Pudd'nhead's Sources

TOCCI TWINS As MT admits in his headnote to The Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins, writing The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson gave him "a sufficiently hard time." According to his account, the idea for the story occurred to him when he saw a picture advertising the exhibition of the Tocci Twins. This was probably in late 1891. Apparently MT never saw the Tocci's in person, but he had been fascinated with the figure of the "Siamese twin" all through his career (see Twain & Twins). The image of the Tocci's prompted MT to begin a farce, based on a conflict between two incompatible selves forced to inhabit one body. Most of this farce was published in Those Extraordinary Twins.

TITLEPAGE: GALTON'S FINGER PRINTSMT worked on this humorous tale during 1892, but as he was writing it (to quote again from his introductory remarks about Those Extraordinary Twins), "it changed itself from a farce to a tragedy" when two characters he had introduced into the story, "a stranger named Pudd'nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxanna," "intruded" themselves into the narrative and "pushed up into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll." Tom had been in the tale originally as a rival to the fair-haired "twin," Angelo, for the affections of Rowena, whom MT calls "the light-weight heroine." In his new story, however, Tom became the son of Roxy, "a negro and a slave" passing as white. The manuscript survives (at the Morgan Library), but it doesn't clearly answer the question of why MT's intentions and the mood of his tale changed. In November, 1892, after he had already decided to feature the story of changelings but while the details of that plot were still evolving, MT acquired a copy of Finger Prints, by Francis Galton. Galton (1822-1911) was a British scientist and a cousin of Charles Darwin whose main interest was in heredity. He coined the term "eugenics." At several points in Finger Prints he discusses his subject in the context of race and class, although he acknowledges that the data will not support his "great expectations" -- that fingerprints would display racial differences. After reading Galton's book, MT enthusiastically decided to feature fingerprints in the story. In Chapter Two MT's narrator says Roxy's race is "a fiction of law and custom." When Wilson uses fingerprint evidence in the courtroom to prove Tom and Chambers' "true" identities, however, he is in a sense using them to establish race.

COVER: 1903 COLLIER'S MAGAZINE MT's decision to feature fingerprints was either a cause or an effect of the way his story was becoming a kind of detective story. In the early summer, 1893, he made the wholesale manuscript revision he referred to as a "literary Caesarian operation," pulling out the story of the "Siamese" twins to "center" the entire narrative, as he put it in a letter, "on the murder and the trial." In this, the published version, Pudd'nhead Wilson plays the part of the analytical observer who will interpret the evidence and, at the end, solve the mystery and expose the criminal. Like twins, detectives were a longtime fascination of MT's. One even appears, briefly and ineptly, in Tom Sawyer (1875). Most of his variations on the theme of detection are burlesques or satires, intended to expose the genre itself. In A Double-Barreled Detective Story (1902), for example, he brings Sherlock Holmes to the American west and has him conspicuously fail to solve a murder. Arthur Conan Doyle's tales about Holmes began appearing in 1887, with A Study in Scarlet ("The Norwood Builder," left, appeared in 1903). By the time MT wrote Pudd'nhead Wilson, Doyle's stories were extraordinarily popular with readers around the world. The design of those tales and the character of Holmes were clearly influences on the novel as MT wound up writing it, but it is perhaps an open question whether Pudd'nhead Wilson imitates or subtly subverts the conventions of detective fiction. Wilson's "detection" of the murderer restores the social order that had been violated by both Roxy's switch of the babies and Tom's murder of Judge Driscoll, but the ante bellum society he restores is based on slavery.

