Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pudd'nhead Wilson

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

A very strange and interesting book. I've read most of Twain's novels and this one is different. Pudd'nhead Wilson is Twain's most in depth examination of slavery. Huckleberry Finn is of course more recognized and popular, but to truly get a handle of Twain's feelings on slavery you have to read this book. Pudd'nhead is not just about slavery, however. Twain opens by describing the process of writing the book. He was in Florence and he invoked the muse of Dante and his beloved Beatrice. Twain also goes to great lengths to assure the reader of his authority and the veracity of the legal scenes.
Each chapter is headed by a an entry from Wilson's almanac. These are funny, ironic and clever, typical Twain. The story has many characters, but this is the plot in a nutshell: Wilson is a smart lawyer who is new in town. He is annoyed by a dog barking and jokes that if he owned half the dog he would kill his half. The dull town people don't get the turn of phrase and they dub him "Pudd'nhead". The name sticks for the next 24 years. Although he is the title character, Wilson hovers on the outskirts of the narrative until the end. The novel focuses on Roxana, an enslaved woman who is 1/16 African American. She has a child named Chambers at the precise time that her mistress has a child named Tom Driscoll.
Roxy is fearful that her child could be sold so she switches the nearly identical children at 8 months. Tom (nee Chambers) grows up to be a total jerk, blowing money and stealing to make up for his gambling habit. Chambers, (nee Tom) is a humble, good guy who takes crap from Tom all the time, and it's all the worse because he is Tom's slave. Tom's white father dies and he moves in with his uncle, a leading citizen. Roxy returns from working on a steamboat after 8 years and extorts money from the abusive Tome, threatening to tell the truth. Eventually, after lots of intrigue and plot twists, Tom goes ahead and murders his uncle to steal money. Two Italians who happen to be traveling through town get blamed because of a bloodstained knife. Wilson defends the unfortuate duo, but can't crack the case. He then goes and looks at his fingerprint collection (nice hobby) and is able to reveal the truth in a riveting courtroom scene. He proves Tom's guilt and restores Chambers to his rightful spot. Twain's conclusion once again details the writing of the book.
Twain's attitude to slavery is tough to pin down. Certainly slaves aren't mentally inferior, Roxy outmaneuvers all the other characters in the story. After Tom finds out that he is Roxy's son he often claims that it's the "nigger" in him that causes him to act poorly. That's more of Tom being an ass than Twain's feelings.
There are two things that jump out when reading Pudd'nhead. First, Twain goes into great depth to reveal the illogical shifts in social status that mere perception can cause. The real Tom is screwed over because people believe his mother was a slave. And clearly Twain is skewering the ridiculous notion of "blood" when he points out that Roxy is 1/16th black, making Chambers 1/32nd black. Good natured Tom is kept in the lowest class while dumbass Chambers is given chance after chance to behave because of social perception about status and race. Yet, at the end when the truth is revealed in court, no one has any problem switching their perception and elevating Tom and enslaving Chambers.
The second point is the strength of Roxy. She is the backbone of the story. She is a mixed bag of a character, making her much more real than some of the caricaturistic individuals in Pudd'nhead. She brilliantly switches her child to save him from being sold. She uses all her tools: beauty, guilt trips and guile, to keep herself free and afloat later in the story. She masterfully plays bad Tom to her advantage.

Rating 8/10: I'm a big Twain fan and I enjoyed this book. It is not typical Twain though. There is a darkly atmosphere in Pudd'nhead. The evils of slavery are more insipid here than in Huck although this work isn't as well executed. It seemed like Twain had a lot of good, profound ideas, but he tries desperately to pack everything together. The Italian twins are interesting, but they aren't well developed characters. Also, Pudd'nhead himself is a really interesting character, he would have been an ideal character to show us what small town life on the Missouri was like, but his potential isn't realized. Still a fascinating book.

(The image is a poster from The Acting Company's 2002 season, pretty sweet if you ask me.)

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