Read an Excerpt
From Darryl Pinckney’s Introduction to Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins
Pudd’nhead Wilson is mercilessly ironic in tone, so that Twain’s exasperation at received attitudes about race isn’t obvious right away. His burlesque is disarming, a sort of screen under the cover of which are stark assertions about the miseries of slavery and the unfairness of power based on race. Yet Pudd’nhead Wilson also feels like a sketch, as if to have filled in more, to have told his tale as anything more than a romp, would have been impossible for the kind of writer Twain was by temperament. Prefaces of sly humor were his custom, and Pudd’nhead Wilson begins with “A Whisper to the Reader,” in which his dislike of Italy percolates again. A mild discontent, something of that Florentine weariness, enters into the narrative voice at this early point and never really goes away. Twain has no real interest in characterization or extended description of place in Pudd’nhead Wilson. His omniscient narrator scatters clues and barrels through his yarn at a great clip, but this modern fable differs considerably from his historical romances. The twins of Pudd’nhead Wilson do not relate to the Tudor look-alikes of The Prince and the Pauper, and Pudd’nhead Wilson is not a reprise of King Arthur’s Yankee problem solver.
Then, too, it is a conflation of story ideas: one about a white baby and black baby switched in the cradle; and another about Italian twins with musical gifts of the higher freak show order. At times Twain’s novel reads as though the two stories, one melodramatic, the other farcical, had met up, unexpectedly, uneasily, in the same town. Most of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s twenty-two chapters are headed by two aphorisms, selections from an almanac, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar. “There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless,” begins the first saying attributed to Pudd’nhead Wilson. “Tell the truth or trump—but get the trick,” goes the second. The two sayings not only foreshadow the story of the man, Pudd’nhead Wilson, they also suggest the rueful spirit that rules the novel.
In 1830 Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, is a sleepy, pretty town. St. Louis is to the north, half a day’s journey by steamboat. Dawson’s Landing is “a slaveholding town, with a rich, slave-worked grain and pork country back of it.” York Leicester Driscoll is the county judge and Dawson’s Landing’s “chief citizen.” He and his wife are childless. It is a hierarchical town, full of names that echo the England of Twain’s historical romances. Judge Driscoll, like his brother, Percy Northumberland Driscoll, or Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, or Pembroke Howard, takes his descent from the First Families of Virginia, or “F.F.V.s,” very seriously.
The children of Percy Northumberland Driscoll have died in infancy. When the novel opens, Percy’s wife dies a week after giving birth to a boy, and one of his slave girls, Roxana, who gave birth to a son the same day the Driscoll baby was born, is put in charge of both babies. Around the same time, Dawson’s Landing gains another new citizen, Mr. David Wilson, a “college-bred” twenty-five-year-old of “Scotch parentage” who is seeking his fortune. Homely, but with intelligent blue eyes, he would have been successful at once in Dawson’s Landing, “but he made his fatal remark the first day he spent in the village, and it ‘gaged’ him.” While Wilson is talking to a group of townspeople, a dog somewhere begins to howl. “I wish I owned half of that dog,” Wilson says. When someone asks why, he replies, “Because I would kill my half.”
The townspeople talk among themselves: “’Pears to be a fool.” “What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half?” “He would be responsible for that half just the same as if he had killed that half instead of his own. Don’t it look that way to you, gents?” “Yes, it does . . . , because if you kill one half of a general dog there ain’t any man that can tell whose half it was.” They decide that Wilson is not in his right mind, that he “hain’t got any mind,” that he is a “pudd’nhead.” Though he will become well liked and his nickname will lose any unfriendly feeling it ever had, nevertheless it will take more than twenty years for him to overturn the town’s verdict about him. Wilson buys a small house next to Judge Driscoll’s property, but his reputation has left him no chance at practicing law. However, he does get work as a land surveyor and accountant. In his free time Wilson devotes himself to his hobbies of “palmistry” and “one which dealt with people’s finger-marks.” In his coat pocket Wilson carries shallow boxes containing strips of glass that he uses to record people’s thumbprints. He calls this fascination “an amusement,” because he finds that his “fads” only add to his image as a “pudd’nhead.”