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on May 6, 2009
I started this book on the way to Paris and could not put it down! I thought the characters where wonderful and colorful in true Twain fashion. It was quick and you were not made to lingure too long in one area. I really liked it a lot and I didn't think I would!
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on July 17, 2009
I was very surprised how quickly I was drawn into this story. I had never heard of this book and it is now my favorite Twain. This story deals with children that were switched at birth; one a black slave and the other a well to do white. The characters are vivid and lively.
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on March 27, 2009
I enjoyed this story overall. It is a bit of a mystery, not a who done it,but will the truth be reviled? There were a few spots that drug on a little longer than I would have liked but it gave you a better glimse into the sleepy town and its people setting. Do take note that it is an older story and slavery is a part of the story.
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on October 2, 1998
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a great story that can be read by those of all ages. For a book that was written over a hundred years ago, it is amazing to see all of the aspects that make todays books and movies so great; a murder, a great court scene, thrilling dectective work, a switched birth, and overall an ironic and surprising ending. Its not a long book and it can be read in one or two sittings. The social overtones in this book also really make you think about race relations today. Twain is a fablous author and although this book is not as great as Huck Finn, if you loved that as I did, you will certainly enjoy Puddn'head Wilson
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on January 24, 2004
This was my third Twain novel, after Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Although this is a much later work, the similarities are striking: the contrived plot (we have to believe that two babies, entirely unrelated and one with some African heritage, are so alike that even their father cannot tell them apart), the device of having a male character disguise himself as a woman, the cruel treatment by a boy of his adoptive parents, and so on.
"Pudd'nhead Wilson" is Twain's shortest novel and shows signs of having been pruned. Some characters, -- Rowena, for example -- play a significant part early on, then disappear. Wilson himself plays no part throughout most of the story. My guess is that Twain originally intended a much longer novel, with more incidents and secondary plotlines.
The fingerprint aspects of the story will seem quaint, and often downright inaccurate, to the modern reader, but at the time they must have been quite startling. The technique had not yet been officially adopted by law enforcement. Some of you may remember an episode of "Alias Smith and Jones" in which Hannibal learns about fingerprinting from this book.
A (perhaps the chief) delight of the book is the selection of aphorisms from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar", appended to each chapter heading. It's a great excuse for Twain to peddle some marvelous quotables. Every reader will choose a favorite; mine is "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry".
The Bantam Classics edition has a very poor introduction by Langston Hughes, consisting mostly of a plot synopsis (fine if you want to remove all suspense from your reading experience) padded out with generous quotations from the text. Some editorial notes would have been nice too, to help out with a few unfamiliar phrases; this novel is after all more than a hundred years old. I'm sure there must be better editions out there.
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on August 23, 2006
Huckleberry who?? "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is Mark Twain's best novel. Forget about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the Connecticut Yankee and those lazy riverboat days on the Mississippi. This is the book that people should think of when they think of Twain. It's a masterpiece of American comedy, as well as a pointed satire of racism and American slavery and an entry in the nature-nurture debate. This is Twain at his best--even better, in my opinion, than the late novella "The Mysterious Stranger."
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VINE VOICEon October 1, 2010
Without a doubt, Mark Twain is one of the most gifted people in history to ever put words to paper. In The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, the book is basically two stories: the first, a white child of privilege and a slave being switched at birth and the second, a murder mystery involving Italian twins. Pudd'nhead Wilson is the central character, an eccentric lawyer who loves to collect fingerprints on slides of everyone in town. It's interesting to look back upon a world of slavery, small towns and the quiet uneasiness that permeates everything. And the fingerprints! Twain basically predated the use of fingerprints in a murder trial by about 10 years to prove innocence.

