51 pages 1 hour read

Mark Twain

Roughing It

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1872

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Summary and Study Guide


Roughing It (1872) is the second major work by American humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). It recounts his experiences during the Nevada silver rush of the 1860s. After his failed attempts to make a fortune as a miner, Twain would later achieve prominence as a lecturer and writer. He initially drew acclaim for his fanciful short story entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865). His best-known titles include The Innocents Abroad (1869), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and The Prince and the Pauper (1881). After his death in 1910, The New York Times declared Twain to be the greatest humorist that America ever produced.

Roughing It is autobiographical fiction that covers Twain’s life from 1861 to 1867, while he was a young man in his mid-twenties. It spans a broad geographical range. The story begins in Missouri and travels the American West via the stagecoach route to Nevada. Later segments of the book detail Twain’s experiences in California and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). The story is told using first-person narration from Twain’s perspective. No other significant characters populate the novel, but Twain frequently offers brief character sketches of individuals and groups of people.

This guide refers to the 1891 American Publishing Company edition, which is archived and available for online viewing on the Library of Congress website.

Content Warning: Roughing It contains racist and anti-Indigenous language and attitudes that were typical of Twain’s time; this guide discusses such views. The text and this guide also mention suicide.

Plot Summary

In 1861, 26-year-old Mark Twain accompanies his brother on a stagecoach journey from Missouri to Nevada. Twain’s brother has just received the job of secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory. At this time, the Overland Stage Line is the only way to cross the continent. The fare is expensive, and travel isn’t very comfortable. The three passengers must share the coach with stacks of mail bound for the territories. The conveyance is called a stagecoach because stage stations are set up at regular intervals where horses, drivers, or conductors can be switched out. Passengers are also offered food at these stops, but the food is generally substandard. Stage station attendants are often shady characters who have criminal histories.

Despite these inconveniences, Twain revels in the scenery and enjoys the rolling farmlands, open plains, and mountains, but the trip contains some hazards. Along the way, the passengers overhear a band of ruffians murder a driver, and they also worry about Indigenous attacks as they pass through tribal lands. When they arrive safely at their first major stop, Salt Lake City, Twain is intrigued by Mormonism. Unfortunately, he receives little enlightenment on the subject before the stage continues its journey through parched deserts before reaching Carson City, Nevada.

Here, Twain and his brother are surprised by the rustic nature of the territorial capital. They take rooms in a boarding house as the new secretary learns how little preparation has been made for his arrival. Realizing that he will have nothing to do as the unpaid assistant of the secretary, Twain goes off on his own. Hearing that others have found silver in the area, he begins to think he might strike it rich. Twain partners with a number of colorful characters, none of whom is able to hit pay dirt. He also tries his hand at the lumber business but accidentally burns down his timber before he even gets his business started. In another unsuccessful scheme, he stakes a silver claim worth millions but fails to work the claim in time to legally hold the property. Twain also tries to cash in on a legendary cement mine that might contain gold, but this venture fails as well.

Finally, in desperation, Twain accepts a job as a reporter for a Virginia City newspaper. Much to his own surprise, he succeeds. At the time, the town is at the peak of its silver boom, and Twain collects a substantial amount of silver stock that briefly makes him rich, at least on paper. He is also slated to manage a silver sale in New York that will earn him a large commission. Leaving the negotiation for the deal in the hands of a friend, he blithely goes off to San Francisco to live the high life.

As luck would have it, both of Twain’s financial prospects fall through, and he is once again penniless. He accepts a job as a correspondent for a Sacramento paper in which his six-month stint requires him to travel to Hawaii and send back colorful reports about the islands. Twain includes these experiences in the concluding chapters of Roughing It. At the end of his tenure as a correspondent, he returns to San Francisco, once again broke. Then, he gets the idea to rent a hall and give a lecture about his travels. With great trepidation, he addresses his audience, but the lecture proves to be a great success. Twain is then offered other travel reporting opportunities that will form the basis of another book. Roughing It ends with Twain advising people who are failures at home to go abroad; at least then they will no longer be an annoyance to their friends.