In 1830, at Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, a baby boy is born to a slave woman in the Driscoll household, Roxy; at the same time, a boy is being born to Roxy’s white mistress, who dies in childbirth. Roxy is ordered to nurse and raise both children. One week later, David Wilson arrives in Dawson’s Landing, meaning to practice law there. He enters into conversation with some locals:
…[when a] dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud:
“I wish I owned half of that dog.”
“Why?” somebody asked.
“Because I would kill my half.”
The group searched his face with curiosity, with anxiety even, but found no light there, no expression that they could read. They fell away from him as from something uncanny, and went into privacy to discuss him. One said:
“‘Pears to be a fool.”
“‘Pears?” said another. “Is, I reckon you better say.”
“Said he wished he owned half of 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?”
After some discussion, the locals decide that Wilson is a “pudd’nhead”. Wilson is unable to shake this first impression and no one hires him as a lawyer. He takes down his shingle and offers his services as surveyor’s assistant and bookkeeper, specializing in untangling confused accounts. So begins Mark Twain’s 1894 novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson.
The two children, one the white heir to the considerable Driscoll estate and the other a black slave, remain in Roxy’s care. One day she and the other house slaves are called before their master who has noticed that some cash has gone missing. He wants to know who has stolen the money. All say, Not I! But only Roxy is telling the truth. The master then says, if the guilty party confesses, that slave will be sold locally, but if no one confesses all four will be sold “down the river” to the new cotton plantations in Mississippi and Alabama being raised on land taken from Indians who had been driven out. This is a terrible sentence, for these plantations are well-known to be harsh and cruel places that use up slaves the same way that cotton uses up soil, wearing it out and working it to death. Immediately, three slaves fall to their knees and admit their guilt. Only Roxy remains standing. Only she will remain at the Driscoll household.
Roxy returns to her cabin, shaken by the knowledge that she could have been sold down the river. And her son might or might not be sold with her, or might be sold down the river in any case, without her. Roxy is 1/16 black (or Negro, if you wish) and looks white. Her race, or “caste” as Twain has it, is revealed only by her speech and her dress. Her son by a white father is 1/32 black and also appears white — in fact, the white baby’s father is not certain which child is his own except that he recognizes that his son is the one that wears better clothes. After wrestling with the moral implications of what she is doing, Roxy switches her baby for her master’s.
Now, before we go any further, there may be those who doubt such a switch is possible — black is black, white is white, and etc. So check out this photograph taken of some freed slave children in New Orleans in 1863 after the Union capture of the city:
[More photos and info here] Blacks pretending to be white is a constant theme in America. Of the children fathered on slave Sally Hemmings by her owner Thomas Jefferson, some descendants went north and lived as whites, some stayed in the south and were black. “Passing for white” was a theme in the 1959 movie Imitation of Life. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were legal in some states and life for blacks and whites was so unequal that, given a chance, many people who were legally (under state law at the time) black would pass for white.
There is considerable discussion in the United States right now as to whether such a thing as “race” exists. Twain is making the point that circumstance, not race, decides a person’s place in the world. A white person who is a slave becomes black. Race is created by racism. The fact that Obama is half white is meaningless, his black half defines his race. Roxy is black because she had a black great-grandmother; she and her child are the product of generations of slaves raped by white masters. Twain might appreciate the irony that has both Roxy and and her child played by very dark-skinned actors in the various dramatic and film adaptations of his book. But then, these black people could hardly be played by whites, could they?
So Roxy switches the children: her son becomes Tom Driscoll and her master’s son, Chambers, short for Valet de Chambres, “the fine sound of it had pleased [Roxy’s] ear” — even as she named her child, she was thinking of elevating him in the world.
David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson has a hobby: he collects fingerprints. By the 18th Century some European researchers understood that every individual had a unique set of fingerprints, something that the Chinese had known (but not applied) for a thousand years. The first real use of fingerprints for identification was made in India by English civil servant William Janes Herschel, a decade or two after Pudd’nhead Wilson ends. Wilson takes fingerprints on glass slides, labels them with the name and date, and stores them away. He already has two sets of the infants in Roxy’s care when she brings them around for another printing. She does not see the prints as identifying the boys (nor does anyone else see them as identifying marks); she wants to know if Wilson can detect that she has switched the babies. For Roxy, unlike the local townspeople, sees that Wilson is a very bright man. But he does not notice the exchange (all babies look alike) and Roxy is satisfied that her scheme will succeed. Wilson never compares the slides, just stores them away with the many others he has collected.
