Mark Twain Publishes "Pudd'nhead Wilson"
Pudd'nhead Wilson is an ironic novel by Mark Twain.
It was serialized in The Century Magazine (1893-4), before being published as a novel in 1894.
The setting is the fictional Missouri frontier town of Dawson's Landing on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 1800s. David Wilson, a young lawyer, moves to town and a chance remark of his causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead" - a nitwit. His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the townsfolk's eyes, who see him as an eccentric and do not frequent his law practice.
Puddn'head Wilson moves into the background as the focus shifts to the slave Roxy, her son, and the family they serve. Roxy is only one-sixteenth black, and her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as "Chambers") is only 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and sold "down the river", to a master further south, Roxy fears for her life and the life of her son. First she decides to kill herself and Chambers to avoid being sold down the river, but then decides instead to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs so that her son will live a life of privilege.
The narrative moves forward two decades, and Tom Driscoll (formerly Valet de Chambre), believing himself to be wholly white and raised as a spoiled aristocrat, has grown to be a selfish and dissolute young man. Tom's father has died and granted Roxy her freedom. Roxy worked for a time on river boats, and saved money for her retirement. When she finally is able to retire, she discovers that her bank has failed and all of her savings are gone. She returns to Dawson's Landing to ask for money from Tom.
Tom meets Roxy with derision and Roxy tells him that he is her son, and uses this fact to blackmail him into financially supporting her.
Twin Italian noblemen visit the town to some fanfare, a murder is committed, and the story takes on the form of a crime novel.
The reader knows from the beginning who committed the murder, and the story foreshadows how the crime will be solved. The circumstances of the denouement, however, possessed in its time great novelty, for fingerprinting had not then come into official use in crime detection in the United States. Even a man who fooled around with it as a hobby was thought to be a simpleton, a "pudd'nhead."
The story describes the racism of the antebellum south, even as to seemingly white people with minute traces of Negro ancestry, and the acceptance of that state of affairs by all involved, including the black population.
The setting of this novel is again the world that Sam Clemens grew up in, although now MT calls the village Dawson's Landing, and has moved it several hundred miles down the Mississippi River. The book was originally published in America, on 28 November 1894, as The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins. It began as a farce about Siamese twins -- two different temperaments inseparably linked in one body -- and wound up becoming an irony about two babies -- one slave, one free -- switched in their cradles. It was never very popular with MT's contemporaries, but as his most direct, sustained treatment of slavery it has attracted considerable attention in our time; there is as yet, however, no agreement about what it's saying. In Roxy the novel offers MT's most complex woman character. Despite the title, most commentary on the book assumes that her son, Tom/Valet de Chambers, is the central character. My own reading of it begins with the title. It is curious that MT should call it a tragedy when its ending is classically comic: true identities and an apparent social order are restored. And curiouser that he calls it Pudd'nhead Wilson's tragedy, when Wilson enacts the rise from obscurity to popularity and prestige that is usually thought of as the archetypal American success story.
His next large-scale work, Pudd'nhead Wilson, was written rapidly, as Twain was desperately trying to stave off the bankruptcy. From November 12 to December 14, 1893, Twain wrote a staggering 60,000 words for the novel. Critics have pointed to this rushed completion as the cause of the novel's rough organization and constant disruption of continuous plot. There were parallels between this work and Twain's financial failings, notably his desire to escape his current constraints and become a different person.
Like The Prince and the Pauper, this novel also contains the tale of two boys born on the same day who switch positions in life. Considering the circumstances of Twain's birth and Halley's Comet, and his strong belief in the paranormal, it is not surprising that these "mystic" connections recur throughout his writing.
The actual title is not clearly established. It was first published serially in Century Magazine, and when it was finally published in book form, Pudd'nhead Wilson appeared as the main title; however, the disputed "subtitles" make the entire title read: The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of The Extraordinary Twins.