Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Roughing It

Mark Twain published this travel book in 1872. Perhaps due to his use of humor, he was able to make observations that put him way ahead of his time. The premise is a supposed three month trip to Nevada that turns out being a multi-year exploration of the west. The trip was done long before interstates and airplanes, and even long before trains made the trip easy. (In one portion, he quotes a train travelogue to mock how easy the trip has become.) His journey was on horse-drawn stagecoach across the mostly undeveloped west. He has observations about the conditions of the plains and the mountains as well as the people that inhabit the area.

The first large civilized area that he encounters is Salt Lake City. He calls it the only true monarchy in America, and presents stories about Brigham Young and his "power" in the area. He had plans of trying to "expose" the Mormons. However, he came away with a fairly balanced view, which seemed much ahead of his time. He acknowledged that he would hear stories from "gentiles" about the Mormons that always seemed to have a different set of facts. He even took time to read the Book of Mormon, and quotes parts of it in his book. While he does manage to jumble a few facts of doctrine and history, his end opinion is to just let the people be. (He acknowledges that they are the hardest working people in the west, and free from most vices. And, being a humorist, he can get away with saying that the women are so comely, that the mean are doing a huge service by taking on multiple wives.)

For Indians, he also had a balanced view that was ahead of its times. Some Indians he would see as ridiculously lazy, in comparison to others that are hard working. He would also acknowledge some of their good attributes and compare them favorably to the "American" inhabitants. Similar positive treatment was given to other ethnic minorities such as the Chinese.

In fact, just about all his observations were presented well from both sides. Even when he seemed to be strongly opposed to something, he would present the other view, often using exaggeration for humor. About the only thing that I remember him taking a strong one-sided stand on was jury trial. He thought it was ridiculous that we try to field a jury of embacels that had never read about a case. Instead, we should have more upstanding citizens that could better dispense justice.

In Nevada he seemed to make and lose fortunes a few times. However, the consistent income he produced was working in journalism. Being a newspaperman he was regularly given "gifts" of interests in mines, often in response to his reporting. Even mention of a mine would often be enough to help drive up the share prices. (Seems a lot like the dot-com bubble.)

In addition to keen historical observation, Twain takes a turn at weather forecasting. San Francisco is 70 degrees year round. Precipitation, however, can be ascertained by looking at a calendar. 4 months of the year raining during the winter, and 8 months of sun during the summer. Sacramento, on the other hand is Summer year round.

Twain also made a voyage out to Hawaii. There he learned of the natives more laid back style (and regularly got cheated out of horse rentals.) He marveled at the natural wonders of the island, but spent more time describing the locals. White men were missionaries, sailors or government officials. The natives originally thought Captain Cook was a god and treated him royally. He, in return, abused them. When they realized he wasn't deity, they promptly executed him. Missionaries later came to clothe the natives and dissuade them from their crude traditions.

Eventually Twain returns home, ending an entertaining lesson in history and human behavior.

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