Sometimes we labor under the delusion that by actively cultivating tastes for specific flavors of mortal risk, social isolation, physical pain, and other varietals of suffering we might transcend the oppressive conditions of history we find unendurable. By climbing a mountain, living in a van, or joining the cast of Survivor we convince ourselves we have agency, that we may choose where and how life will hurt us, if not when and why.
This is, I think, what Sam Clemens hoped when he chose to accompany his brother, Orion, to the Nevada Territory in the Summer of 1861. In numerous literary works, all of them published decades later, he would claim a wide range of motives for his westward adventuring, many of them transparently self-satirical. But I tend to believe the case recently laid out by Benjamin Griffin in Mark Twain’s Civil War (2019). Clemens was already traumatized by what he saw in the very earliest days of the intersectional conflict, as Union forces made control of the Mississippi River their top priority. Clemens was briefly conscripted as pilot of the Alonzo Child, and in that capacity he witnessed as few Americans yet could the potential for prolonged mass carnage which secession portended.
His niece, Annie Moffett, describes Clemens’s state of mind when he came to their home in St. Louis, where he usually stayed between steamboat voyages:
In the spring of 1861, when I was eight years old, Uncle Sam returned home to St. Louis, his occupation of pilot lost forever. He came on the last boat from New Orleans to get through the Union lines. He was obsessed with the fear that he might be arrested by government agents and forced to act as pilot on a government gunboat while a man stood by with a pistol ready to shoot him if he showed the least sing of a false move. He was almost afraid to leave the house.quoted in Mark Twain: Business Man (1946)
It was as a fugitive from Union conscription that Sam Clemens briefly joined a Confederate militia in June of 1861 and, just a few weeks later, it was as a fugitive from both Union conscription and Confederate desertion that he boarded the Overland Stage, bound for Nevada. Sam Clemens wanted no part of the Civil War, either side of it, and whatever danger might wait for him in the “Wide West,” whether in the form of fantastical Indian raiding parties, gun-toting desperadoes, or mere exposure to the wilderness, he considered it preferable to what was waiting at Bull Run, Chickamauga, and Shiloh. He may have intuited that the sensationalized dangers of settler colonial mythology in the West were largely imaginary, while he knew industrial-scale barrages of bullets and shrapnel were being prepared for both North and South.
When, almost ten years later, he set to fictionalizing his years in Nevada and California (and I do regard this as a work of autofiction, rather than a travelogue like Innocents Abroad) he gave it an ironic title: Roughing It.
Whatever hardship befell the young men of his generation who rushed west, it was better than what befell those who didn’t.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Roughing It.
In 2017, aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr, I retraced roughly the path Sam and Orion traveled in 1861. My circumstances were luxurious by comparison, but as I reread the book in my air-conditioned cabin, viewing the passing scenery from a room-length window, I was overcome by the prescience of Twain’s book for the contemporary reader.
It isn’t just his picaresque descriptions of Western landscapes that hold up, though they certainly do. It is how Twain captures the psychology of the traveler desperately trying to flee what he believes to be a doomed civilization, yet finding that doom reflected and reproduced even in the distant destinations he dared to expect he would find something different.
In Virginia City, Twain would decry a treacherous money-lust, one which was no different from, was, more accurately, a direct extension of “The Revised Catechism” of Wall Street’s robber barons: Get money. Dishonestly if you can; honestly only if you must.
In San Francisco, he found the booming entrepreneurial economy to be a mirage, much like the plantation economy of his youth, sustained only by the abuse and exploitation of a disenfranchised and dehumanized racial other. As Hsuan Hsu argues in Sitting In Darkness (2015), it wasn’t until twenty-something Sam Clemens was forced to confront the circumstances of Chinese laborers in the West that he fully realized his complicity in Black enslavement and began questioning the racial myths upon which it was based.
The text of Roughing It ends with Twain’s gloating “farewell to San Francisco.” The promise of the protagonist-narrator, after having been held up by his own supposed friends pretending to be Confederate guerrilla bandits, is that he will take his search for humanity abroad, to Hawaii, to Japan, to the Holy Land, anywhere but another U.S. territory. But it is a false hope. Because the reader already knows, by the time Roughing It is published in 1872, that in all those places the Missouri-pioneer-turned-Yankee-celebrity ended up surrounded again by “fellow savages” and “American Vandals.” There was no escaping America’s war with itself. Even overseas. There still isn’t.
It’s time to read Roughing It again. I hope you’ll join me.
Over the next two weeks, on Threadable, I’ll be hosting an asynchronous discussion of one of my favorite portions of the book: Chapters 42-45.
Threadable is a mobile-only collective reading application. It is entirely free to download and use. Once you join my Roughing It circle, you will not only be able to see my annotations, but make annotations of your own and engage in “threaded” discussions of the text with myself and other readers.
To join this reading group, download the Threadable app on your smartphone or tablet, go to the “Circles” menu, click the “Someone Invited Me” button, and enter this “Invite Code” 72469
I will be engaging with the text and responding to threads everyday between now and March 14th. Below you’ll find a growing repository of links and other supplementary materials related to our discussion. Join us!
Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College. He is also resident scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, founding editor of MarkTwainStudies.org, and executive producer of The American Vandal Podcast. His essays on Mark Twain can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mark Twain Annual, Mark Twain Journal, and across this website.
“The Best Defense Is A Good Offense: False Virtue, Fake News, & Mark Twain’s Birthday Roast of Ben Franklin” – Matt Seybold (Jan. 17, 2017)