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Written by Timothy Sexton
This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.
Twain attempts to outline in the Prefatory introduction what he is trying to accomplish with Roughing It. This is not as strange as it may seem; even today, many have trouble categorizing exactly what literary form the book is. While based on historical fact and actual events and persons, it is undeniable that elements of pure fiction is mixed with exaggeration and tall tales told by tall tale tellers prone to exaggeration.
“She was a good soul—had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary.”
For instance, Jim Blaine’s story of the old ram. Such is the effect of this introductory passage that some modern critics point to it as a precursor of genre of fiction that would not really enter the mainstream for almost another century: black humor.
There are seventy thousand (and possibly one hundred thousand) Chinamen on the Pacific coast. There were about a thousand in Virginia. They were penned into a “Chinese quarter”—a thing which they do not particularly object to, as they are fond of herding together.
One of the most troubling aspects of Roughing It for modern readers, of course, is the element of racism which is displayed, most famously toward Chinese immigrants. This particular passages seems particularly out of character for someone well-known for stepping outside the conventions of mainstream thought like Twain. And while there is no escaping or excusing the concept that any members of any culture would not take exception to being penned in like animals, it must be stressed that in comparison to other writers of the time, even this passage is remarkably progressive. So, there’s that.
Now was Brigham become a second Andrew Johnson in the small beginning and steady progress of his official grandeur. He had served successively as a disciple in the ranks; home missionary; foreign missionary; editor and publisher; Apostle; President of the Board of Apostles; President of all Mormondom, civil and ecclesiastical; successor to the great Joseph by the will of heaven; “prophet,” “seer,” “revelator.” There was but one dignity higher which he could aspire to, and he reached out modestly and took that—he proclaimed himself a God!
Another indication of the problematic nature of artfully categorizing Roughing It according to the Dewey Decimal System…or on Amazon…is the extensive section devoted to the history of Mormonism. Twain’s sojourn into the west just so happened to coincide with the period when Brigham Young was effectively molding the Mormons into his image and thus putting founder Joseph Smith to eternal rest. Obviously, from the quote above, Twain's own perspective on this transformation went far beyond the mere replacement of a figurehead into the establish of a godhead. Although not free of humor, certainly, the section dealing with the Mormons seems far more suitable to classification as straight history than much of the rest of the book.
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