31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2000
It seems like hardly anybody reads Mark Twain anymore, which is a shame, because he has so much to say about American society and human nature. "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is unquestionably one of his greatest books, maybe even his best. It's at least the equal of "Huckleberry Finn," which I had the good fortune to read with a superb high school English teacher in 1975, a year before her department banned it from the school's curriculum because of its supposedly racist portrayal of Jim.
"Pudd'nhead Wilson" manages to be a social satire, a murder mystery, a compelling commentary on race and racism, a brief against slavery, a courtroom drama, and a lifelike portrait of a particular time and place in American history, all packed into a short novel of some 170 pages. The story moves along quickly, hilarious in places and appalling in others. It's hard to understand why this easy-to-follow, entertaining and instructive novel isn't more widely read and appreciated, especially given the importance of race as a topic for thought, discussion and historical inquiry in the United States.
"Pudd'nhead Wilson" is set in a small Mississippi River town in the slave state of Missouri in 1830-1853. The critical event of the story occurs early on, when Roxy, a slave woman caring for two infant boys of exactly the same age, one her son and the other the son of one of the leading citizens of the town, secretly switches their identities. This deception is possible because her son is only 1/32 African-American and appears white (his father is in fact another leading citizen), yet by custom if not by law, the boy is a slave. The deception results in Roxy's son growing up in privileged circumstances, treating blacks with contempt, having the other boy as his personal slave, and attending Yale; yet the son, despite having all the advantages, develops no moral grounding whatsoever, and spends much of his adult life stealing, drinking and gambling. At one point, aware of his true identity but desperately needing money, he sells his own mother "down the river," into a more southerly cotton-growing region where the overseers are said to be especially cruel.
Twain gives us fewer details about the fate of the boy who in reality is all white, but we are made to understand that the boy's upbringing is typical of male slaves: he grows up with violence and degradation, illiterate, and with few skills either for making a living or existing in white society. This proves to be a cruel fate when the deception is exposed. Though he eventually comes into a substantial inheritance, he is never comfortable with or accepted by the town's respectable citizens, yet the prevailing racial code prohibits him from associating too closely with the blacks with whom he grew up.
Pudd'nhead Wilson, a lawyer, exposes the deception during a murder trial. Wilson, the town oddball, is an amateur fingerprinter, and it turns out that he kept the fingerprints he took of the boys before their switch, and is able to prove both their true identities and the identity of the killer. Wilson is the only halfway honorable character in the book; most of the rest, black and white, are exposed as dishonest, selfish and corrupt.
Mark Twain published "Pudd'nhead Wilson" in 1894, but its meaning still resonates today. A book that says so much about the ironies of appearance vs. reality, about the injustices of a rigid racial classification system, about the importance of values and upbringing rather than skin color in the formation of character, and about the realities of American slavery, deserves a more important place in our national literature.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2000
Twain was interested in twins and the problem of identity. His pen name "Twain" is an archaic word meaning two. In this enertaining novel he starts out to write about siamese twins who are opposites in taste and temperment, a humorous farce. As he gets on with the story other themes and characters develop and he decides to pull the twins apart, making them ordinary twins, and develop the story into a comedic tragedy. Twain leaves, for whatever reason, plenty of evidence in the story that the twins were siamese. The twins speak of themselves as an only child, are always together even in bed, and are exhibited in Europe for two years when they were children. One twin when explaining why he risked himself to save his brother from murder says "If I had let the man kill him, wouldn't he have killed me, too?. I saved my own life you see." The larger part of the story fixes on Puddnhead Wilson, a local unemployed lawyer, and focuses on the pattern of a folktale of switched infants: the slave child becoming master and the master's child a slave. Roxy, an almost pure white slave, switches her baby for her masters baby so that her boy will escape slavery. Early in the story Tom Driscoll learns that he is really Valet de Chambers a slave and not the son of the leading citizen York Driscoll. Twain uses this novel to slam the stupidity and evil of slavery as well as throw some light and mockery on other foolery of society. Wilson sorts things out due to his passion for finger printing over the years. Sayings from Puddnhead Wilson's calender preface every chapter and are highly enertaining. At the conclusion of this superb novel Puddnhead Wilson comes out on top, but he is about the only one. Possibly Twain's most honest book, a masterpiece!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2002
Puddnhead Wilson is a very short book that can bear repeated reading. Not because it is a great literary work (it is) or because it is so important (which it is), but because in it Mark Twain exposes himself -- his nostalgia, his bitterness, his resignation, and his hope for his own life and for post-Civil War America with brutal frankness, and yet humorous approachability.
