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J O H N D e W I T T Mc KEE New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology Roughing It as Retrospective Reporting Mark Twain was a reporter who reported more than the facts of a story. He would have strangled in today’s demand for “ob­ jectivity.” If he was not typical of the modern reporter, however, he was no more typical of the reporter of his own time. He used the humorous techniques of the time to heighten the point of his story. Beyond that, any comparison with his colleagues cannot go. Roughing It is an excellent example of Mark Twain’s kind of reporting. In it, he was a reporter of moods as much as of events; and if exaggeration, or understatement, or any of the other devices of humor helped to heighten the picture of the mood, he used the device. He reported facts, too, but he used them simply as a kind of base of operations. It is this very willingness to subordinate fact to mood that makes Roughing It one of the best reports of an American era in existence. As Rodman W. Paul says, “There exist accounts of this era that are more detailed, more complete, more factually accurate than Roughing It, but there are none that give a greater insight into the psychology of prospectors and would-be millionaires, into the prejudices and habits of a raw new western community, and into the folklore of frontier America.”1 Part of the reason for this insight lay in the fact that in Roughing It, as in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain was at once the reporter and one of those about whom the report was written. One of the best portraits in the entire book is the fulllength one of Sam Clemens himself, eager traveller, keen observer, creature of moods, archetypical boomer, a romantic with a realist’s eye for deflating details. Says Henry Seidel Canby: Roughing It was a timely book. . . . In it, Mark, if he had not dis­ covered his creative genius, had at least developed a technique hodm an W. Paul, “Introduction,” Roughing It (New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1953), p. vii. 114 Western American Literature which was to serve him in most of his best, and some of his worst, work. Perhaps it is the best technique for a travel book—a thread of zestful narrative upon which anecdotes are strung. Without the thread there is no information—without the anecdote there is no life. The thread here is Mark’s own firsthand experience in a fresh world. In anecdote he reaches his peak as master of the yarn, where he belongs among the greatest fabulists in history.2 The quotation answers best, perhaps, those who cavil at the lack of organization in the book. As Canby indicates, that apparent lack of organization is an important part of the emerging anecdotal style. It is an attempt—and a successful attempt—to create the illusion of yarn-spinning before a fire or of a monologue by a loquacious and entertaining stranger. But it is the illusion of speech that is important, as device, as technique. Speaking and attempting to approximate speech in writing are two very different acts. With a style depending in large part on the anecdote, the author can safely break into the narrative and add another story to the string. “That reminds me,” Twain will say, apropos of practically nothing, and he begins to spin another yarn. Usually he does this without apology, and it is only when he does call attention to the digression that the spell is broken for a time. But in Roughing It the observation is as important as the style, the prejudice is equal to the yarn. Mark Twain’s observations concerning Indians, stage superintendents, Mormons and Mormonism , the legislature, and trial by jury represent the frontier preju­ dice, distilled, heightened, and sharpened in the Mark Twain who was emerging at age thirty-six. An Indian, even fifteen years after Twain’s initial journey west, was to him on a par with the coyote and the raven, for, said he, “it is considered that the coyote, and the obscene bird, and the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 113-119
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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