Criticism of Pudd’nhead Wilson seems to have come to a dead end. What one critic finds admirable, another deplores. Robert Rowlette writes a monograph in praise of the book’s design;1 Robert A. Wiggins thinks the design is a failure. 2 Henry Nash Smith believes that Roxy is “the only fully developed character, in the novelistic sense, in the book,”3 but Arthur Pettit argues that she is just another example of the “tragic mulatto” type and not a very good example at that, for she is really two persons-a black and a white-and is neither black nor white long enough at a stretch to be entirely convincing.
F. R. Leavis finds Pudd’nhead Wilson “a classic in its own right,”5 and Leslie Fiedler variously calls it “the most extraordinary book in American literature” and “a fantastically good book. “6 Richard Chase, however, believes that in considering Pudd’nhead Wilson “as an example of the art of the novel, one observes that the moral truth it asserts is not adequately attached to the characters, or dramatized by them. 7 Rowlette summarizes the situation rather well when he writes, “If critics now generally agree that Pudd’nhead Wilson has artistic stature-even while disagreeing about how much, or what accounts for it-they also agree that the novel is seriously flawed. “8 So here we have a book that has artistic stature but is seriously flawed, a book that critics admire though they cannot agree on the reasons for their admiration.
At the risk of compounding the confusion, I should like to suggest that almost all of the criticism proceeds from the wrong premise, namely that Pudd’nhead Wilson is a novel and therefore must be measured primarily by the standards of realism. 9 I would suggest that the basic question is not to what degree is it a success or failure as a novel but is it a novel at all? Can it appropriately be read in the tradition of Madame Bovary, A Modern Instance, The Portrait of a Lady, and Sister Carrie? Or is the question of realism irrelevant, and should the book be read in an altogether different tradition?
Not unexpectedly, my answer is that it should be read in another tradition. The appropriate one, it seems to me, is the great story-telling tradition that stretches from Cervantes, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne to such writers of our own day as Heller, Vonnegut, and Hawkes. Robert Scholes in his valuable little volume entitled The Fabulators refers to the works in this tradition as fabulations. 10 The term is a good one for my purpose here because it so plainly places the emphasis on the fable or story, not on careful documentation of the outer world or on detailed analyses of the characters’ inner worlds.
Like the novel the fabulation is a species of the genus narrative, but unlike the novel it does not depend for its success upon the objectivity of its author and the realism of its subject matter and its presentation. The fabulator is more like the oral story-teller than the novelist. Concerned primarily with the design and effects of his story, he cheerfully ignores the realism of both subject matter and presentation when it serves his purpose to do so. Yet by keeping his fantasy ethically controlled he puts forth a story that paradoxically comments upon actual human life at the same time that it seems to be flouting that life.
As a fabulation Pudd’nhead Wilson holds a rather remarkable position between the great stories of the eighteenth century and those of our own time. Like Tom Jones and Humphry Clinker, for example, it has an omniscient author who is immediately and pervasively present, a story told in dramatic episodes and without worry for coincidence, and an approach to the material that is essentially ironic. Additionally, like Catch 22 and Cat’s Cradle, Pudd’nhead Wilson pictures a bizarre world in which the characters play necessary roles in what can only be called a cruel and on-going Joke.
Not so sweeping and imaginative as the great fabulations before it, nor so witty and wildly absurd as those of our own time, Pudd’nhead Wilson nevertheless shares characteristics of both groups and occupies a midpoint in their tradition. Like the great stories of the eighteenth century, Pudd’nhead Wilson is the work of an author who never for a moment relinquishes his authority-or lets you forget his presence. Consider how carefully Mark Twain establishes his control as narrator in the first chapter.
From the very first we are conscious that it is an imaginative story and that a narrator called Mark Twain is the story teller. The opening sentence of the novel is more formal than “Once upon a time” but the actual words-“The scene of this chronicle”-have much the same effect. In true story-telling fashion Mark Twain then starts off with the setting and with an introduction of several of the major characters. Clearly, we are going to see only what the narrator wants us to see, and to react the way he wants us to react.
Every detail, for example, is carefully selected to make Dawson’s Landing seem pretty and quaint: white-washed cottages concealed in part by rose-vines, honeysuckles, and morning glories; white pailing fences and flower gardens; brick sidewalks lined with locust trees; the front of the hamlet washed by the clear waters of the river. So that we do not miss the effect desired, the descriptive passage is pulled together with the generalization that “the town was sleepy and comfortable and contented. ” We are not permitted to judge for ourselves about the characters either.
We are told explicitly, for example, that Judge York Lancaster Driscoll is “fine and just and generous,” that Pembroke Howard is “a fine, brave majestic figure,” and that Percy Northumberland Driscoll is “a prosperous man, with a good head for speculations. ” When Mark Twain wisheS us to understand that several of his characters are completely unimportant he labels them No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6. His omniscience and hence his control are further demonstrated when he looks into the future and tells us that Pudd’nhead Wilson’s nickname is “to continue to hold its place for twenty long years. William Dean Howells had inveighed, doubtless at times in Mark Twain’s presence, against author intrusion, holding that it destroys the illusion of reality. But Mark Twain gives no indication in Pudd’nhead Wilson that he is attempting to create such an illusion.