The novel may be called "Puddnhead Wilson" but the most memorable character is a highly intelligent slave woman named Roxana. Through Roxana and the rest of the townspeople living in a pre-Civil War Missouri, we find some of Mark Twain's most oft-quoted statements among biting characterizations of the American mentality.
I cannot recommend this little book enough. It has its weaknesses (so many critical essays have been written about them that it's unnecessary to discuss them here) but they are really minor and certainly do not detract from the sheer enjoyment and contemplation that it gives the reader. Not to mention that the apologetic forwards to both Puddnhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins are brilliant short letters from Twain on writing.
I cannot speak about Those Extraordinary Twins because I've never been able to get into it, or read past the first chapter. It's extremely odd, being about a circus freak -- siamese twins joined at the hip -- with each side having the complete opposite philosophy and constitution than the other. That is, one side drinks alcohol and doesn't feel affected while the other side gets drunk; each side has different taste in clothing; etc.
on April 4, 2015
A very good story in very few pages. Twain avoided a more simplistic story and made it quite complex and more interesting. I was born in the South in the 1950s, so the slave dialect or vernacular was very easy to understand (having heard speech like this still persisting into my childhood days), but for others might be difficult. The story is interesting on many levels, including a riveting courtroom drama similar to what you now see on TV all the time. My only complaint is with the Kindle version (Publisher: Penguin; New Impression edition (March 25, 2004)): It was obviously OCRed from a printed text but not carefully proofread. Almost every case of the word "that" was mistakenly printed as "mat". Other words beginning in "th" were misprinted to begin with "m". Worst of all, the final chapter (named "Conclusion" was duplicated. The duplicate was inserted before the next-to-last chapter. That could have spoiled the ending for me, but it wasn't terrible. Clearly, no one checked the digital version before publishing it to Amazon. Disgraceful for any publisher. Pure laziness. But all too common with Kindle books converted from older books.
Given the brevity of this book, I feel a little absurd claiming it as my favorite work by Twain, but it is indeed my new favorite, even over Huckleberry Finn (which is really saying something).
The ideas concerning race are deeply involved and the question about how much of our "make up" is inherent and how much is indoctrinated is one that occurs over and over again.
Some claim this to be a racist text, but it seems to me that Twain is simply pointing out the absurdities of racism and slavery. Furthermore, his depiction of Roxy, a black slave mother with very white skin, is a serious one. This novel and its characters, while often times coming off as very humorous, deserve a serious perusal.
I could not put this one down and read it virtually cover to cover. Even the epigraphs that head every chapter are amazing.
Read this one! If you like Twain, you will love this. Guaranteed.
Also, I strongly recommend the Modern Library edition of this book, because, unlike some other editions, it includes "Those Extraordinary Twins." The latter work is the idea from which "Pudd'nhead Wilson" springs.
on August 16, 2008
What a remarkable, gripping book -- prescient and ahead of its time, and also of its time. Written with incisive insight and an ability to step outside his own world and look at cultural values objectively. The story of the black slave raised white is astonishing, albeit melodramatic, but the story of the white child raised as a black slave and then thrust back into the white race is even more biting: "We cannot follow his fate further -- that would be a long story."
Skip the tacked on pastiche, Those Extraordinary Twins.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2000
Twain's novel Pudd'nhead Wilson can seem like an enigma at first, since it is a story about slavery written almost forty years after the end of the Civil War. Certainly race was still a pressing contemporary issue for Twain at the time: by 1893 Reconstruction had failed and race relations in the United States were a mess. Although a black man no longer had to fear being sold "down the river" as Roxy and Chambers do, extreme forms of violence were a distinct possibility. Part of the point here is that although the institutions surrounding race may have changed since 1850, the fundamental problems, even by 1893, had not. By featuring characters who are racially indeterminate--that is, characters who can "pass" or who are not immediately identifiable as black--Twain confuses the issue still further. When slavery was still legal, an individual's racial profile mattered on a concrete level: someone who is one-thirtysecondth black,like Chambers, could be owned as a slave, while someone with no known black ancestry could not. Racial identity, by the 1890's, had become a much more nebulous concept. Broader issues of identity are a compelling problem in this novel. Although this is by no means a carefully structured and polished piece of literature, Twain's multiple plots and thrown- together style do serve to inform a central set of issues, with the twins, Pudd'nhead, and Tom and Chambers all serving as variations on a theme. The coexistence of many characters and many localized plots mirrors the novel's setting. In its vacillation between the tiny town of Dawson's Landing and the metropolis of St. Louis, and in the centralized presence of the Mississippi River, with its possibilities for endless mobility, the novel offers both hope and despair: the world is too big a place for everyone to be known absolutely to their neighbors, yet one also has the ability to start over in a new place.