The idea of babies switched at birth is an old one, found in many folk tales around the world. The idea that a person might be of royal birth but was switched out for a commoner was current in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in popular literature. Usually a scar or other identifying mark, perhaps known only to a parent or an old nurse, reveals the true heir to the throne. Occasionally it is a piece of jewellery that was left with the child. Twain reverses that concept by having Roxy take the necklace that belongs to the Driscoll baby and put it on her own boy. Twain mocked the “switched-at-birth” convention in some of his other writings, but here uses it to explore notions subversive of the original idea. Noble birth does not make better people, only more privileged ones. In other words, Twain is a proponent of Nurture over Nature and this shows up in his treatment of the two boys as they grow up.
Tom (Roxy’s own child) becomes the spoiled son of privilege, and Chambers, the true heir, learns humility as a slave. Tom is a nasty sort who enjoys giving pain. Chambers is often the recipient of Tom’s blows but, as he grows older and stronger, is used by Tom to beat up the other boys. The boys’ characters solidify as they become men.
Meanwhile, Tom’s father dies and he is fostered by his uncle, Judge Driscoll. Tom’s father has a disordered estate that is taken over by debt collectors, but his childless brother is wealthy and names Tom as his heir. Roxy is set free by her owner on his deathbed and goes off to work as a chambermaid on the riverboats. Tom spends two years at Yale where he was “not an object of distinction” and returns home.
Now Dawson’s Landing experiences a rarity: something exciting happens! Identical Italian twins take up residence there. The town is quite excited over having such exotic new residents and the twins are well-received.
Roxy also returns to Dawson’s Landing. She has begun to suffer from rheumatism and quit her job on the riverboats, meaning to live off the savings that she has slowly accumulated. Alas, her savings have disppeared when the New Orleans bank where they were held went bust and Roxy is penniless. Her co-workers on the riverboat take up a collection for her — not the last time in the book that people will take up a collection for Roxy, since she is well-liked — and Roxy makes her home in an abandoned building. She calls on Tom and asks him for money:
“My lan’, how you is growed, honey! ‘Clah to goodness, I wouldn’t a-knowed you, Marse Tom! ‘Deed I wouldn’t! Look at me good; does you ‘member old Roxy? Does you know yo’ old nigger mammy, honey? Well now, I kin lay down en die in peace, ‘ca’se I’se seed—”
“Cut it short, Goddamn it, cut it short! What is it you want?”
“You heah dat? Jes the same old Marse Tom, al’ays so gay and funnin’ wid de ole mammy. I’uz jes as shore—”
“Cut it short, I tell you, and get along! What do you want?”
Roxy loses her temper and reveals to Tom that: “You’s a nigger!—bawn a nigger and a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute; en if I opens my mouf ole Marse Driscoll’ll sell you down de river befo’ you is two days older den what you is now!” Unless he helps her, she will reveal all. She is quite aware of the kind of person that Tom is and tells him that if anything happens to her — like someone sticking a knife in her — that she has left a written account with a person who will make certain that Tom is exposed. Actually, there is no such letter but Roxy understands her boy well enough that she knows the threat is all that’s required to keep him in line.
Tom believes Roxy but he has no money to give her. He is a gambler — Judge Driscoll has already bailed him out once but has threatened to disinheirit Tom should he go into debt again. Tom has begun burglarizing houses in the town and selling the stuff he steals in pawnshops up the river. He manages to pay off his debts this way and swears never to gamble again. He shares half of his allowance from Judge Driscoll with Roxy and the two manage to get on for a while.
But Tom cannot stay away from gambling. He wins big, then loses it all and more besides. He engages in some more theft and Roxy helps him set up a scheme to borrow on his expected inheritance from Judge Driscoll. But when Tom goes to St.Louis to sell his plunder, he himself is robbed, and now has nothing. Once again, Roxy comes up with a scheme: Tom is to sell her as a slave to a farm upstate and use the proceeds to clear his debts. When he comes into the Driscoll fortune, he will buy her back.
Although Roxy is a freedwoman, she knows that slavedealers are not particular. Tom can put together some phony documents and she can be sold in an area where she is unknown. So it happens. Roxy is on a steamer, heading toward her new owner, when she realizes that the boat is going with the current. Tom has sold his mother down the river!
There are other crises: a duel between the Judge and one of the twins — the judge is fighting on Tom’s behalf and disowns him for not duelling until Tom weasels out an explanation; the continuing thefts — now reported as being done by a woman who the reader knows is Tom in drag; political hoopla — Wilson runs for Mayor and the twins run for Council: Wilson wins, the twins lose after being slandered by Tom, and they lose all their friends in town, except Wilson. But all this is just prelude to the big event: Roxy’s return.
Roxy is mistreated on the deep South plantation by a cruel overseer. When a child gives Roxy some food, the overseer hits the little girl until Roxy takes his stick away and beats him with it. Then she makes her way to the river where she finds a boat where she had once worked. The crew help her out, she steams up the river, people take up a collection for her, and now Roxy confronts her son — in blackface! Yes, to disguise herself, Roxy darkens her skin and wears men’s clothes. I think that, of all the characters in this book, Roxy comes out the best. She is not perfect by any means, she is imperious and bossy and likes her whisky, but she is also brave, resourceful, and intelligent.
So Roxy confronts Tom. She gives him an ultimatum: buy her back or she will go to Judge Driscoll. Roxy thinks that Tom will beg the money from his guardian, but Tom decides to steal it. Tom has with him a very valuable knife with jewelled scabbard that he stole from the twins, but the knife cannot be sold to a pawnbroker, everyone knows what it looks like and the seller would immediately be identified as a thief. The judge surprises Tom — or perhaps Tom never meant to hide from him — and Tom stabs him with the twins’ knife which he leaves behind.
So the Judge is dead, the twins are accused of his murder, and Tom stands to inheirit a fortune, The only obstacle to this scheme is Pudd’nhead Wilson who now takes up his neglected law practice to defend the Italians. Wilson has noticed a fingerprint on the knife…
The big trial scene: Wilson has compared the print on the knife with those in his collection and made some astounding discoveries. First, he explains fingerprints to the court and demonstrates that he can tell one person’s prints from another’s. Then he tells the story of two babies, switched at the age of ten months, as the fingerprint records show, and how the prints of one of those babies, now grown, is on the bloody knife. That man is a murderer and a slave posing as a white man. That person is… But Tom has already collapsed in a faint and there is no need to continue.
Some readers have criticized this book for its lack of coherence; they think it should have been written longer and read more smoothly and they have a point. Some of the characters — Chambers, for example — are little more than caricatures and there are certain inconsistencies in the narrative, but over all, I think Pudd’nhead Wilson stands up very well.
Twain was in need of money when he wrote the book — his publishing company had just failed — and dashed it off in a month or so of feverish writing. He says that, originally, the work was to feature more of the twins but that he found that he was trying to pour too much plot into too small a book. The book is sometimes titled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins. So some of the twins’ story was removed to be printed as an addendum. Various critics have remarked on the twinning bits of the narrative — besides the Italians, there is Tom and Chambers, for instance, and other characters have counterparts. Perhaps this is a remnant of Twain’s original plan.
Twain had a bitter streak that shows up in many of his writings. Human beings always fall short of the greatness of which Humanity is capable. This bitterness shows throughout the novel. All events, all opinions are delivered with Twain’s characteristic dry humor but there is a bite here not found in some of his other books. Several chapters end with a bit of harsh satire that the reader may or may not find funny. For instance, at the end of Chapter Two, when Driscoll demands that the thieving slaves confess or all will be sold down the river and the guilty parties say, “I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!” The master replies:
“I will sell you here though you don’t deserve it. You ought to be sold down the river.”
The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of gratitude, and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget his goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived. They were sincere, for like a god he had stretched forth his mighty hand and closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself, that he had done a noble and gracious thing, and was privately well pleased with his magnanimity; and that night he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years, and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself.
Each chapter begins with a quotation from Puddn’head Wilson’s Calendar, a collection of thoughts by the man himself:
Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want
the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it
was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the
serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent. —Pudd’nhead
Less amusing perhaps, is this one:
Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is,
knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first
great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the
world. —Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
But the bitterest comments of all close the book. The townspeople admit they were wrong to call Wilson a “pudd’nhead”. Yes, they say, he has turned us all into pudd’nheads. Now he is elevated but Wilson remains estranged from his fellows. His friends, the twins, return to Italy, having had enough of America. Roxy finds solace, as much as she can, in her church. Chambers supports her. Poor Chambers is now a wealthy free man, a white man, but his speech and manners are those of a slave. He can find no place in society, but Twain has little more to say about him. Twain winds up with these words about Tom:
The false heir made a full confession and was sentenced to imprisonment for life. But now a complication came up. The Percy Driscoll estate was in such a crippled shape when its owner died that it could pay only sixty percent of its great indebtedness, and was settled at that rate. But the creditors came forward now, and complained that inasmuch as through an error for which THEY were in no way to blame the false heir was not inventoried at the time with the rest of the property, great wrong and loss had thereby been inflicted upon them. They rightly 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 that he had really committed the murder, the guilt lay with the erroneous inventory. Everybody saw that there was reason in this. Everybody granted that if “Tom” were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him—it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life—that was quite another matter.
As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.
There are several editions of Pudd’nhead Wilson on line. I used the one at Gutenberg.org.
Stephen Railton’s Mark Twain in His Times, is a valuable resource on Twain that includes a complete digitization of the first edition, a link to Those Extraordinary Twins, a number of illustrations, and some critical articles.