Throughout the book he feels free to intrude both as commentator and narrator, just as Fielding and Smollett and Sterne had felt free to do. As commentator he writes, “A home without a cat may be a perfect home, but how can it prove title? ” “Childless people are difficult to please. “An enemy can partly ruin a man, but it takes a good-natured injudicious friend to complete the thing and make it perfect. ” He even addresses the reader directly in statements such as: “Then there was Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, another F. F. V. of formidable caliber; however, with him we have no concern. ” At the very end of the book, to take another example, he says of Tom: “But we cannot follow his fate further-that would be a long story. ” This persisting presence of Mark Twain as story-teller, despite the fact that the story is told in the third person, has several happy effects.
Mark Twain himself becomes an appealing and interesting character, or, more accurately, presence. He is lively, witty, and shrewd. He is “good” because he hates social injustice, a “regular guy” because he can enjoy buffoonery as well as irony. He has an enthusiasm for his own story that is infectious. His personality is so strong, indeed, that it gives the work a rhetorical unity that holds it together even when the action seems to be exploding in three ways at once. With all of these appealing qualities the Mark Twain who is the narrator of Pudd’nhead Wilson can nevertheless be faulted.
He seems not to be so learned, so careful with details, so chary of melodrama and burlesque as we might like. Worse, he does not seem interested enough in his characters. He is too predictable in his response to goodness and evil, and his descriptions of joy and sorrow are so exaggerated that we feel he is not moved by either. Nothing stops him if he senses possibilities for humor; he even makes fun of Roxy as he has her preparing to commit suicide. In fine, one becomes more aware than he should of the author as manipulator, of the way he moves his characters at will for such purposes as climax, irony, humor, and pathos.
Another matter of crucial importance to the fabulation is action or plot. For over a hundred years, now, the realists have been telling us that plot must be muted, that it must be subservient to revelation of character. But just the reverse has been true of the great adventure and picaresque novels. If Tom Jones emerges as an appealing and individualized character, so much the better. But Fielding did not write the book to give us a character analysis; Tom Jones, he held, was to be a comic epic-a mode in which the action is central.
Furthermore, almost all of the great story-writers have had a devil-may-care attitude about holding the action tightly in check. If new characters keep pouring in, and the action keeps getting more and more convoluted, so what? And well might we agree, so what? What would Tom Jones be without its bizarre coincidences and cross-currents of adventure, or Tristram Shandy without its fantastic turns and surprises, or to move into the nineteenth century, David Copperfield without its huge panoply of characters? Mark Twain evinces something of the same cavalier attitude toward his storyline.
In a frequently-quoted passage he wrote: arrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and leafy woodlands, its course changed by every bowlder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; its surface broken, but its course not stayed by rocks and gravel on the bottom in the shoal places; a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around, and at the end of the circuit flowing within a yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law.
Mark Twain did attempt to eliminate some of the chaos of the first version of the story. It began as a “howling farce” about an Italian freak with two heads, four arms, and a single pair of legs. In addition there was a “silly young miss” for a heroine, and two old ladies and two boys for the minor parts. But the tale kept spreading along, and spreading along, and other people got to intruding themselves and taking up more and more room with their talk and their affairs.
Among them came a stranger named Pudd’nhead Wilson, and a woman named Roxana; and presently the doings of these two pushed up into prominence a young fellow named Tom Driscoll, whose proper place was away in the obscure background. Before the book was half finished those three were taking things almost entirely into their own hands and working the whole tale as a private venture of their own-a tale which they had nothing at all to do with, by rights. 12 At first, or so he tells us, Mark Twain simply tried to drown the characters that were getting lost by having them fall down a well. Then he realized that he had two stories in one, a farce and what he called a tragedy. So he pulled out the farce by a literary “Caesarian operation” and called it “Those Extraordinary Twins. ” This left the original team in, but only as mere names, not as characters.
Their prominence was wholly gone; they were not even worth drowning; so I removed that detail. Also I took those twins apart and made two separate men of them. They had no occasion to have foreign names now, but it was too much trouble to remove them all through, so I left them christened as they were and made no explanation. 13 In a letter to his publisher he bragged: When I began this final reconstruction the story contained 81,500 words; now it contains only 58,000. I have knocked out everything that delayed the march of the story-even the description of a Mississippi steamboat. There ain’t any weather in, and there ain’t any scenery-the story is stripped for flight! 14
The extant manuscripts in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library and in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library corroborate Mark Twain’s contention that he performed a massive revision before sending the tale to the Century Magazine where it was published in seven installments from December 1893 to June 1894. The point to be stressed here, however, is that though he strove to give the work design, Mark Twain calls it throughout a “tale” or “story,” and never once suggests that in his revisions he was attempting to achieve anything like a self-contained illusion of reality. On the contrary he seems to have deleted the descriptive passages that best tended in that direction.
