Samuel Langhorne Clemens — better known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was born nearly two centuries ago today on Nov. 30, 1835. Yet the influence of the American writer, humorist and lecturer is very much alive in contemporary American culture.
Twain's novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are considered American classics, dominating required reading lists and still generating controversy in today’s libraries and classrooms.
A prestigious award designed to honor the world's greatest humorists bears the writer's name. And Twain’s pithy observations on everything from American politics to the dangers of soap are still recalled with fondness and often quoted by writers and speechmakers.
Born and raised in Missouri, Twain is perhaps best known for his depictions of boyhood on the Mississippi. But he also traveled widely throughout Europe, the Holy Land and the American West, documenting his adventures in several books.
His 1872 "Roughing It" recounts his 1861–67 journey by stagecoach through the Wild West, including a two-day stop in Salt Lake City, narrated with Twain's trademark wit and satire.
"Roughing It" out West
In the first chapter of his travelogue, Twain describes the impetus for his journey west: His brother, Orion, had just been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory, and he invited Twain to accompany him to the region as his own private secretary.
Twain, who had never left home, eagerly accepted, assuming they "would see buffaloes and Indians, and prairie dogs, and antelopes, and have all kinds of adventures, and maybe get hanged or scalped, and have ever such a fine time."
While the brothers' time spent in Salt Lake City was brief, Twain's narrative offers a humorous (albeit exaggerated and irreverent) outsider's perspective on early Utah. Twain is impressed by the Mormon settlers' industry, puzzled by their practice of polygamy, bored by their scripture and enthralled with their mountainous landscape.
Twain narrates his account as pure fact, but it is important to note the book includes a healthy amount of fiction.
According to the late Mormon literature scholar and BYU English professor Richard Cracroft, Twain didn't even begin to record his travelogue until years after his Utah visit. To jog his memory, Twain had to write his brother, asking him to recall "the scenes, names, incidents or adventures of the coach trip," admitting he himself remembered "next to nothing about the matter."
Accordingly, "Roughing It," like much of Twain’s humorous writing, features many tall tales.
Though some of his heightened depictions of early Mormons might seem to convey particular animosity toward Latter-day Saints, Cracroft also notes no cultural group — from American Indians to religious reformers — escaped Twain's humorous barbs.
Readers must recognize Twain's "intention is always to make people laugh. To achieve this end, he wrenches from context, exaggerates, misunderstands (intentionally or unintentionally), and distorts," Cracroft writes. Read in this light, Cracroft concludes, Twain's anecdotes of Salt Lake City "continue to delight readers — Mormons and non-Mormons alike."
Twain's early Utah observations from "Roughing It"
On first glimpsing the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City:
"At four in the afternoon we arrived on the summit of Big Mountain, fifteen miles from Salt Lake City, where all the world was glorified with the setting sun, and the most stupendous panorama of mountain peaks yet encountered burst on our sight. We looked out upon this sublime spectacle from under the arch of a brilliant rainbow!"
On walking the streets of Salt Lake City:
"We walked about the streets some, afterward, and glanced in at shops and stores; and there was a fascination in surreptitiously staring at every creature we took to be a Mormon. This was fairy-land to us, to all intents and purposes — a land of enchantment, and goblins, and awful mystery. We felt a curiosity to ask every child how many mothers it had, and if it could tell them apart; and we experienced a thrill every time a dwelling-house door opened and shut as we passed."
On Salt Lake City's order and industry:
"Next day we strolled about everywhere through the broad, straight, level streets, and enjoyed the pleasant strangeness of a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants with no loafers perceptible in it; and no visible drunkards or noisy people … and a grand general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort, around and about and over the whole. And everywhere there were workshops, factories, and all manor of industries; and intent faces and busy hands were to be seen wherever one looked."
On the residents' health:
"Salt Lake City was healthy — an extremely healthy city. They declared there was only one physician in the place and he was arrested every week regularly and held to answer under the vagrant act for having 'no visible means of support.'"
On the Great Salt Lake itself:
"We desired to visit the famous inland sea, the American 'Dead Sea,' the great Salt Lake — seventeen miles, horseback, from the city — for we had dreamed about it, and thought about it, and talked about it, and yearned to see it, all the first part of our trip; but now when it was only an arm’s length away it had suddenly lost nearly every bit of its interest. And so we put it off, in a sort of general way, till next day — and that was the last we ever thought of it."
On meeting Brigham Young:
"The second day, we … put on white shirts and went and paid a state visit to the king. He seemed a quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, self-possessed old gentleman of fifty-five or sixty, and had a gentle craft in his eye that probably belonged there."
On Brigham Young's sense of humor:
"He never paid any attention to me, notwithstanding I made several attempts to 'draw him out' on Federal politics and his high-handed attitude toward Congress. I thought some of the things I said were rather fine. But he merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, something as I have seen an benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail. By and by I subsided into an indignant silence, and so sat until the end, hot and flushed, and execrating him in my heart for an ignorant savage. But he was calm. … When the audience was ended and we were retiring from the presence, he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother: 'Ah — your child, I presume? Boy, or girl?'"
On government in Utah Territory:17 comments on this story
"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 Utah is an absolute monarchy and Brigham Young is king!"
Skewering the efforts of anti-polygamy reformers:
"Our stay in Salt Lake City amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter."