Monday, June 27, 2016

"I's sole down de river!" - some ragged notes on Pudd'nhead Wilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), what a strange novel.  First, that apostrophe – there should be two, right?

Second, Twain’s original idea was to write a novel about conjoined twins – Italian, why not – who for some reason move to a Missouri river town.  What he wrote in the end was an early Elmore Leonard novel, a crime novel.  The twins are still there as pure plot devices and comedy, but separated.  Yet the conjoined twins survive as ghosts, as imperfect edits.

Here a prodigious slam-banging broke out below, and everybody rushed down to see.  It was the twins knocking out a classic four-handed piece on the piano, in great style. (Ch. 6)

This chapter is the strangest, with the twins separate but inseparable, separate only because I had earlier been told that they are. “The twins took a position near the door, the widow stood at Luigi’s side, Rowena stood beside Angelo, and the march-past and the introductions began.”  This sentence is obviously unchanged from the conjoined draft.

Vladimir Nabokov had a long nurtured idea to write a novel about conjoined twins, until his wife, as I understand it, ordered him to abandon it.  A remnant survives as “Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster” (1958), as I remember it his single worst story by far.  What do writers see in this terrible idea?

Third and finally, Pudd’nhead Wilson is even more ferociously ironic – problematic, as some say today – about race slavery than Huckleberry Finn.  A black nanny, a slave, switches her son, 1/32nd black but 32/32nds enslaved, with her master’s son.  Twain builds the plot on the single cruelest aspect of American chattel slavery, even more than its violence, the separation of families, whether the result of events or, as is threatened repeatedly in the novel, as punishment.  Twain runs the thread all the way to the last line of the book.

The former and future slave grows up to be a scheming monster, so interesting that whatever Twain’s plans might have been he and his crimes gets most of the book’s attention.  His mother, the baby switcher, is a Strong Female Character, is she ever, pretty fearsome herself.

Then there’s some nonsense about finger printing and a bejeweled knife, an adjunct to those ludicrous twins.  A murder, a courtroom revelation, topsy-turvy world restored.  All in the most fast-moving, bare bones Twain prose I can remember.  No stops for humorous diversions or lyrical idylls.  No time to waste and I believe, in real life, some pretty big bills to pay.

The running battle with Walter Scott and Southern honor is only briefly alluded to in the form of a dueling scene, which includes Twain’s old gag that in an American duel the seconds and spectators are as likely to be hit as the combatants.

I cannot remember why I had not previously read this novel.  Is it somehow thought of, or in the past thought of, as a book for children?  If I had read it as a child, I could write about how badly I had misunderstood it, but as it is I am stuck with implicitly writing about how badly I understand it now.


  1. when i read it i just interpreted it as a nice example of an early mystery; sounds like you got a lot more out of it than i did; not surprising...

  2. It is a nice example of an early mystery.

    Early on, Twain mentions that Roxy, the nanny, is 1/16 black, and that her son is 1/32 black, but does not say a word about the father. "All right," I thought, "let's keep an eye on this."

    1. Actually, in Chapter 9 Roxy does reveal that her son's father is Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, previously mentioned in passing as "another F.F.V. of formidable caliber—however, with him we have no concern."
      She may be lying, of course.

  3. Twain does not say a word about the father at that time, is what I meant. Yes, he is revealed later, and also earlier - in Chapter 1 - in a seemingly pointless aside - "however, with him we have no concern."

    The FFV business is hilarious, really acid.

  4. This is about as strange a novel as I’ve come across – with all sorts of elements thrown together with seemingly no care as to whether or not they go together. And there’s that twisted deus-ex-machina at the end: the fingerprinting method is brought in, and the mystery is solved. But whereas, in the traditional deus-ex-machina, the God coming out of the machine puts everything right, here, everything remains as chaotic as before. It’s almost as if Twain is throwing up his arms and saying that the world is so screwed up, nothing, absolutely nothing, could set it back right again.