Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Book review: “The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” by Thomas Hager
October 27, 2013
Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller
November 11, 2013
Show all

Book review: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain

Twain -- detailMark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is a wonderful mess. Or, maybe better put, a messy wonder.

As Twain explains elsewhere, the 1894 novel started life as a much different story, focused on conjoined twins with different morals. If one twin is bad, can you punish both?

But, as he was writing, he brought in other characters, as novelists are generally required to do:

Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed on into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own — a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights.

Literary conjoined twins

He finished the book, and it was bad. The two stories were literary conjoined twins, and very awkward page-fellows. So Twain did the necessary surgery.

The original story didn’t come away from the operation in very good shape. Twain found a way to use it, however, by publishing it as the novella Those Extraordinary Twins with commentary at the beginning and end about how this was something of a failed effort. He was right.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, the novel, was not unscarred by the all the slicing. I suspect that, if Twain had started out with this tale in mind, the result would have been a much smoother and more focused novel.

As it is, the book is herky-jerky at times as it shifts sometimes jarringly from melodrama to character study, from silliness to murder.

The multiplicity of extremely different book covers for "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is indicative of what a messy wonder the novel is.  And also the reluctance, even today, to recognize Roxy as the central character.

The multiplicity of extremely different book covers for “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is indicative of what a messy wonder the novel is. And also the reluctance, even today, to recognize Roxy as the central character.

“Those three”

And then there are those three characters.

By rights, Pudd’nhead Wilson, the smart-aleck Twain surrogate, shouldn’t have any claim to the title. He’s an underemployed lawyer and underappreciated wit in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, along the Mississippi River, the setting of the novel.

It’s Wilson who moves the action along in various ways, especially in the later chapters where he’s an amateur detective and a primitive forensic scientist. In the thread of the book that is a crime novel — there are several other threads — Wilson’s collection and study of fingerprints is a key element.

But the book is more than a crime novel, and, as important as he is, Pudd’nhead is overshadowed by Tom Driscoll and Roxana.

“A trifle of malicious entertainment”

Tom, the wastrel scion of two of the best homes of Dawson’s Landing, is the villain of the piece. But he’s no Iago or Uriah Heep.

Each of those two is fascinating for his strength of will and his evil core. By contrast, Tom is weak and not so much evil as lazy and thoughtless, insensitive and ignorant.

He is small and mean. Confronted with a threat, writes Twain, Tom “did the natural thing; he replied with bluster and mockery.” (Not the strategy that Heep or Iago would use.)

The evil he wreaks is, until the end, small and mean, such as when he meets two townspeople on the street. As Tom walks away, Twain brings the reader inside his mind:

Tom had no purpose in his mind when he encountered those two men. When he began his talk he hoped to be able to gall them a little and get a trifle of malicious entertainment out of it. But when he left, he left in great spirits, for he perceived that just by pure luck and no troublesome labor he had accomplished several delightful things: he had touched both on a raw spot and seen them squirm; he had modified Wilson’s sweetness for the twins with one small bitter taste that he wouldn’t be able to get out of his mouth right away; and, best of all, he had taken the hated twins down a peg with the community.

This is Tom.

An unexpected consequence

Later, when his selfishness and maliciousness result in violence, it is inadvertent — not something he chooses, but, like the rest of his life, something that occurs as an unexpected consequence to Tom’s stealthy, sly efforts to get his nasty way.

Tom Driscoll is a lot more like the rest of us than Heep or Iago. Would any of us, pampered and spoiled to the extent Tom was, do better with our lives?

One other thing: Beyond this fellow feeling, the reader can’t help but sympathize even more with Tom’s self-inflicted plight since, for a good part of the novel, the reader knows a deep secret about his life that Tom is blithely ignorant of.

A deep secret

Tom thinks he is Thomas a Becket Driscoll, the son of Percy Northumberland Driscoll, a rich land speculator and one of the chief citizens of the town.

In fact, he is Valet de Chambre (known as Chambers), the son of Roxana, one of Percy’s slaves.

Roxana (known as Roxy) is someone Twain likes a lot — much more than Pudd’nhead or Tom.

From Roxy’s manner of speech, a stranger would have expected her to be black, but she was not. Only one-sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show. She was of majestic form and stature, her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movement distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her complexion was very fair, with the rosy glow of vigorous health in the cheeks, her face was full of character and expression, her eyes were brown and liquid, and she had a heavy suit of fine soft hair which was also brown…

Her face was shapely, intelligent, and comely — even beautiful. She had an easy, independent carriage — when she was among her own caste — and a high and “sassy” way, withal; but of course she was meek and humble enough where white people were.

