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T O M H . T O W E R S University of Rhode Island “Hateful Reality”: The Failure of the Territory in Roughing It Like others of Twain’s works, Roughing It has seemed to many readers to suffer from a catastrophic breakdown of unity. Critics have generally agreed in defining the book’s major theme — the hero’s trans­ formation from “tenderfoot” to “old-timer”1— but they have equally agreed that the transformation is complete no later than the San Francisco chapters and possibly as early as the hero’s entry into Nevada journalism. The remainder of the book has seemed, therefore, an irrele­ vant afterthought, an unfortunate by-product of the economics of sub­ scription publishing, or yet another dismal instance of the weakness of Twain’s critical sense.2 I would suggest, however, that reading the book exclusively in terms of the hero’s transforming “initiation” is itself distortive and tends to obscure the very unity the critics seek to discover. It is very tempting to see Roughing It as an almost literal anticipation of Huck Finn and 1The fullest statement of this interpretation is by Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 52-70. An earlier version is Smith’s “Mark Twain as an Interpreter of the Far West: The Structure of Roughing It,” The Frontier in Perspective, ed. Walker D. Wyman and Clifton B. Kroeber (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), pp. 205-228. Similar, sometimes more specialized, readings appear in Kenneth S. Lynn, Mark Twain and Southwestern Humor (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1959), pp. 161-169; Franklin P. Rogers, Mark Twain’s Burlesque Patterns as Seen in the Novels and Narratives, 1855-1885 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1967), pp. 61-80; and William C. Spengemann, Mark Twain and the Backwoods Angel: The Matter of Innocence in the Works of Samuel L. Clemens (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1966), pp. 15-26. 2See, for example, James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 88-90. Cox argues that after the mining chap­ ters Twain “is at best completing the history of himself; but he is not inventing himself through his creative memory as he had done in the first volume.” Spengemann, p. 19, makes a similar judgment, and Rogers forthrightly declines even to discuss the second half of the book. 4 Western American Literature therefore to understand the hero as progressing from a Tom Sawyerish sentimentality to a firmer selfhood abetted by nature and liberated from civilization’s pretentious nonsense. But in fact the initiation into what Henry Nash Smith calls the “vernacular” world is only one complex of experience in the book, and it is neither as central nor as decisive as it has sometimes been made to seem. Disillusion, more truly than growth or initiation, is the prevailing pattern of Roughing It, and the cynical assurance of the old-timer is only another of the illusions which the hero must cast off in his constantly frustrated quest for a life of freedom and significance. The impulse to freedom and selfhood is implicit in the very premises of the narrative, and it is first manifest in the repudiation of civilization. Although the book is set in the vastness of the trans-Missouri West, its real background is the life of “the States” from which the hero is fleeing. The most obvious characteristics of civilization are vanity and pretense, the kind of false values which cause the travellers to set out for Nevada Territory burdened with “swallow-tail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions” (p. 31).3 However, civilization also means the spiritual death of “the years we had spent in the close, hot city, toiling and slaving” (p. 33). Even more, it means the chaos and violence of the Civil War. The pretentious kid gloves, “tiresome city life” (p. 37), and the War have much the same significance in Roughing It as hypocrisy, boredom, slavery, and violence have in Huck Finn. They combine to create a humanly intolerable world from which the hero must escape if he is to live...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-15
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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