Mark Twain: “Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale” (1894)

“Tom had long ago taught Roxy ‘her place.’ It has been many days now since she have ventured a caress of a fondling epithet in his quarter. Such things, from a ‘nigger,’ were repulsive to him, and she had been warned to keep her distance and remember who she was. She saw her darling gradually cease from being her son, she saw that detail perish utterly; all that was left was master–master, pure and simple, and it was not a gentle mastership, either. She saw herself sink from the sublime height of motherhood to the somber deeps of unmodified slavery. The abyss of separation between her and her boy were complete. She was merely his chattel, now, his convenience, his dog, his cringing and helpless slave, he humble and unresisting victim of his capricious temper and vicious nature.” (939)

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is the last of his great Mississippi writings and turns out to be an important reminder of the brutality of slavery and the absurdity of Jim Crow segregation. The novel came out two years after Homer Plessy was arrested for purchasing a train ticket for a white car in New Orleans. Plessy was 1/8th black and could easily pass as white. Mark Twain must have been influenced by this case of attempted “passing” when he wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson, which takes the concept of passing in order to show how ridiculous the color line was and how easily it could be shattered, but also how destructive and vile it could be.

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The plot of the novel centers on a slave in the Driscoll household, Roxy, who has a child on the same day as her master’s wife. The two children look similar. Roxy’s son is 1/16th black. After being threatened with being sold “down the river,” and broken away from her home and family, she decided to switch the babies. Her son grew up as a white man named Tom and became Roxy’s master. Growing up white in a slave society ensures that Tom grows up into an odious person. He goes into debt and murders his uncle, blaming some Italian tourists. During the trial, the title character, a brilliant lawyer who gained a reputation as a town idiot for a poorly constructed joke, exposes the truth through the study of fingerprints. Tom is revealed as a black slave, the property of the Driscoll family. In order to repair their losses, they sell the former master, now slave, “down the river.” At the same time, they resort the rightful Driscoll heir, despite having been raised as a black slave all of his life.

How one is raised, in respect to hierarchical institutions, matters a great deal in the formation of values. I recently saw a talk about a study that showed that even when playing a rigged game of Monopoly, the winner became progressively more arrogant and indifferent to others. We have no way of knowing how Tom would have grown up if he stayed a slave, but we can guess that he would have been like Chambers, the real Driscoll son, raised by Roxy. As one of the chapter-leading quotes from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” states: “TRAINING is everything. The peace was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” (941) Twain’s point seems to be the foolishness of the color line, especially when enforced with Jim Crow laws. A more radical claim at the time than today, but worth remembering when we feel eager to condemn others for not sharing our values. There are reasons people have warped perspectives of justice or are incapable of empathy. We need to crush those institutions that cultivate people who behave indifferently to each other.

Another theme of the novel is the utter brutality of slavery. At the turn of the last century, a couple decades after the failure of Reconstruction, slavery was being presented by white historians and Confederate apologists as a benign, even progressive institution. Twain was one of the few voices remembering slavery as it was. The threat of being sold “down the river” was a threat to maintain control and discipline enslaved men and women, but it was also part of the psychological torture masters used. Before Roxy decides to switch the children, she thought about murder as a preferable solution to being eventually sold to plantations in the deep South. In the face of this slaves had some means of resistance. They could steal. This was the cause of the initial threats to sell the slaves to the South. Roxy would later use blackmail to extort money from her master (in reality her son). Still, as the final pages remind us, this resistance has little force against the legal power of masters to violently destroy families.

A third important theme in the novel is the falsehood of perceptions and image. Wealth and status are presented as fictions. If a slave can become master, and a master become a slave, just by changing hats, it is not clear where the ownership of wealth really is. The wealth and power that the elite control is ultimately just a piece of paper, enforced by courts and law. In this story, the courts begin investigating a murder but eventually turn it into a property transaction. “They rightfully claimed that ‘Tom’ was lawfully their property and had been so for eight years; that they had already lost sufficiently in being deprived of his services during that long period, and ought not to be required to add anything to that loss; that if he had been delivered up to them in the first place, they would have sold him and he could not have murdered Judge Driscoll; therefore it was not he that had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory.” (1056) This is the perverse logic of property. I suppose all the crimes of corporations can be just as easily ignored and turned into a source of profit for someone.

A great, morally significant novel.

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