“To all intents…”

Twain -- wilson --- combo - 2

Roxy looms over this novel, head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of will, pluck, character, spunk, emotion and intelligence.

The title of the book belongs to her. Yet, it’s not hers, and a meaty doctoral dissertation could be devoted to why. Pudd’nhead Wilson isn’t called Roxy for the same reason that Roxy, for all her many attributes, is not a chief citizen of Dawson’s Landing.

To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro.

For all its great humor, Pudd’nhead Wilson is, at heart, Twain’s unblinking look at slavery and racial prejudice. It is set in the three decades before the Civil War, before the abolition of slavery, so Twain’s readers of 1890s America could console themselves that the novel wasn’t a direct affront to their lives.

Yet it had to be an uncomfortable read for them — and it’s still uncomfortable.

“No man kin ever…”

As a house slave and a new mother herself, Roxy is given the job to nursemaid Tom Driscoll. After several months of caring for that infant as well as her own, Chambers, she realizes that no one but herself can tell them apart.

(The father of Chambers, although not revealed until near the novel’s end, was a prominent town citizen, so Roxy’s son is even more white than she is — 31/32 white. Of course, as with Roxy, those white parts are “outvoted” by his one black fraction.)

The realization dawns on Roxy right after Percy Driscoll, her master and Tom’s father, nearly sends her “down the river” to a life of harder work and harsher treatment — her greatest fear. She knows that Chambers faces the same lifelong threat.

Then, in a blinding insight, she sees a way to make sure that her son need ever face that threat — that she can reverse the curse under which her son had been born:

She began to move like one in a dream. She undressed Thomas a Becket, stripping him of everything, and put the tow-linen short on him. She put his coral necklace on her own child’s neck…

She put her cub in Tommy’s elegant cradle and said:

“You’s young Marse Tom fum dis out, en I got to practice and git used to ‘memberin’ to call you dat, honey, or I’s gwine to make a mistake some time, en git us bofe in trouble. Dah — now you lay still en don’t fret no mo’, Marse Tom — oh, thank do good Lord in heaven, you’s saved, you’s saved! — dey ain’t no man kin ever sell mammy’s po’ little honey down de river now!”

Such a plot turn

I am certain there was no way that a pre-war novel could have featured such a plot turn. And I suspect that, even 40 years after the war and after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, it was still a daring thing for Twain to tell such a story.

So daring that he had to give the book a title that undercut its audaciousness — a title like Pudd’nhead Wilson.

But make no mistake. This novel isn’t about an early use of fingerprints. Or even the workings of a weak mind.

It is about a fully admirable woman who takes clever control of life and, like any mother, like any parent, acts to protect her son and provide the boon of a lifetime to him. And who happens to be a slave and who, even after winning her freedom, is treated as someone of no account.

Ironically, it is the Classics Illustrated cover that best captures the heart of the novel.

Ironically, it is the Classics Illustrated cover that best captures the heart of the novel.

“Noble and stately”

The infant switch doesn’t pan out as Roxy envisions. Which is, of course, the way life works.

Twain uses the switch to show, if not state, that, if you treat someone like a slave, he will act like a slave — even if he is white. And, if you treat someone like the family’s heir, he will act like the heir — even if he is black.

This flew in the face of the white triumphalism — based deeply in flawed “science” — of late 19th century America. It was certainly distressing for the people of that time to think about. And for whites today.

Beyond that and much more important, though, was Twain’s creation of Roxy.

No thinking, feeling human being can read this novel and not come away as her fan. She is the person we would all like to be — clever, resilient, and “distinguished by a noble and stately grace.”

In a world in which Pudd’nhead dithers with his fingerprints and Tom hatches his noisome designs, she is truly noble.

Consider this: When Tom (the real Chambers) needs hundreds of dollars to eliminate a pressing debt and make a new start with his life, she comes up with a brilliant, audacious and Christ-like scheme:

“Here is de plan, en she’ll win, sure. I’s a nigger, en nobody ain’t gwyne to doubt it dat hears me talk. I’s wuth six hund’d dollahs. Take en sell me, en pay off dese gamblers.”

Selling herself back into slavery to save her son — what a woman!

Patrick T. Reardon
11.4.13

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *