|[This is more an outraged response than a review. Williams wrote it after the first two Century Magazine installments of Pudd'nhead -- the first 8 chapters -- had appeared. There is no evidence to indicate if her attitude toward the novel changed after she had read it all. This is an unusual glimpse of a southern reaction to one of MT's accounts of the South.]|
A better title, perhaps, would be "The Decline and Fall of Mark Twain;" for, looking at it solely as a piece of literature, there is no denying, that his much-advertised serial is tremendously stupid. If it were nothing more, the reading, even the critical, world could afford to receive it in the charity of silence, remembering the merry heart it has had these twenty years past whenever it pleased Mr. Clemens to amuse it.
"Pudd'nhead Wilson" is more than stupid. So far as it has appeared -- to the end of the second installment, that is -- it is at once malicious and misleading. So much so, indeed, that involuntarily one recalls the gentleman who, it was said, "went to his memory for his wit, and his imagination for his facts."
It certainly seems to me that Mr. Clemens must have imagined all the local color of his tale. It has to do with Dawson's Landing, a small Missouri town on the Mississippi, populated largely with F. F. V.'s, all of whom are slave-holders, as are the rest of the inhabitants. Right here I wish to ask why it is that the Southern man who has an honest and decent pride in the fact that he comes of good stock fares so ill at the hands of certain literary gentlemen? Bret Harte gives us Colonel Starbottle as his type. Mr. Cable has won fame and fortune and the heart of the whole North by demonstrating to its entire satisfaction how heartlessly and continually all his well-born gentlemen overstep the color line. Last of all, Mark Twain has set himself the task of showing how impossible it is for a man to have a great-grandfather and, at the same time, any regard for the Decalogue.
Perhaps the gentlemen are bent on gleaning the full harvest of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Perhaps, too, they are wise in so doing. In my seven years North, I have more than once been asked by people who regarded themselves as very well informed "if there were still in the South any pure blacks at all, or any pure-blooded whites?" At first such questioning made me angry. Later, I have come to recognize it as the legitimate outcome of the deliverances of Mr. Cable and his school. Now that Mark Twain has come under their banner, the impression will doubtless become more than ever current. For he has -- and has deserved -- the widest public of any living American writer. And it is a melancholy fact that the sheep instinct of humanity is so strong as to make it follow en masse into any pasture of opinion where he may lead. A still more melancholy fact is the inability of many folk to judge a thing with eyes blinded by the glamour of a great reputation.
Otherwise, I think, some one would have risen ere this to protest against some of Mr. Clemens' gentle idiosyncrasies displayed in the first installment. For instance, the character of Pembroke Howard, introduced solely that the author might tell us that Howard, too, was an F. F. V., also that "he was popular with the people" -- and that the story has no sort of concern with him. A while later he is permitted to die. At least there is a line to that effect. What I want to know, and would like to ask Mr Clemens, is how a man can be "popular with the people," since popular means of, by, or with the people. It does assuredly seem to me pretty queer usage for a man who was so lately toasted and feted by the Lotos Club, as the leading exponent of literary art.
That is by no means a solitary gem of its kind. Careful reading shows the like upon almost every page. It is not too much to say, in fact, that there is slovenly construction in every other paragraph. But the manner is a trifling burden compared with the matter of it. First to last, the writer seemed to feel his burden of humor-with-malice-aforethought. He had chosen his place, his people. If the facts about them are not humorous, so much the worse for facts.
Witness the naming of the hero. He had come out of Western New York to practice law in the Missouri town. One day, hearing a dog bark, he indulges in the Joe-Millerism of wishing he owned half the dog so he might make an end of it. Thereupon the bystanders "fell away from him as something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him, One said; "'Pears to be a fool.'
"'Pears?' said another. 'Is, I reckon. Said he wished he owned half the dog.'
"'The idiot,' said a third. 'What did he reckon would become of the other half if he killed his half? Do you reckon he thought it would live?'
"'In my opinion he ain't got any mind.'
"No. 3 said: 'Well, he's a lummox, anyway.'
"'That's what he is,' said No. 4 'He's a labrick; just a Simon pure labrick: if ever there was one.'
"'Yes, sir, he's a damn fool, that's the way I put him up,' said No, 5. 'Any body can think different that wants to, but those are my sentiments.'
"'I am with you gentlemen,' said No. 6. 'Perfect jackass -- yes, and it ain't going too far to say he is a pudd'nhead. If he ain't a pudd'nhead, I ain't no judge, that's all.'
"Mr. Wilson stood elected. The incident was told all over town and gravely discussed by everybody. Within a week he had lost his first name. Pudd'nhead took its place."
This is humor, as the great editors understand it. To one a little bit conversant with the folk who are supposed to be humorous, it seems, contrariwise, something cheap and thin. Throughout the Southwest, for at least seventy five years, "I'd like to own that dog -- and kill my half" has been a cant saying so commonly current that it is laughed at only out of compliment to the user of it. The men who should now perpetrate it as original would perhaps be called something worse than a "pudd'nhead," but very certainly nobody -- not the most ignorant -- would find in it a suggestion of uncanniness. For the thing is so common and proverbial that little children make use of it, or rather of its implication. More than one small lad has told me, rejoicing, "Ma has stopped her half of me from going to school." And one shrewd young person within my knowledge bought half of a coveted dolly, then insisted on a property-right to play with it all the time.
