Whether You’re an Emigrant or a Forty-Niner, Everyone Just Wants a Good Breakfast
It is interesting to read Twain’s novel, Roughing It
, in light of our reading from last week, particularly in the context of Whitman’s Song of the Open Road
. If we could look at last week’s reading as an introduction, a vast sort of overview of different reactions to the idea of the American West and what role the idea
of an open road, of a frontier, plays in American culture, then Twain’s work is a honing in on that frontier itself. It is a zoom in closer, a more detailed sketch—obviously fictionalized and dramatized, but nonetheless interesting and informative—of that reassembling of society, that melting border line Turner described in his essay. Twain encounters a number of different frontier societies in his journey westward, but the most interesting chapter I encountered, detailing this new society is in Chapter 17, when he talks about traveling to Salt Lake City and learning “that we were at last in pioneer land, in absolute and tangible reality.” In Salt Lake City, he and his companions find out that “these superior beings,” those who inhabited Salt Lake City, “despised ‘emigrants.’” Twain goes on to explain that he and his crew permitted no “tell-tale shudders and winces in our countenances, for we wanted to seem pioneers, or Mormons, half-breeds . . . anything in the world that the plains and Utah respected and admired—but we were wretchedly ashamed of being ‘emigrants.’” This notion, and distinction Twain makes between pioneers and emigrants, between those “superior beings” in Salt Lake City and people like him, is such an interesting one, and is a sentiment totally missing in Whitman’s representation of the open road. Twain goes on to differentiate further, providing an anecdote of a man upon whom all the citizens looked down on, “with a blighting compassion because he is an ‘emigrant’ instead of that proudest and blessedest creature that exists on all the earth, a ‘FORTY-NINER.’”
Whitman’s open road was beautiful because it was open to anybody—it led forwards, onwards, away, and anywhere: as long as you were moving, you were good, because to be going, was to be holy, in a sense. The road does not discriminate and neither, I have been led to understand, does the American frontier. That idea always seemed to me a fundamental aspect of the American dream. However, in this chapter of Twain’s book, we are presented with quite a different sense of what it means to be an American frontier man. Twain himself is very much on the outside of this prototype, as all the chapters in his book are structured with him mostly being the observer of all these different customs and frontier life routines. But what, then, is
the exact differentiation between a Forty-Niner and an emigrant? How does one give oneself away as an emigrant, or, on the other hand, pass for a Mormon or pioneer? I am not sure that Twain ever totally solves this mystery himself, but he seems to poke a bit of fun at this distinction at the end of this chapter.
As they leave Salt Lake City and continue on in their journey, he says that “And it was comfort in those succeeding days to sit up and contemplate the majestic panorama of mountains and valleys spread out below us and eat ham and hard boiled eggs while our spiritual natures reveled alternately in rainbows, thunderstorms, and peerless sunsets . . . .Ham and eggs—and after all these, a pipe—an old, rank, delicious pipe, ham and eggs and scenery, a ‘down grade,’ a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart—these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.” In this moment at the end of this chapter, it seems to me as though Twain is already aware of the contradiction arising in the frontier-life “elitism” he points out, and mocks it with a simple assertion that Whitman himself would probably agree with: what all of these pioneers have headed west for
, is the same things—food, a pipe, natural revelations, and a contented heart. What else could one want, out there? We have found, perhaps, what “all the ages” have strived for, in our journey to the edge of the continent.