Q: Which celebrated writer traveled with a friend across America and then penned a classic about it in record time—though not, so the story goes, without the aid of his favorite stimulant?
I don’t mean Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road turned 50 this year to great fanfare. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, had him beat by miles. In a letter dated March 14, 1882, a decade after his travelogue Roughing It was published, Twain recalled: “I sat down with a contract behind me to write a book of five or six hundred pages . . . and then I found myself most seriously obstructed. I was three weeks writing six chapters. Then I gave up the fight [to give up smoking], resumed my three hundred cigars, burned the six chapters, and wrote the book in three months, without any bother or difficulty.”
“Plus ça change,” one might say, but he’d damn well better say it in English. Roughing It is as American as it gets, wreathed in smoke rings and spurred by the “vigorous new vernacular of the occidental plains and mountains” that it describes in such manic, hilarious and sometimes painterly detail. There is no better route to the days of stagecoaching, Brigham Young’s Utah, the Comstock Lode and the riotous, dissolute youth of the Pacific Coast.
On July 18, 1861, at the outset of the Civil War and just days after his involvement with a Confederate volunteer militia came to an end (see “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed”), Twain joined his older brother, Orion, on a journey to the Nevada Territory, of which Orion had been appointed secretary by President Lincoln. They went by steamboat from St. Louis to St. Joseph, Mo., and onward by stagecoach. “There was no Pacific railroad,” Twain reminds us, “in those fine times of ten or twelve years ago—not a single rail of it.”
It would be rough going, but it behooves us not to pity our hero too much. With Twain at the reins, a modest degree of exaggeration is unavoidable. If a buffalo hunt goes awry, count on the buffalo to climb a tree in pursuit of his would-be assassin. Station food isn’t merely bad; it’s condemned army bacon and “slumgullion,” a concoction that “pretended to be tea” but contained “too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind . . . to deceive the intelligent traveler.” Some of the figures he meets along the way are diabolical: “Now and then a division-agent was really obliged to shoot a hostler through the head to teach him some simple matter that he could have taught him with a club if his circumstances and surroundings had been different.”
Twain prefaces a preposterous anecdote by noting dryly that it “may or may not have occurred,” but in this only semitrue relation, he reveals his passion for tall tales and extravagant embroideries, his own and everyone else’s.
This is a true American art form, and it’s a shame to see it debased by the self-aggrandizing “memoirists” of our own day. Twain the yarn-spinner is courteous enough to wink from time to time. After retailing a polygamy horror story got secondhand from a Salt Lake City “Gentile” (“I could not sleep. It appeared to me that the whole seventy-two women snored at once”), he deadpans, “Some instinct or other made me set this Johnson down as being unreliable.” Despite this allowance, and a respectful account of his audience with Brigham Young, Twain writes off the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.”
It’s after he deposits his brother in Carson City, Nev., and makes the requisite pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe that things really pick up. We were speaking of “dead pans” and “deposits”: Our hero, like everyone around him, comes down with the gold fever and heads straight for a Humboldt County mining camp, “eleven cabins and a liberty pole.” He learns that “nothing that glitters is gold,” and as quickly unlearns it, much to his detriment. Penniless, he slaves away in a quartz mill, extracting silver from ore. A misadventure on California’s Mono Lake, a bizarre alkaline sea studded with tufa towers and lousy with flies and brine shrimp, proves that his luck can indeed get worse.
Twain eventually strikes it rich by becoming a journalist. One of the book’s most gratifying episodes is his discovery by the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, which gives him a position on the basis of some funny letters he’d sent in. The job affords him an opportunity to hone his craft—that craft being fiction—as he abuses his editorial influence to drive up the value of bogus or “wild cat” mines, then lives large off stock given to him by grateful owners.
The “flush times” don’t last, but Twain’s gift grows and grows. He makes his way to San Francisco, tells us of earthquakes and Chinatown, and is sent to Hawaii to report for the Sacramento Union. For sheer weirdness it would be hard to top Twain losing his bearings in a lava field (earlier he got lost in a blizzard), or his pathetic attempt at surfing, after which he makes the premature judgment that “none but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”
Yet it’s exactly the sort of weirdness that road trips are made of, and having experienced it firsthand recently, I can understand a writer’s unwillingness to let the adventure end. My own 4,300-mile odyssey between New York and California led me to the true believers in the “Mothman” of Point Pleasant, W.Va.; I soaked in Arkansas hot springs once sullied by Al Capone; I passed through a town—you can guess the state—with a “Seven Wives Inn.” The Grand Canyon and Painted Desert were humbling, but I was mesmerized by the minor-key pandemonium of a roomful of slot machines or a San Francisco pier covered with barking sea lions.
Twain had superior material, but nevertheless all this brought to mind the special genius of Roughing It. It preserves the end of an inimitable era and an American “road” that outstrips all of its successors in vividness and promise. The book also documents the nascence of a great native talent. Twain “finds himself” the old-fashioned way, by finding everything else under the sun. The outcome, for which every American should be grateful, is that after this he never dreams of going back to honest work—though I shouldn’t slander him by suggesting he was ever really there to begin with.