The Bookworm: Puddn'head Wilson


Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. 320 pages. Penguin Classics. 1894.

A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows these people, he knows the selected locality, and he trusts that he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. So he goes to work… I know about this because it has happened to me so many times.

Irony — Twain-style.

I’m unsure what to write about Pudd’nhead Wilson. Frankly, I’ve been unsure what to write blog-wise for about a month. My posting has slowed to a crawl, but nobody minds except me. I pressure myself to be creatively productive. When I’m not, when I’m lazily dedicated to an essay revision and let The Quiet Man run on autopilot (as I have been lately), I nag and annoy myself like an overbearing and overproductive boss who tries kicking everyone into overdrive.

“Write!” I command myself — mentally, of course. “Something! Anything! Don’t just sit there watching the Dodgers or NatGeo. You can rent ‘Dazed and Confused’ later. Sit the fuck down and be a productive human being!”

There are at least two good post ideas in that last graph, which I should capitalize on at some point: 1) another “Kill…my…tele-vision” post, and 2) the wonder of “Dazed and Confused,” which I watched Saturday night for the first time in about nine years.

But never mind that. Since I’m writing I’ll try returning to the subject at hand: Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is classic Twain: anthropology as humor, and visa versa. As he aged, Twain became more and more cynical. He was sickened by man’s capacity for evil and mesmerized by our ironical ignorance. Combine this with his natural wit and life-long obsessions with duality, technology, and antebellum Missouri you get another tale set in a Mississippi River town in the 1850s. But this time it’s not St. Petersburg, the fictionalized version of Hannibal where Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer live. Pudd’nhead Wilson takes place down river, below St. Louis, closer to the deep south — closer to plantation-style, hard slavery.

Although there are a few scattered storylines, the main plot revolves around two men in Dawson’s Landing whose identities were switched when they were infants. One is white and the other is “1/32 black” and passes as white. Racial and cultural irony ensues. You’ll have to read the book because I’m not in the mood to outline the circumstances.

Here’s an interesting fact I didn’t know until now: at the time he wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain was deep in debt and needed another literary success to keep him afloat. According to the book’s Wikipedia page, Twain wrote 60,000 words in a month. That’s insane. The book has an unpolished, hurried touch to it, and I suppose Twain’s financial situation played a prominent role in that.

Here’s another interesting thing that makes Pudd’nhead Wilson unique among Twain’s books. (Pudd’nhead Wilson, by the way, is the name of a character who engages in an early form of fingerprinting, and eventually plays a key role.) Following the novel is the short story “Those Extraordinary Twins,” an incomplete tale compiled from bits and pieces of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s original storyline. It focuses on conjoined twins who share a pair of legs but have individual torsos. Chang Bunker and Eng Bunker, the famous “Siamese twins,” inspired the characters. As Twain explains in a short introduction (from where I lifted my intro quote), the novel started as one thing but became something completely different; a new set of characters with their own story literally stole the show from the original cast, and Twain had to remove one of the plots. Frankly, I though it was a bit eccentric and unnecessary to include “Those Extraordinary Twins” at the end of the novel, but it does provide an interesting insight into Twain’s writing process.

New word I learned: harum-scarum. It’s more of a phrase than a word, one I’ve heard my great-aunts and great-uncles use. I never knew exactly what it meant, but the sound of it was imbued with negativity and disappointment. My MacBook dictionary just says, “reckless; impetuous.”

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