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Written by Timothy Sexton
Twain crosses paths with a number of memorable people in the book, including a few famous one. For instance, legendary Mormon leader Brigham Young. Twain found Young and Mormonism quite fascinating, and the most memorable insertion of metaphorical language relative to him really brings to the fore exactly how controversial a figure he was in American history even outside the limited sphere of polygamy:
“There is a batch of governors, and judges, and other officials here, shipped from Washington, and they maintain the semblance of a republican form of government—but the petrified truth is that Utah is an absolute monarchy and Brigham Young is king!”
One of the most memorable characters in the book is a fearsome and ferocious stagecoach foreman named Slade whose reputation for violence finally caught up with him. Twain eventually meets the man whom he describes as
“a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity” and ultimately decides that though he may have been deserving of the reputation, he could also be unexpectedly gentlemanly.
The Gold Miners
At one point, Twain decides to go into the business of prospecting for gold in the Sacramento Valley where he dives headlong into what he describes as “the only population of the kind that the world has ever seen gathered together.” That bit of possibly literal hyperbole paves the way for a metaphorically rich description of gold miners that almost beyond a doubt served to inspire huge hunks of his readership to go west:
“it was an assemblage of two hundred thousand young men—not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and energy, and royally endowed with every attribute that goes to make up a peerless and magnificent manhood—the very pick and choice of the world’s glorious ones.”
In the Footsteps of Captain Cook
An interesting use of figurative language occurs when Twain arrives in Kealakekua Bay, the Pacific paradise where Captain Cook landed, and stands on the very spot where Cook would be later be killed by the natives he had so brutalized. Twain engages metaphorical imagery to create and sustain a moment of seemingly sincere emotional connection to the gravity of the location only to ironically pull the rug out from under the reader at the last second:
“As the red sun looked across the placid ocean through the tall, clean stems of the cocoanut trees, like a blooming whiskey bloat through the bars of a city prison, I went and stood in the edge of the water on the flat rock pressed by Captain Cook’s feet when the blow was dealt which took away his life, and tried to picture in my mind the doomed man struggling in the midst of the multitude of exasperated savages—the men in the ship crowding to the vessel’s side and gazing in anxious dismay toward the shore—the—but I discovered that I could not do it.
The artistry of Twain is on display in his description of Mono Lake. The imagery implicates it as one of the less desirable places to see when faced with the topographical majesty of the American wet. And yet the notable intrusion of pure metaphor set off from that bleak imagery surrounding by dashes ironically lends it a status that could arguably make it the most desirable spot to visit of all that Twain describes in his book:
“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”
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