Cross-dressing, Criminal Forensics, and a Critique of Slavery: A Little Twain Anyone?
"I wish I owned half of that dog."
"Why?" somebody asked.
"Because I would kill my half."
Mark Twain’s peculiar 1894 novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, is widely considered one of his darkest works. Originally conceived as a more light-hearted story about a set of unusual twins (then entitled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins), the novel became increasingly concerned with issues of race during its development and took on a tone more reflective of Twain’s melancholy mood. The 1880s and 90s had dealt the author significant economic and emotional setbacks; faced with the increasingly apparent failure of Reconstruction and growing racial violence, particularly in the South, Twain had to struggle to maintain the lighter tone of his earlier works. It is not unusual to leave Pudd’nhead Wilson feeling a bit sad and not knowing quite why.
With economic concerns weighing heavily on his mind, Twain sold the rights to Pudd'nhead Wilson to Century Magazine who published the work in seven monthly installments. It was relatively well-received and less than a year after its publication, Pudd'nhead Wilson hit the stage as a melodramatic comedy written by Frank Mayo, an actor best known for his portrayal of Davy Crockett. This fared not nearly so well.
A Brief Summary
The story is set primarily in Dawson’s Landing, a small Missouri town populated by those with, shall we say, a less than cosmopolitan mindset. Like all Twain’s novels, the action in Pudd’nhead Wilson occurs prior to the Civil War; slavery is still at large and, in the country, all things scientific, citified, ironic, or intellectual are held in skeptical disregard.
Into this provincial setting enters one David Wilson, a Northern lawyer whose quick wit and strange ways alienate the majority of the townspeople and earn him the nickname Pudd’nhead. Despite the cold welcome, Pudd’nhead makes a life for himself in Dawson’s Landing, doing odd jobs and dabbling in his favorite hobby, fingerprinting.
Enter Roxy, a beautiful slave woman and new mother to one Valet de Chambre (Chambers). Seeing the opportunity to give her very light-skinned child the chance to live life as a free man, and to guarantee that he will never be sold away from her, she switches Chambers with her master’s son Tom, conveniently born on the very same day. Not surprisingly, the real Tom, being raised as a slave, grows up to be a decent but weak-willed young man. Chambers, being raised in Tom’s place with all the privileges and excesses of the children of the very rich, becomes cruel and dissolute. He turns to drink, to gambling, to robbery, and eventually to the murder of his own uncle.
This crime sets the sleepy town into an uproar, and is almost immediately blamed on a visiting set of mysterious twins. The real murderer has already escaped of course, dressed as a woman to avoid detection.
The task falls to Pudd’nhead to clear the twins of this charge and find the real murderer. In facing this challenge, his strange hobby will come in useful, as will his skills as a lawyer. I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say, the good prosper and the wicked are punished but somehow that doesn't make everything all right again.
To Sum Up
Pudd’nhead Wilson reads alternately as a traditional murder mystery, a treatise on the then very young science of fingerprinting, a criticism of 19th century race relations, and a typical Twainian romp through country life. Those expecting another Tom Sawyer or Connecticut Yankee will find what they come looking for, but there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.
Twain is, as usual, lovingly critical of provincial simplicity. His dim bulb townspeople are regularly swindled by the savvy and worldly-wise, and we are left to wonder whether their professed goodness of heart is not, in the end, more damaging than the worst of selfish motives lurking in the souls of con-men.
He has less sympathy for the racists. Twain’s passionate abolitionism is more apparent in this work than in any other he published; his attacks on slavery are both direct and keenly insightful. He challenges assumptions regarding the phenotypal justification for slavery and the role of social construction in the formation of human character with bold certainty.
It is perhaps this serious subject matter that leads Twain to label the story a tragedy. Or perhaps he just never got around to changing the name. You never know.
More than the Sum of its Parts
As a counterpoint to all this seriousness, as if to highlight it, each chapter begins with a quote from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, a collection of witty aphorisms on a variety of subjects. These are one of the chief joys of the novel and not to be missed, even if you don’t want to read the story itself. A few of my favorites:
- The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.
- Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.
- If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
So there it is. Happy Reading!
Thanks go to sparknotes.com, etext.lib.virginia.edu, and Prof. Scott.