Berkeley: University of California Press, 2024
835 pp. $19.95 (paperback)

Pudd’nhead Wilson is an odd book by any measure. Originally published in 1894, it contains much of Mark Twain’s celebrated irony and cleverness, as well as his most earnest and brilliant denunciation of racism—far more powerful in that respect than anything in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet it’s also strangely misshapen, weakened by flaws in characterization and plot and featuring a storytelling device that on one hand appears ingenious and, on the other, so carelessly conceived that some readers thought Twain was defending racism.

Perhaps the book’s most remarkable feature—and a strong hint as to the source of its shortcomings—is the fact that the author chose to remove a major section of the story before publication and to publish that as a separate tale (called Those Extraordinary Twins) in the same volume. He explained in a postscript that it dawned on him while writing it that half the story was tragedy and half was comedy, so he decided to extract the comedy—“a kind of literary Caesarian operation,” as he put it—and print the two stories side by side (353).

Now the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, which since 1967 has published scores of marvelously detailed scholarly editions of Twain’s writings, has released the “authoritative” Pudd’nhead Wilson by combining in a single volume the version Twain printed (i.e., Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins) and the manuscript version as it stood before Twain cut it in two—and has never before appeared in print. The result of this astonishing feat of literary detective work is a fascinating window into Twain’s creative skills and an entertaining, though flawed, “new” story from one of America’s most beloved authors.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is a detective tale set in a fictional pre–Civil War Missouri village called Dawson’s Landing. The title character is a failed lawyer—failed because he is too intelligent, and his cleverness alienates and confuses the ignorant villagers. But he’s not the book’s most interesting character. That honor goes to Roxana, an enslaved woman who is only one-sixteenth black and whose son can so easily pass for white that she switches him with a white child of the same age when they are both babies. The white child grows up in slavery, the “black” child with all the privileges of a good education. The latter becomes a crooked gambler and ne’er-do-well who eventually betrays Roxana by selling her to a plantation owner in Arkansas to pay off his gambling debts.

At last, she escapes and manages to return to Missouri to confront him. “‘You be Judas to yo’ on mother to save yo’ wuthless hide,’” she cries. “‘Would anybody b’lieve it? No!—a dog couldn’t! You is the low-downest orneriest hound dat was ever pup’d into dis worl’—en I is ’sponsible for it!’—and she spat on him” (174). Meanwhile, Wilson solves a local mystery by using what in the 1890s was a cutting-edge forensic technology—fingerprinting—to uncover Roxana’s baby-swapping trick. In the courtroom, he reveals the matching prints, proving the identity of the guilty party, and liberating the wrongly enslaved white man. “The real heir suddenly found himself rich and free, but in a most embarrassing situation,” Twain wrote. “He could neither read nor write. . . . His gait, his attitudes, his gestures, his bearing, his laugh—were all vulgar and uncouth; his manners were the manners of a slave” (200).

Twins and doppelgängers were favorite plot devices for Twain. He employed them in, among other works, The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and The American Claimant (1892). But here, the trick enabled him to assail the ludicrous evil of the “one drop rule”—by which a person could be legally deemed black and sentenced to a lifetime of servitude and oppression if he had even “one drop” of black blood in his veins—and, indeed, to condemn racism as a whole. “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black out-voted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro,” wrote Twain. “She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro” (13). The child-swapping plot device gave Twain the opportunity to dramatize—and cut down by sharp satire—the irrationality of dividing people by racial ancestry. Roxane is virtuous; her son, vicious—the color of their skin does not determine the content of their character. . . .

The new @mtpo edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson is an opportunity for readers to gain more insight into the author’s sincere, if imperfect, efforts to attack the scourge of racial prejudice.
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1. Benjamin Griffin et al. (eds.), Autobiography of Maker Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 676.

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