Overall, a great work of literature, and makes for a quick read.
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Do others ever misjudge you? Did you, as a result, ever have a nickname you didn't like? Did you appreciate that experience? How did you overcome it?
What if you had been switched in the baby nursery at the hospital for another child? How might your life have been different?
These are the kinds of thoughts that will occur to you as you read Pudd'nhead Wilson.
I was attracted to the story after reading about its genesis in the new illustrated biography of Mark Twain.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is tragic story about the consequences of two children being switched at birth in the slave-holding society of the American South. Those who admire the eloquent portrayal of common humanity among African-Americans and whites in Huckleberry Finn will find more examples of this point to delight them in Pudd'nhead Wilson.
Pudd'nhead Wilson was a novel that gave Mark Twain a great many problems. The book started as a short story about Italian Siamese twins with a farcical character, as the drunken twin caused the Prohibitionist one to get into trouble with his woolly headed sweetheart. As Twain turned the story into a novel, the most important characters began to disappear in favor of new characters. Stymied, Twain realized that he had written two stories in one novel. He then excised the original of the two stories in favor of the tragedy, while leaving many satirical and ironic characteristics. Part of this switch no doubt related to Twain's growing pessimism as he grew older and to the personal tragedies and financial difficulties dogged his efforts and life.
Perhaps it is this deep plot difficulty that caused Twain to leave the novel with two rather large flaws, which vastly reduce its effectiveness. The first flaw is building a plot around switching two children at birth to establish that perceived racial differences and slavery had been unjust. Unfortunately, the "bad" actor in the novel turns out to be the irresponsible Tom Driscoll (ne Valet de Chambre), who is 1/32 African-American but is raised as a white free man. Thus, those readers who wish to believe in racial differences affecting character can point to that underlying racial factor as still being present in explaining the misbehavior in the story . . . despite what appears to have been Twain's opposite intention. Had Twain developed his story to make the false Tom morally equal to his all-white counterpart Chambers (ne Thomas a Beckett Driscoll), the story would have worked much better in condemning racism and slavery. The second flaw involves having the story turn on establishing the unchanging nature of finger prints in a trial conducted in a small Missouri town many decades before that point was scientifically proven and legally accepted.
For us today, the story moves slowly because we know all about fingerprints as a means of identification which makes much of the eventual resolution easy to anticipate, and also because Twain left many unnecessary remnants of his other story in the book.
Despite these weaknesses, the Pudd'nhead Wilson has many brilliant sections that strikingly portray how the concepts and realities of slavery corrupted both African-Americans and slave-holders. Because of thefts in the Driscoll household, the real Tom's father threatens to sell his slaves down the river (a fate to be avoided). When three of them confess, he agrees to sell them locally. Frightened by the potential for her child to be sold in the future, Roxy plans to kill herself and her son. By accident, she realizes that she can successfully switch the two children's clothing, since both of them look the same to Tom's father, and ensure that her son will never be sold, because he will be raised as the master's son, a white person. Many of the ways for rearing white child are bad for Tom, making him spoiled and disagreeable. Chambers does much better on a simple diet, and from performing physical labor. Tom is arrogant and nasty. Chambers is uneducated and cowed. Later, when Tom realizes that he is 1/32 African-American, he begins to behave as a slave would towards white people.
But the story is much broader than that. Pudd'nhead (a derogatory term somewhat like "featherhead") Wilson is thought to be a fool by the townspeople because of something he said about a dog when he first came to town. Because of that perception, his legal career is delayed by 20 years . . . even though he is actually quite bright. In other areas of the story, a man dresses as women and a woman dresses as a man. A thief has his booty stolen from him, so he is also the victim. In many ways, the story reminds me of Shakespeare's many comedies and tragedies about misperceptions being harmful to all concerned.
Although you will not think this is one of Mark Twain's best books, it is one that will encourage you to have many valuable thoughts about questioning labels and assumptions that we apply to one another. For example, if someone is not very quick to grasp certain widely-accepted points, we may feel the person is stupid. The person may actually be able to grasp many nuances that make the situation ambiguous, and be the opposite of stupid. Or someone who is slow in one way may be a positive genius in other ways. Yet a label may be attached that is the opposite.
Keep an open mind, and observe vastly more about what is going on . . . and be able to create vastly better results!
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on April 3, 2010
Though not Mark Twain's best novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson is a major work essential for fans and critics. Published in 1894, it is Twain's last significant novel and in some ways the culmination of prior ones but also looked to the future - not so much his own work as the complex twentieth century novels that it in many ways prefigures. One should certainly read Twain's more famous works first, but this is essential.

