“Puddn’head Wilson (1894), written in a more sombre vein than his other Mississippi writings, was Mark Twain’s last serious work of fiction. It reveals the sinister forces that, towards the end of his life, Twain thought to be threatening the American dream. The central plot revolves around the tragedy of “Roxy,” a mulatto slave whose attempt to save her son from his fate succeeds only in destroying him.”
Thoughts: Nobody quite combines comedy and tragedy like Mark Twain. His ability to mock the most unfortunate of situations makes even the most scathing of social commentaries enjoyable reading. Puddn’head Wilson is a perfect example of this with its discussion of race and privilege in the South.
Twain accomplishes two goals with this particular work. When discussing the reversed identities, he hits right at the heart of racial prejudice. Tom’s treatment of Chambers, and eventually his mother, is absolutely appalling, especially as the reader understands the true situation. His sense of entitlement because he is “white” is as disgusting to modern readers as it is telling of the difference in mindset between the 1850s and today.
What is fascinating is Twain’s use of the beginnings of forensic evidence in murder trials. The polite interest that turns into overt mocking that then switches to apt fascination is spot on in society’s acceptance of any new scientific methodology. While presenting this new, objective methodology, Twain also continues his biting commentary on the subjectivity of a jury that is hampered by close-mindedness and social stigmas. The crowd’s reaction when they understand that a “white” man of privilege could commit such a horrible crime is humorous in true Twain fashion while simultaneously horrifying at their ignorance.
Puddn’head Wilson is a fascinating look at a society long past. In fact, modern readers can appreciate Twain’s message more than his contemporaries could because we have the benefit of hundreds of years of ingrained social messaging about the equality of races. It begs the question of what Twain’s contemporaries thought about this social commentary. Would they have appreciated what Twain was mocking? No matter what era in which this novel is being read, Puddn’head Wilson provides plenty of fodder for discussion and contemplation, as befits a true classic.
Acknowledgements: Mine. All mine.