Cosmopolitan [H.H. Boyesen]
1895: January 18

Let me add, for the sake of a transition, that Mark Twain, whose "Puddin'-Head Wilson" I have just finished, is even more unique among humorists. Here we have a novel of the ante-bellum days in Missouri, rather melodramatic in plot, and full of the liveliest kind of action. If anybody but Mark Twain had undertaken to tell that kind of story, with exchanges of infants in the cradle, a hero with negro taint in his blood substituted for the legitimate white heir, midnight encounters in a haunted house between the false heir and his colored mother, murder by the villain of his supposed uncle and benefactor, accusation of an innocent foreigner, and final sensational acquittal and general unraveling of the tangled skein -- if, I say, anybody else had had the hardihood to utilize afresh this venerable stage machinery of fiction, we should have been tempted to class his work with such cheap stuff as that of Wilkie Collins, Hugh Conway, and the dime novelists. But Mark Twain, somehow, has lifted it all into the region of literature. In the first place, the alleged extracts from Puddin'-Head Wilson's calendar are inimitably droll and witty. Take, for instance, this:

"There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect; he is the choicest spirit among the humbler animals; yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented, when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt."

Then again, the Missouri village in which the scene is laid, is so vividly realized in its minutest details; and the people, in all their fatuous prejudice and stolidity, are so credible and authentic, so steeped in the local atmosphere, that the illusion becomes perfect, and we swallow the melodrama without a qualm, -- exchange of heirs, haunted house, murder, and all, -- and scarcely dream that we have been duped, until we wake up with a start at the end of the last chapter. "Tell the truth, or trump, -- but take the trick," is one of Puddin'-Head Wilson's maxims; and the author, to make assurance doubly sure, has done both. He evidently has an ample fund of experience to draw upon; and he possesses, also, that high imaginative faculty which does not consist in crude invention, but in shaping remembered truth into logical and artistic coherence. His people stand squarely upon their feet, not because he has so constructed them, but because he has known their type and been familiar with their looks, speech, and habits. How deliciously rich, racy, and copious is, for instance, his negro talk. The very gurgling laugh and cooing cadence seem, somehow, implied in the text; and the fancy instinctively adds the vivid miens and gestures. Since Mark Twain wrote his "Tom Sawyer" and "Roughing It," he has published no book comparable in interest to "Puddin'-Head Wilson."

-- Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen

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