TITLEPAGE: BARRINGER'S ESSAY Pudd'nhead Wilson is MT's most direct and sustained imaginative engagement with the issues of slavery and race, but although it has never been controversial in the way Huck Finn is, there is no critical consensus about whether the novel is racist or anti-racist, about what the novel is saying or implying about race. Like Huck, the characters in the book are all shaped by a slaveholding culture, and so racist themselves. After living in Dawson's Landing for fifteen years, for example, Wilson thinks of the "drop of black blood" in Roxy's veins as "superstitious," and Roxy herself, though a "negro," has so completely internalized the society's prejudice against her that she blames her own son's baseness on the "one part nigger" in him. The idea that there was such a thing as "black blood" and that a drop of it could determine character was even more prevalent in the 1890s, when MT was writing, than in the ante bellum society he is writing about. The Jim Crow laws being enacted across the South were given a pseudo-scientific authority by the idea that race was hereditary, and that racial inferiority or degradation could be empirically established. Phrases like "black blood" and "part nigger" would, for its original readers, link the novel to such contemporary discourse. As an example of that, I'm including here excerpts from an essay by Dr. Paul Barringer, of the University of Virginia hospital, which defines the "negro" and the threat he represents to civilization in these quasi-Darwinian terms. In most of his writings, MT emphasizes the way cultural conditioning (what he calls training) determines identity and destiny. Pudd'nhead Wilson says, for example, that Tom "was a bad baby, from the very beginning of his usurpation" -- which could be interpreted to mean that his "badness" reflects his nurturing, not his nature. But Pudd'nhead Wilson also refers to his "native viciousness," a phrase that echoes the "scientific" racism of the times. In the manuscript of Pudd'nhead Wilson MT wrote a passage depicting Tom's own anguished thoughts about his divided racial inheritance, in which he specifically asserts that both "white" and "nigger blood" can be a source of high qualities, and specifically attributes his own viciousness to slavery, not innate savagery. But MT deleted the passage. Whether the published novel was calculated to challenge or reinforce contemporary doctrines like Barringer's is a difficult question to decide. If you look at the reviews included in this site, it's interesting to note that the first two, written on the basis of the early chapters as the story appeared serially in The Century Magazine -- one northern and favorable, the other southern and unfavorable -- both clearly assume that by telling the story of the changelings MT will vindicate the "slave" Tom in much the same way that, with the switch that occurs in The Prince and the Pauper, he affirmed the democratic worth of the "pauper" Tom Canty. The reviews that were written after the whole novel appeared, however, don't treat race or slavery as an important feature of the story. One British review calls the story a "vigorous indictment of the old social order of the South." On the other hand, the only two American reviewers who notice the racial theme -- in the Washington Public Opinion and in the Hartford Times -- have no doubt that it confirms the hereditary effects of "white blood" and "nigger blood." The 1890s were one of the lowest points in the whole unhappy history of race relations in America: there were more lynchings than at any time before or since, and in the Supreme Court's Plessy v Ferguson decision, the idea that any "black" ancestor meant you could be labeled "black" and segregated away from "whites" was upheld as the law of the land of the free. Whether and how Pudd'nhead Wilson reflects and participates in these patterns is something modern readers have to decide for themselves.

DETAIL: 1894 PUDD'NHEAD WILSON ILLUSTRATIONChronologically the earliest source for MT's story was the world Sam Clemens had grown up in. He'd written about Hannibal before, notably in Tom Sawyer. As St. Petersburg Hannibal is called a "western" and a "southwestern" village; about the only hint in Tom Sawyer of the social themes that preoccupy Pudd'nhead Wilson -- slavery, race, miscegenation -- is the reference to the "white, mulatto and negro boys and girls" Tom could have found hanging around the town pump, if Aunt Sally hadn't made him whitewash the fence. Aunts and children played a large role in the farce MT began with, the comedy of the twins, but in the story he wound up writing, the tragedy of the changleings, they are pushed to the margins of the narrative. Probably after the farce started to darken, MT decided to move the village down the river, "half a day's journey, per steamboat, below St. Louis." Along with the move south, the racial issues that had been marginalized in Tom Sawyer come to occupy the center of the story. Pudd'nhead Wilson is MT's most explicit look at Hannibal as a "slaveholding town." Dawson's Landing is Hannibal, re-viewed -- St. Petersburg re-imagined without a hint of nostalgia.

DETAIL: 1894 PUDD'NHEAD WILSON ILLUSTRATION To the extent that Pudd'nhead Wilson is the story of Wilson himself, and his rise to the status of celebrity in Dawson's Landing, I believe that another significant source was MT himself -- that is, Samuel Clemens' adult career as "Mark Twain." The story of how David Wilson went west "to seek his fortune," and fought, as the last chapter puts it, "against hard luck and prejudice" in order to become "a made man" is in essence the archetypal American success story. Its emphases, however, are particularly Twainian, especially in the way Wilson's quest is not for money or power, but for attention and popularity. He becomes a successful lawyer and Mayor of the village, but the climax of his story is his spectacular performance in the courtroom, one of the most elaborate and dramatic of the many performance scenes in MT's fiction. His achievement is described in the last chapter, when troops of citizens flock to him and require a speech. This was not only one of MT's specialties; it also echoes the happy ending at the end of Tom Sawyer, where everything Tom says has become remarkable. If Wilson's triumphant performance in the courtroom, however, is an imagintive reenactment of MT's popular reception, it makes MT's decision to call the novel The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson that much more resonant.

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