The idea of being able to start over is continuously interrogated in American literature. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which appeared almost exactly one hundred years before Pudd'nhead Wilson, sketched out the ideals of self-determination and personal identity in American culture: a man can become whatever he wants, no matter what his background, as long as he has a plan and the work ethic to realize it. Echoes of Franklin can be seen in the eccentric, scientifically-minded Pudd'nhead Wilson, whose writings mirror Franklin's and whose careful analysis and re-categorization of the world around him is also reminiscent of the American icon. Pudd'nhead's self-realizations, though, are dark and socially unsuccessful. Twain's characters live in an America where social mores are largely fixed and one's success depends not on determination but on fitting into a pre-existing public space.
Twain, like Franklin, was a celebrated public figure, immediately recognizable as a collection of carefully developed mannerisms and trademark items. Like Judge Driscoll in this novel, Twain somehow found himself high placed enough in society so as not to be bound by its rules. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, though, Twain looks at those who avoid constraints of reputation and public opinion by being so far beneath society as to be almost irrelevant. He also looks at those who, like the twins, get caught in the middle, in a mire of shifting opinions and speculations. The "plot" of this novel, if it can be said to have one, is a detective story, in which a series of identities--the judge's murderer, "Tom," "Chambers"--must be sorted out. This structure highlights the problem of identity and one's ability to determine one's own identity. The solution to the set of mysteries, though, is an incomplete and bleak one, in which determinations about identities have been made but the assigned identities do not correspond to viable positions in society. The seemingly objective scientific methods espoused by Pudd'nhead may have provided more "truthful" answers than public opinion, but they have not helped to better society. In the rapidly changing American culture of the 1890s, where race, celebrity, and publicity were confounding deeply ingrained cultural notions of self-determination, the depopulated ending of Pudd'nhead Wilson is a pessimistic assessment of one's ability to control one's identity. Twain's novel moves us from Franklin's comic world of possibility to a place where self- determination is Twain, like Franklin, was a celebrated public figure, immediately recognizable as a collection of carefully developed mannerisms and trademark items. Like Judge Driscoll in this novel, Twain somehow found himself high placed enough in society so as not to be bound by its rules. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, though, Twain looks at those who avoid constraints of reputation and public opinion by being so far beneath society as to be almost irrelevant. He also looks at those who,
like the twins, get caught in the middle, in a mire of shifting opinions and speculations. The "plot" of this novel, if it can be said to have one, is a detective story, in which a series of identities--the judge's murderer, "Tom," "Chambers"--must be sorted out. This structure highlights the problem of identity and one's ability to determine one's own identity. The solution to the set of mysteries, though, is an incomplete and bleak one, in which determinations about
identities have been made but the assigned identities do not correspond to viable positions in society. The seemingly objective scientific methods espoused by Pudd'nhead may have provided more "truthful" answers than public opinion, but they have not helped to better society. In the rapidly changing American culture of the 1890s, where race, celebrity, and publicity were confounding deeply ingrained cultural notions of self-determination, the depopulated ending of Pudd'nhead Wilson is a pessimistic assessment of one's ability to control one's identity. Twain's novel moves us from Franklin's comic world of possibility to a place where self- determination is accompanied by tragic overtones, a place reminiscent of the world of another, later American novel about a self-made man that does not end well: Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
on October 13, 2011
This is the best edition of the novel I have read so far. I am talking about "Puddn'head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins (Norton Critical Editions)". "Criticism" includes twenty-three reviews and interpretive essays, and the editor added the related page numbers of the novel in the texts of those extra materials, which are extremely helpful to appreciate this great novel deeply.
on October 15, 2012
The book I recieved was in great condition and it also made for some great reading. I can now say tht Puddn'Head Wilson is one of my favorite novels from the late nineteenth century. I would highly reccomend it to anyone interested with the time period. It is funny and historically informative all at one.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2001
The main portion of the book is "Puddnhead Wilson", but Twain writes a fascinating intro to "Those Extraordinary Twins" to explain how he started writing one book and ended up with the other. The twins were originally conjoined (Siamese), and were the main characters. The side characters of Tom and Roxy developed into main characters in an entirely different story. what you end up with is a tragedy and a comedy, that occur around the same time, in the same town, with most of the same characters. Its amazing how much a few little twists change everything.