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26 June, 2013
My Mark Twain
Roughing It
by Howells, William Dean


(From the Atlantic Monthly, June 1872)

We can fancy the reader of Mr. Clemens's book finding at the end of it (and its six hundred pages of fun are none too many) that, while he has been merely enjoying himself, as he supposes, he has been surreptitiously acquiring a better idea of the flush times in Nevada, and of the adventurous life generally of the recent West, than he could possibly have got elsewhere. The grotesque exaggeration and broad irony with which the life is described are conjecturably the truest colors that could have been used, for all existence there must have looked like an extravagant joke, the humor of which was only deepened by its nether-side of tragedy. The plan of the book is very simple indeed, for it is merely the personal history of Mr. Clemens during a certain number of years, in which he crossed the Plains in the overland stage to Carson City, to be private secretary to the Secretary of Nevada; took the silver- mining fever, and with a friend struck "a blind lead" worth millions; lost it by failing to comply with the mining laws; became local reporter to a Virginia City newspaper; went to San Francisco and suffered extreme poverty in the cause of abstract literature and elegant leisure; was sent to the Sandwich Islands as newspaper correspondent; returned to California and began lecturing and that career of humorist which we should all be sorry to have ended. The "moral" which the author draws from the whole is: "If you are of any account, stay at home and make your way by faithful diligence; but if you are of 'no account' go away from home, and then you will have to work whether you want to or not."

A thousand anecdotes, relevant and irrelevant, embroider the work; excursions and digressions of all kinds are the very woof of it, as it were; everything far-fetched or near at hand is interwoven, and yet the complex is a sort of "harmony of colors" which is not less than triumphant. The stage-drivers and desperadoes of the Plains; the Mormons and their city; the capital of Nevada, and its government and people; the mines and miners; the social, speculative, and financial life of Virginia City; the climate and characteristics of San Francisco; the amusing and startling traits of Sandwich Island civilization -- appear in kaleidoscopic succession. Probably an encyclopedia could not be constructed from the book; the work of a human being, it is not unbrokenly nor infallibly funny; nor is it to be always praised for all the literary virtues; but it is singularly entertaining, and its humor is always amiable, manly, and generous.

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