859), after which the boomtowns of Virginia City and Carson City quickly sprang up. Communications were then improved again because a more reliable communication network was urgently needed to deliver news of the Civil War (1861–65). The Pony Express (1860) helped important news reach California far faster than previously. However, it was ultimately the Pacific Telegraph Act (1860) that opened up communications with the Western regions of the United States. On October 24, 1861, the first telegram was sent from California to the East, and on the same day, the Pony Express ceased operations.

These events began during Twain's boyhood and unfolded as he grew into adulthood. Born in 1835, Twain's opportunity to travel west came in 1861 at age 26. In that year, Nevada was organized into a U.S. territory and Twain's brother, Orion Clemens, was appointed as its Secretary. Twain arrives just in time to catch the height of "silver fever" and witness historical changes of incredible significance. Virginia City and Carson City are only a few years old, and Nevada isn't even a state yet (it becomes one in 1864). The Pacific Railroad Act (1862) further elevates the pace of change in the West, as transportation switches over from stagecoaches and wagons to trains. The building of the Transcontinental Railroad begins in 1863 while Twain is living in Nevada. The railroad is completed in 1869, making California easily accessible and uniting the nation "from sea to shining sea."

Tall Tales

The tall tale is a classic genre of American folk literature, though tall tales can be found elsewhere in the world, as well. A tall tale is told as if it were true, but it has elements that are impossible to believe. Tall tales often have a personable narrator who may claim to have witnessed or taken part in the story. These stories are generally humorous and involve incredible adventures or feats of strength, daring, or some other personal characteristic. Such a story may be about people, animals, events, or almost anything. The main character of a tall tale may have exaggerated body features, being the "tallest," "biggest," or some other superlative quality. Tall tales have often been passed on by word of mouth, though many have been written down, too.

Some tall tales are entirely fictional, such as the popular tale of American lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the fictional hero who is giant in size, appetite, and strength. Tall tales boast that he created the Grand Canyon, had a kitchen stove taller than a pine tree, and could eat 40 bowls of porridge in one sitting. Other tall tales are exaggerated versions of a true story or (mostly) fictional stories about a real person. Real historical figures who feature in tall tales include American missionary Johnny Appleseed, American soldier Davy Crockett, and African-American railroad construction worker John Henry. A modern-day celebrity around whom tall tales have sprung up is Chuck Norris, a famous American martial artist and actor. Chuck Norris "facts" include humorous boasts such as, "When Chuck Norris does push-ups, he doesn't push himself up ... he pushes the earth down."

Tall tales of the West abound, and Twain adds many tall tales of his own to Roughing It. One of the most outrageous is that of George Bemis and the runaway buffalo, which supposedly climbed a tree to try to catch Bemis (Chapter 7). A popular tall tale Twain hears repeatedly is how famous American journalist Horace Greeley had a bumpy ride in which his head burst through the ceiling of the stagecoach (Chapter 20). Twain's "Genuine Mexican Plug" horse jumps over "a wheelbarrow and a Chinaman" in a single leap (Chapter 24) and is said to cause as much destruction as an earthquake. Then there is Dick Baker's cat, which was allegedly blown into the air and out of sight for two and a half minutes by a mining blast (Chapter 61). These are only a few of the exaggerated tales Twain includes to add color and humor to his tale of the West.

Roughing It as a Travel Text

Books about travel and adventure were well-received leading up to Twain's time, with many explorers and authors paving the way in travel writing of the era. Published journals of exploration included British explorer Captain James Cook's travels around the world (1769, 1772–1779) and American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's trek through the West (1804–06). English naturalist Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) recorded his travels around the tip of South America and elsewhere. Other prominent writers who published travel narratives in the first half of the 19th century included U.S. president John Quincy Adams (Silesia [Poland], 1804), American writer Washington Irving (Spain, 1832), American writer James Fenimore Cooper (Europe, 1836–37), English writer Charles Dickens (United States, 1842, and Italy, 1844–45), and English writer Mary Shelley (Germany and Italy, 1844).

Not long before Twain began publishing his own travel narratives, various volumes of travel writing influenced his approach. Two such books were American journalist William Cowper Prime's Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia and Tent Life in the Holy Land, both published in 1857. Prime was prone to exaggeration and may have even included fictional incidents in his volumes. Twain parodies Prime's writing in his own debut travel book The Innocents Abroad (1869), which shares the topic of travel in the Holy Land. Another voice whom Twain would have been well aware of was Horace Greeley, the famous American journalist mentioned in two separate anecdotes in Roughing It (Chapters 20 and 70). Greeley published his travel book An Overland Journey (1860) about his 1959 journey on the Overland Trail to Salt Lake City. This is the same route Twain travels in 1861 and writes about in Roughing It in 1872. Greeley's version of the journey is factual and straightforward; he is a journalist at heart and writes to inform. Twain, on the other hand, frequently diverges from the strict truth in order to make the reader laugh. He is a humorist first and foremost, mixing strange-but-true facts, amusing fiction, and exaggerated stories that fall somewhere in between. In doing so, he creates a travelogue in his own unique style with immense popular appeal.

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