The basic plot is so improbable as to be near-absurd, a fact exacerbated by simple, melodramatic presentation. This is doubtless partly because Twain wrote at near-superhuman speed when desperately in need of money, doing little revision and not being overly concerned with the book as art. This means Pudd'nhead is not his best literary work but lends the not inconsiderable virtue of extremely fast reading. One can easily plow through in an hour or two - even in one setting - and will likely want to because the story is supremely engrossing, pulling us in immediately and never letting go. In this it is very different from most late Victorian novels. Of course, as always with Twain, the structure is also partly satirical - a parody of the sensational mysteries then wildly popular and which Twain elsewhere mocked. Later works - e.g, Tom Sawyer, Detective - were also structural parodies, but this is significantly more successful. Twain pokes insightful but essentially gentle fun at stories that were ridiculously bombastic. Needless to say, this does not prevent enjoying Pudd'nhead on a very simple level as a murder mystery full of suspense, plot twists, and highly wrought revelations. It is quite likable even on this level and has been enjoyed for over a century on account of this alone.

However, Twain also deals with very serious themes. Like many of Twain's best-known works, this is set in antebellum small town Missouri and gives a fascinating peek into the culture, speech, and landscape of that time and place. This would make the valuable even if it had nothing else, but it also has many other virtues. Twain's wit always had an acerbic streak, but he became increasingly pessimistic and cynical and came to believe in something very near determinism. Pudd'nhead was his first real novelistic expression of this last, vividly dramatizing - in a way recalling but complexly different from The Prince and the Pauper - how environment determines character. The novel leaves very little room for free will - a thought highly disturbing to many; thus, though almost never considered such, Twain was an important member of the naturalist school flourishing near century's end. Even more disturbing is the book's unflinching human evil depiction; Tom is one of the most loathsomely vile characters ever, fully self-absorbed and seemingly conscienceless. Later Twain works focused even more obsessively on humanity's rather large dark side, but this is more than stunning. Unlike those works, mostly unpublished in Twain's life, this is still livened with the light elements mentioned before plus a profusion of the country humor for which Twain had long been famous. Tenuously straddling the line, ostensibly the latter but leaning toward darkness and seemingly struggling to avoid falling in altogether, are the aphorisms beginning each chapter. They usually relate in some way to what follows but are sometimes little more than an excuse for Twain to throw in ever-darkening wit. The sayings, several of which have become among his most famous, have penetrating insight into life and human nature and are so great that the book is well worth buying for them alone.

We think of Twain as epitomizing his era, as he certainly does, but he was also always well ahead of his time in many ways. Quite remarkably considering the brevity and simple structure, Pudd'nhead has many such examples. First, as often with Twain, its race presentation was very advanced. As Langston Hughes observes, the presentation of blacks as human beings by a white Southern writer who grew up with slavery is truly remarkable. Twain was one of his era's great liberals, condemning racism and promoting the essential humanity of all people; that he has become the unfortunate victim of absurdly perverse, politically correct, knee-jerk overreaction is so viciously ironic that it would be hilarious if it were not so sad. The novel was practically revolutionary in showing that people are not good or bad, smart or dumb because of race. The sympathetic picked up the general drift, but the truly nuanced portrayal was virtually unnoticed and did not really reappear in fiction - or indeed science - for several decades. Pudd'nhead deals with complex psychological, sociological, criminological, and Freudian factors when such things were hardly even known concepts. It is also highly noteworthy as a very early depiction of fingerprinting's criminal application - surely the first fictional instance and one of the first period. Hughes points out that that the concept had been proposed only sixteen years before, and initial application began merely two years earlier. It has of course been so ubiquitously used in fiction since that the grand finale is not only obvious almost from the start but seems patently contrived. However, Twain's audience could have had no idea what was coming, and the climax must have been absolutely spellbinding.

As all this suggests, there is far more to Pudd'nhead than its shortness would suggest. Anyone even remotely interested in Twain or the associated concepts should read it, and this surely - or should - include everyone.
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on April 13, 2010
Do not purchase this edition of the novel. It is riddled with typographical errors, many of which obscure or distort Twain's meaning. I regret that I adopted this edition for a college course.

The novel itself is an excellent short tale, a kind of murder mystery, in which Twain examines the paradoxes of slavery and racial hierarchy with a great deal of wit and subtlety. It takes place in a Mississippi River town in Missouri c. 1850, and shows how the institution of slavery shapes (and deforms) the life of a political community. Roxy, a slave who is 1/16th black ("and that sixteenth did not show"), is one of Twain's most interesting and delightful characters.
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