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.


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.


Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays: 1891–1895

“Ah, Lasca, you are a fortunante girl!—this beautiful house, this dainty jewel, that rich treasure, all this elegant snow, and sumptuous icebergs and limitless sterility, and public bears and walruses, and noble freedom and largeness, and everybody’s admiring eyes upon you, and everybody’s homage and respect at your command without the asking; young, rich, beautiful, sought, courted, envied, not a requirement unsatisfied, not a desire ungratified, nothing to wish for that you cannot have—it is immeasurable good fortune! I have seen myriads of girls, but none of whom these extraordinary things could be truthfully said but you alone. And you are worthy—worthy of it all, Lasca—I believe in my heart.” (“The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance, 126)


The 1890s were traumatic for Mark Twain. His company Webster & Co. went into debt over Paige typesetters. The company was kept afloat with Twain’s investments, but he could not raise capital and the prototypes were unsuccessful as well. In 1894 he assumed the company’s debts and declared bankruptcy. In current dollar amounts, the investments cost him millions. He spent some of the early 1890s in Europe, where he underwent treatments for various physical ailments. In regards to his writing, he produced a dozen or so important sketches (see below), The American Claimant, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Pudd’nhead Wilson, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. This is his last productive years, despite his financial and physical problems. The last fifteen years of his life, after the 1896 death of his daughter, would be focused on shorter writings and one final travelogue (Around the Equator).

The Paige Typesetter

The Paige Typesetter

The seventeen entries from the Library of America anthology of Mark Twain’s shorter works covering these five years are all interesting and most of them speak to some of the themes of this blog. He returns from time to time to his role as a humorist, but his writing is clearly becoming more serious and pointed in regards to its social critique.

The short writings from 1891 were produced while in Europe. Two deal directly with life in Europe (“Aix-les-Bains” and “Playing Courier”), especially his therapeutic treatments as Swiss spas. “Mental Telegraphy” is a humorous take on the phenomenon of people around the world arriving at a similar idea. This seems to have been happening a lot in the period of technological revolutions. The most well-known of these happened earlier with the Newton-Leibnitz situation. Both invented calculus independently. Twain mentions the more contemporary Darwin-Wallace coincidence. Fascinating for me is what this tells us about the reality of tides of history. There do seem to be moments when people around the world come to a certain realization. I think we are getting there with anti-capitalism (Occupy was one sign of this).

We have only one short writing from 1892, “The Cradle of Liberty.” This is an important work because it (like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) challenges American pretentions about being the home of liberty. He argues that Switzerland has a much deeper and more authentic experience of liberty, worked into its society and politics. “After trying the political atmosphere of the neighboring monarchies, it is healing and refreshment to breathe an air that has known no taint of slavery for 600 years, and to come among a people whose political history is great and fine, superlatively great and fine, and worthy to be taught in all schools and studied by all races and peoples.” (49–50)

Eighteen-ninety-three was more productive in short writings. This anthology collected seven works, including some short stories, from that year. “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note” is an interesting commentary on wealth. The experiment of giving someone such a bill and seeing if that makes her rich is an important thought exercise in a time when people hoard enormous and grotesque amounts of money. Of course, in real life, these figures make no sense. Only in the world of high finance and in theory do currency amounts like £1,000,000 have any real meaning. “About All Kinds of Ships” does a few things. By putting Noah’s Ark into the modern bureaucratic regulatory system, he asks interesting questions about freedom and progress. His larger point is that progress (technological or otherwise) is largely meaningless is it is just abstract improvements or removed from our daily lives. A new steamer (or new green city in China) may be progress but prove to be distractions if not actually improving the lives of most people. “We are victims of one common superstition—the superstition that we realize the changes that are taking place in the world because we read about them and know what they are.” (81) “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” is an important work from this year. It should be read for pure pleasure and joy. I suppose we could weigh it down with theological arguments or questions about Twain’s religious point of view. At its heart, is the story of two strangers, through suffering and exile, coming to know and love each other. Such tales of solidarity and shared sacrifice always seem beautiful to me. The last lines almost bring me to tears. “It is better to love outside the Garden with her than inside it without her. At first I thought she talked too much; but now I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of life. Blessed be the chestnut that brought us near together and taught me to know the goodness of her heart and the sweetness of her spirit!” (108) I also enjoyed “The Esquimau Maiden’s Romance,” which I read as another commentary on wealth and social prestige. On one level we see the Esquimau embracing the concept of wealth and hierarchy through the collection of fish hooks. There are the same type of conspicuous consumption that Twain knew of too well in America. However, the value of the fishhooks—the source of wealth—is clearly superfluous to society. Much like the hoarders of wealth in late capitalist societies, their wealth is a fiction (even if their power is not). Thus, much of the story is an attempt to describe wealth in real terms, which inevitably enter into the interpersonal realm. “Travelling with a Reformer” is a humorous attack on the regulations and laws promoted by Progressive-era reformers, in this case a welfare capitalist targeting card playing.


There is not much to say about 1894, which consisted of a musing on the “Jumping Frog” story and a personal reminiscence of a Scotchman named Macfarlane, with frontier-style brutishness but also a strong moral logic that Twain thought was lacking in his day. “He said that man’s heart was the only bad heart in the animal kingdom; that man was the only animal capable of feeling malice, envy, vindictiveness, vengefulness, hatred, selfishness, the only animal that loved drunkenness, almost the only animal that could endure personal uncleanliness and a filthy habitation, the sole animal in whom was fully developed the base instinct called patriotism, the sole animal that robs, persecutes, oppresses, and kills members of his own immediate tribe, the sole animal that steals and enslaves the members of any tribe.” (163)

As for 1895, we have Twains’ dual polemics against James Feminore Cooper’s writing. Of course, Cooper’s “literary crimes” are real, but part of me wonders if Twain is not in part hacking the culture of efficiency that shaped industrializing America. Twain seems to be making a case that Cooper should have written according to scientific precision. I am supportive of wasteful writing, of course, hence this blog’s existence.

Coming up: Twain’s later novels.

Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.


The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).