It's also not even trying for accuracy most of the time. While one can learn a lot about life in Sierra mining towns in the 1860s, this tends to be done by reading between the lines of the tall tales that make up the bulk of the work. Twain cheerfully confesses that this is his stock in trade, one which served him well as an editor with the Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, writing that he "felt that if I were not confined within rigid limits [...] I could add particulars that would make the article much more interesting."
This practice has a couple of names. Sometimes it's called fiction; sometimes it's called lying. If I write "Once upon a time there was a magical pony named Wildfire," this is a wild falsehood, for there have never actually been any magical ponies of that name. On the other hand, if I indicate on my résumé that I've received a PhD from Duke University, that's not too far removed from reality — I was in the doctoral program there, and indeed one of Duke's computers thinks I received my degree. But the former is a story, and the latter is a lie. If I try to inflate my accomplishments in order to get a job, or tell the nation that I know exactly where Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are in order to justify an invasion, I'm doing evil: deceiving people to advance my own self-interest. But if I make stuff up, and label it fiction, in order to entertain people, or communicate a complex set of otherwise inarticulable feelings, or what have you, that's art. Roughing It is notable for straddling the gray area. What do you call a memoir that's largely made up?
I remember being four or five years old and watching an installment of "The Price Is Right" in which the winner guessed the showcase price to within something like $78 — at which point I ran into the other room and announced that he'd only been off by a dollar. I can also remember that on Halloween in fifth or sixth grade I was listening to a conversation in which kids were discussing various wacky costumes they'd heard of... and on the ride home I found myself reporting that these had been the costumes they'd actually been wearing. Why? These were lies; I knew they were lies; unlike a writer of fiction, I was hoping the listener would actually believe what I was saying; but what did I stand to gain? Nothing tangible — but it did make for more interesting stories, and by extension made me a more interesting storyteller. Sweet, sweet attention. By the time I was in college I was flat-out making up anecdotes based on the slightest stuff... I'd see an interesting character on a train and make up elaborate psychodramas with long conversations... but there's little occasion in conversation to bust out with a fictional short story, so I'd just tell them as if they'd actually happened. And after you've told a story enough, whether it's true or false, you start to remember your telling of the story better than the events they describe; consequently I actually lost track of which of my stories were real and which were fabricated.
Even when I started making an effort to cut that out... it was hard. For instance: on 11 September 1997 I went to get a slice of pie at the local Wellspring and found that behind the counter was the boyfriend of a girl I had a crush on at the time. He was none too skilled at the pie-slinging, fumbled his first couple of attempts to get my pie, and became even more flustered when the girl herself showed up. Eventually the manager gave me a discount on one of the broken slices. Not too exciting a story. But one of the first times I told it on the MUD, Matthew Amster-Burton tacked on his own ending: "So you said, 'Hey, throw in the girl and I'll pay full price!'" That line pretty much makes the story. From an ethical perspective, I knew it didn't belong; from an aesthetic standpoint, it had to go in. In future retellings I ended up putting it in and then taking it back after the laugh.
Twain seems to wrestle with the same issues in Roughing It, as he doesn't just tell tall tales, but tells tall tales about tall tale tellers... one of the concluding images of the work is of a dead man hanging from the rafters with a note pinned to his chest saying "LIAR". This is a fellow who Twain claims drove him from Hawaii with his constant interruptions of "If you think that's remarkable, you should've seen..." But it's just these sorts of stories that make up Roughing It itself. A bit of disguised self-flagellation, perhaps?
Unrelatedly, the modern reader of Roughing It will surely feel a shock of recognition at Twain's descriptions of the Virginia City economy. See, people would stake a claim to a ledge of rock. But they wouldn't mine it. Instead, they'd sell stock in the mine. Shares represented actual feet of the claimed ledge. People gave stock away the way you might offer a guest a glass of water. And everyone got rich. Twain describes getting offered a gift of twenty feet of stock in a certain mine, selling at the time for five dollars a foot — he'd just have to come to the office to pick it up — but he begs off as he's on the way to dinner; the next week the stock is worth $70/foot, the week after $150, and Twain's dinner has cost him $3000. But no mining is actually done. It's all about the prospect of what the rock might be worth in the future if ever anyone were to excavate it. I hear the CMGI mine and Enron mines were particularly lucrative.
Auctions were big. Twain describes a sack of flour that is repeatedly put up for auction and keeps selling for more and more and more. And why not? If you were to win the auction, you could then auction off the flour for twice what you paid!
But then, once Twain reaches San Francisco: "What a gambling carnival it was! Gould and Curry soared to six thousand three hundred dollars a foot! And then— all of a sudden, out went the bottom and everything and everybody went to ruin and destruction! The wreck was complete. The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. [...] My hoarded stocks were not worth the paper they were printed on." Apparently we haven't learned much about economics in the past 140 years.
I also saw The Shawshank Redemption a while back. It was very much an illustrated novella. It seemed like the filmmakers had read the story and decided that the best thing about it, the one thing that had to stay, was the prose. Which, when read by Morgan Freeman, sounds great — but it still sounds like a guy reading from a book, not like anything someone would actually say.
Otherwise, it's not bad — hokey in parts, but I liked how it seemed to switch genres at the end and turned into a Usual Suspects-style recap of the clues that we hadn't had any reason to think were clues. Left turns are cool.