So, too, of Mr. Clemens' young man who went away East to college, and came back with "Eastern polish," whatever that may be -- perhaps perfect fitting clothes and a habit of wearing gloves. His old friends overlooked the polish of the clothes, but could not forgive the glove habit, so he was left solitary. This is some more, doubtless, of Mr. Clemens' very peculiar humor. He ought, however, to have stated the fact in a foot note. He might have been at the same pains about the reception to the Brothers Capollo. His account of the honors thrust upon them is doubtless a sly revenge upon the misguided Southern communities, which have stretched out admiring hands to Mr. Clemens when he would rather they did not.
So much for the accidentals of the tale. To deal adequately with the story itself, either in motif or atmosphere, would require more time and space than I, at present, command. It is built around the exchange of two children, born the same day, to one father. One his wife's son; the other, his slave's. The wife dies; the slave mother, who has sixteen parts of white blood to one of black, has sole charge of both babies. After a while, her master (as is the custom of Virginia gentlemen in the hands of high literary persons), for some biding fault, sells all the other house servants, though as a mark of magnanimity he sells them at home instead of sending them down the river. The life-likeness of this part will be apparent to every ex-slave owner, especially to such as remember how far beyond rubies was in those days the price of a thoroughly excellent servant. Setting wholly aside the human affection that often subsisted between white and black, few men were so foolish as to inconvenience themselves by entire change of menage, without the most imperative necessity for such a proceeding. All that is, however, beside the mark. This sale goes forward, and as a result, Roxy, the white slave, puts her son in his half brother's place to save him from the possibility of such a fate.
She also puts her creator -- Mark Twain -- in rather a hard dilemma. To his mind the only man worth either saving or damning in all the South country is the black man. The exigencies of fiction, however, make it necessary that the grave baby, who normally would grow up a pen-feathered angel, shall, as his own young master, grow up a pretty respectable devil. Similarly, the white child must be, by the change of position, endowed with all the virtue and grace of the subject race. Anybody can see that it is hard lines for the writer. One can fancy him apologizing beforehand to the little negro for the violence he is compelled to do his character. He makes the plunge and the double transformation boldly. It is more than a little amusing, though, to one who knows experimentally the autocracy of a "black mammy," to read how Roxy, after the exchange, was surprised to see how steadily and surely the awe which had kept her tongue reverent, her manner humble towards her young master, was transferring itself to her speech and manner toward the usurper. Roxy must have been a mighty exceptional character if she did not spank her charges with natural and noble impartiality, whether they were white or black.
She had christened her own child "Valet de Chambre -- no surname. Slaves hadn't the privilege." That is some more news to us who owned them, and who keep lively memories of their pride in their surnames; and how tenaciously, after freedom came, they clung to the appellations whereunto they felt themselves born. In founding their families under the new conditions, it was often laughable to see the leaning to aristocracy. In more than one case within my own knowledge, negroes abandoned the names of the living masters, in favor of that of the master's grandfather from whom they were inherited and to whose family they leaned because of is greater distinction. Truly, if they had had no privilege of surnames, there must have been confusion worse confounded in the era '65.
Time and patience fail alike in bringing to book all such matters here set down. Suffice it to say that, first to last, the whole recital is unveracious. If it is meant for caricature, the result is the same as would come from exaggerating the ear, nose, and coat-tails of a Bowery tough, and labelling the picture "Ward McAllister." So far as I know, all that the South, either "Old" or "New," has ever done to Mr. Clemens has been to buy his books, when it had precious little money to buy anything, and to set him upon a pedestal as the very prince of humorists. Wherefore, I quite fail to comprehend why it pleases him to villify us as he is doing in this book.
Let me add that I am no bigot in behalf of mine own people. Some have foibles, faults galore, even sins of deepest dye. There are knaves and fools among them -- uncouth fellows not a few. So much I readily grant. I will go further and admit that there is that in the social constitution which, rightly handled, might give a humorist scope to add largely to the gaiety of nations. But take them by little and large, they are neither sordid nor stolid, nor lacking in the finer parts of humanity. All this Mr. Clemens makes them out to be. And because he is who he is, a large part of our common country will take his circus-posters for accurate photographs of life and people in the South. Solely for that reason, I make, here and now, my protest against this injustice. I can not comfort myself with the belief that he has sinned ignorantly against half his countrymen. His experience has been too wide, his intelligence is too keen, for that. He is, it seems to me, thus unveracious for revenue only. He has found out the sort of book that soils [sells?] best. It is not that which speaks the truth as it is, but as the reader wishes to believe it to be. Beside, it is only against a background so lurid as the one he manufactured that the action of his story could possibly take place. As an occasional dabbler in fiction, I recognize the strength of that necessity. But I can not hold that it is sufficient to justify the falsification of all historic conditions. A long time ago, I read a speech of Mr. Clemens in which he said, at the outset, that he had chosen something he knew nothing whatever about so as to be quite unhampered by facts. To judge from "Pudd'nhead Wilson," he has contracted a habit of being unhampered by facts -- a habit which seems to grow stronger with age.
Martha McCulloch Williams