Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain, 1894,, Part 1

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Mark Twain, 1894,, Part 1
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
-- Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

One of Twains lesser known books The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson was actually part of another book, called Those Extraordinary Twins. Pudd’nhead Wilson plays a minor if not peripheral part in the story and except for his eventual and predictable redemption. (Pudd’nhead was, BTW an attorney whose calendar aphorisms head up each chapter in the book. One of my favorites leads off this post. Wilson made a calendar because he could not make it as a lawyer.) This book is a Comedy- Tragedy of murder, fingerprinting, mixed identity, Nature vs. Nurture, genetics vs. upbringing, and Slavery and discrimination as viewed from the residents of the small town of Dawson’s Landing. Like so many other stories containing death, murder, Wills and Testaments and courtrooms, Lawyering plays a big part in the tale. This was life on the Missouri River in the early 1800’s. It starts out explaining the mathematical calculations necessary to determine Slave vs. Free. Apparently, if it could be determined that you were 1/32 or greater of “Negro ancestry”, you were officially a slave. Twain explains;
“Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro”
. This was important because it seems a fair number of the children born to slaves had white paternity. Such was the case here. The story revolves around several families and Roxy, a slave and nanny to one of the most prominent families. She switches her 1/32nd slave son soon after birth with the son of her owners for whom she was the nanny. The lives of the two boys are contrasted. The story line darts here and there like minnows chased by a shark. The speaking was 1830’s contemporary including “slave slang” which I sometimes had to read aloud to figure out. It seemed to overly exaggerated to stress the lack of education and upbringing now given to the presumed slave, son of a wealthy property owner.
Pudd’nhead Wilson was lawyer who came to town to open a law practice. One his first day there, he makes a rather stupid comment and is branded a Pudd’nhead or knucklehead and no one will go to him for legal work. He stays in town anyway, for 30 years, and is mentioned on multiple occasions so as to save him for the climactic ending. There are a number of other characters introduced colorfully and frequently but often not so necessary. In their own ways, they all add to the story. The writing was lyrical whimsy and I found it refreshing. Twain was the master of the run-on sentence. I wish I could write like this and get away with it. The whole section quoted below is “green” with grammatical error. Let me quote the preface page.
“A person who is ignorant of legal matters is always liable to make mistakes when he tries to photograph a court scene with his pen; and so I was not willing to let the law chapters in this book go to press without first subjecting them to rigid and exhausting revision and correction by a trained barrister -- if that is what they are called. These chapters are right, now, in every detail, for they were rewritten under the immediate eye of William Hicks, who studied law part of a while in southwest Missouri thirty-five years ago and then came over here to Florence for his health and is still helping for exercise and board in Macaroni Vermicelli's horse-feed shed, which is up the back alley as you turn around the corner out of the Piazza del Duomo just beyond the house where that stone that Dante used to sit on six hundred years ago is let into the wall when he let on to be watching them build Giotto's campanile and yet always got tired looking as Beatrice passed along on her way to get a chunk of chestnut cake to defend herself with in case of a Ghibelline outbreak before she got to school, at the same old stand where they sell the same old cake to this day and it is just as light and good as it was then, too, and this is not flattery, far from it. He was a little rusty on his law, but he rubbed up for this book, and those two or three legal chapters are right and straight, now. He told me so himself.
Given under my hand this second day of January, 1893, at the Villa Viviani, village of Settignano, three miles back of Florence, on the hills -- the same certainly affording the most charming view to be found on this planet, and with it the most dreamlike and enchanting sunsets to be found in any planet or even in any solar system -- and given, too, in the swell room of the house, with the busts of Cerretani senators and other grandees of this line looking approvingly down upon me, as they used to look down upon Dante, and mutely asking me to adopt them into my family, which I do with pleasure, for my remotest ancestors are but spring chickens compared with these robed and stately antiques, and it will be a great and satisfying lift for me, that six hundred years will.”
Mark Twain.

I could not tell this book was written in the 1800’s (although granted not by much) as I could when reading Cooper or Dickens. It seems modern although patently colloquial. Either I am stuck in the 1800’s or I appreciate the attack on language found here. I liked this book better than the Sawyer-Finn stories but I have not read them for what would be an understatement to say several years. This book was better because the story was seemingly predictable only to pull the rug out and leave you on your behind. You have to pay attention through the entire 178 pages. The characters were made neither particularly real nor contrived. Some were presented as sympathetic, others I am not sure. Wills, disinheritance, duels and the travails of daily living kept me reading and in the end surprised at the conclusion. Coming soon, Part 2 has more citations and commentary.

1 comment:

  1. This is also one of my favorite books. Better than Finn/Sawyer by a mile becasue of the vast array of interesting characters, the swticheroo at the end, and the perfect, and complementary, mix of comedy and social commentary. Additionally, it is nice to know that if I can't make it as a lawyer I can always tend stables in Florence ... or write calendars.