Well, last week’s Tuesday Tome article set out to make a light recommendation of Breakfast on Pluto, then got side-tracked with a conversation about identity that led into a purely analytical Thursday Theater post on The Crying Game. I guess that when I found myself reading part of a dissertation on Irish art while writing the article, that should have been a good clue that the article was not going to end up light. With that failure to keep things light so fresh in my mind, I’m really (truly) going to make this one short, sweet, and enticing.
The book I want to convince you to read is a lesser-known work by an immensely famous author: Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. This book has a little bit of everything, from ironic comedy to tragic twists to courtroom drama, and all of it is tied together by a core of biting satire as strong as Twain is known for. Not convinced? Let me tell you a bit more.
For fans and scholars of Mark Twain who read many of his books, it seems like there must be more than one Mark Twain (and not just because Mark Twain is the pen name for Samuel Clemens). After all, even within one series of books, the quality of Twain’s fiction runs the gamut from the forgettable-though-interesting Tom Sawyer Abroad to the passable-kitsch-comedy The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the full-blown-ironic-masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
With that in mind, make no mistake: it is most nearly the stinging and often-hilarious Twain of Huck Finn that gives us the tale of Pudd’nhead Wilson. The jumping off point of the book’s plot (and thus, not a spoiler) is when a house slave who is one sixteenth African swaps her one thiry-second African baby for the baby of her masters. The upbringing and actions of these two boys become the main plot of the book. And it is a main plot full of betrayal, pointed social critique, and even murder.
Meanwhile, two subplots intimately related to the main plot of Pudd’nhead Wilson develop. The first is the arrival in town (i.e. in fictional Missouri town ‘Dawson’s Landing’) and settling in of a lawyer named David Wilson. Wilson is a careful scholar with eccentric tastes, and the simple townsfolk quickly misunderstand something he says and decide Wilson is the simple one. This earns him the moniker of ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson,’ which hangs over his head, preventing him from getting work or respect.
The second is a visit to the town by a set of Italian twin brothers, whose very presence is a spectacle and an honor to those who come in contact with them. But public opinion in a small town is fickle, and things quickly turn sour for the brothers.
In particular, Pudd’nhead Wilson is a tour de force of reversals, upsets, twists, and wordplay which is enjoyable just for the moment-to-moment diversions. But overall, the many details cohere into a disarming-but-unapologetic takedown of the systems and communities they lampoon; such details revolve their satire principally around small-town politics, widespread ignorance, and the inconsistent and odious racism which undergirded slavery.
The biggest topic in Pudd’nhead Wilson, however, is the nature versus nurture debate, raging perhaps more in that post-Darwinian half-century than in the time since. What makes one person smart and another dumb? Are certain categories of humanity inclined toward certain pursuits, or ways of talking? What makes one person virtuous and another person malicious? These are all very relevant to the main plot of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and are given Twain’s own rousing answer.
Those interested in satire, American literature, and/or the post-slavery moment in American history should have a special interest in this novel, but I would recommend Pudd’nhead Wilson to anyone in the mood for a serious book from a serious author with a serious sense of humor.
Nature, Nurture, Nightmare: