Mark Twain asserted that his literary hybrid Roughing It was nothing more than a simple personal narrative, absent any intent to present that account as history or philosophy. Well, Mark Twain said a lot of things, some of them not to be trusted. In fact, Roughing It was more than a mere personal memoir: it helped to situated the mythology of American Frontier in the minds of those who would never get any closer to it than picking up the occasional book.
Roughing It is actually two stories combined. The first charts the path taking by Twain westward to make his fortune. Along the way, of course, were many setbacks and business failures. The second half the book could not be possible, however, unless he had finally found his fortune because the latter part of the book essentially asks the question that is almost never asked of someone setting out to make their fortune: What are you going to do with it when you make it?
The answer really lies in the volume one holds when reading Twain’s version. What he did was transform from Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, and the rest of his life was spent marketing that product. Part of that marketing was Roughing It which as a personal narrative offers a unique perspective into the transformation of the West from rugged frontier to land of myth. Who better to give an accurately ironic account of the Brigham Young’s determination to build a Mormon empire? For that matter, what other writer could possibly add anything to the stereotypical image of prospecting for gold in Nevada and California. It takes a genius of Twain’s caliber to see beyond the conventional portrayal of surface effects.
The result is that Roughing It is a transcendent work as well. Like the trek that took Clemens to Twain, Roughing It takes the readers to places he thought was completely covered by lesser writers before he finally discovered Twain’s least appreciated masterpiece.