Furthermore, in a silly “Whisper” to the reader affixed to the last draft he even lays open to question the realism of his climactic court scene by saying that it was 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. . . .”15 So for Mark Twain it was the story that counted-just as it should in a fabulation. Even with the revisions, though the tale remains so loose that by turn it follows the affairs of Pudd’nhead Wilson, those of Roxy and her son, and those of Angelo and Luigi, the Italian twins (who are still referred to on one page as though they are Siamese).
Somehow, Mark Twain manages to bring the three story lines together at the end when Pudd’nhead through fingerprints discovers Roxy’s son to be guilty of the murder the town has pinned on Luigi. 17 But along the way when the story lines drift apart, Mark Twain with the aplomb of an experienced raconteur simply tells us that he is dropping one line and taking up another. At the beginning of Chapter 8, for example, he amiably announces, “It is necessary now to hunt up Roxy. ” And at the end of Chapter 10 he says, “After this long digression, we have now arrived once more at the point where Pudd’nhead Wilson . . . sat puzzling over the strange apparition of that morning-a girl sitting in Tom Driscoll’s bedroom. . . .” (Pudd’nhead has been sitting there for over twenty-five pages. )
The implausibilities that are the curse of realistic fiction but part of the charm of fabulation abound in PW Pudd’nhead Wilson, who has to his credit not only a college degree but a year’s post-graduate work in an Eastern law school, settles in Dawson’s Landing of all places to seek his fortune. Furthermore, this handsomely educated fortune hunter, despite the fact that he gets no legal business because of his nickname, stays in Dawson’s Landing for twenty years! By chance Roxy and the Percy Driscolls have babies on the same day, and the babies look so much alike that only Roxy can tell them apart. Mrs. Driscoll conveniently dies within the week of the birth of her baby so that Roxy can take care of both children-and exchange their clothes and cradles.
Roxy plans to establish herself in New Orleans, but the bank fails in which she has her money invested, and so she has to return to Dawson’s Landing. By chance the false Tom, Roxy’s son, sees the cashbox of his “uncle” open and available, a circumstance that leads to both theft and murder. And it is the same false Tom who inadvertently calls attention to the glass strip that carries the fingerprints which eventually convict him. It is a world of make-believe in which excitement, suspense, and ingenuity are more important than probability. Typically, too, a great part of the action is physical. The young babies start off by cuffing and banging and scratching each other. As they grow older, the false Tom continues to kick and maul the real Tom.
Eventually, and obviously with satisfaction, the narrator tells how in turn the false Tom in a town meeting receives a kick of such titanic vigor that he is lifted clear over the footlights and is landed on the heads of the Sons of Liberty seated in the front row of the auditorium. There follow a riot and fire of epic proportions. Thefts, a duel, murder, they are all here, one fracas following hard on the heels of another. Whether an incident involves physical violence or not, however, Mark Twain plays it for climax. Chapters almost invariably end with dramatic tableaux or startling revelations, especially those in which Roxy is the central character.
In her first really dramatic scene (Chapter 8), the one in which her son, the proud false Tom, kneels to her, Roxy finishes off the confrontation by taking a drink and with the bottle tucked under her shawl marches out the door “as grim and erect as a grenadier. ” (One can almost see the curtain drop and hear the applause. ) In her next big scene (Chapter 9) she tells the false Tom that she is his mother and that his father is “Cunnel Cecil Burleigh Essex. ” Under the inspiration of her soaring complacency the departed grades of her earlier days returned to her, and her bearing took to itself a dignity and state that might have passed for queenly if her surroundings had been a little more in keeping with it. “Dey ain’t another nigger in dis town dat’s as high-bawn as you is. Now den, go ‘long!
En jes you hold yo’ head up as high as you want to-you has de right, en dat I can swah. ” (Curtain and great applause) In her third big scene (Chapter 14) she cautions her son that he must reform and live a Moral Life. In true stage fashion he replies, “‘Yes, mother, I know, now, that I am reformed-and permanently. Permanently-and beyond the reach of any human temptation. ‘” And Roxy replies: “‘Den g’long home en begin! ‘” (Curtain and tremendous applause) Her fourth and fifth scenes (Chapters 16 and 21) are potentially more poignant. Having sold herself back into slavery to obtain money for her son, she is led on a boat that she has been told is going upstream from St. Louis.
But soon her “practiced eye fell upon that telltale rush of water” and her head drops upon her breast, and she cries, “‘Oh, de good Lord God have mercy on po’ sinful me-I’s sole down de river! ‘” (Curtain, tears, and applause. ) Finally, when the false Tom is disclosed in court as Roxy’s son, she flings herself on her knees, covers her face with her hands, and sobs, “‘De Lord have mercy on me, po’ misable sinner dat I is. ‘” Whereupon the clock strikes twelve, the court rises, and the new prisoner is removed. (Curtain, general weeping, and thunderous applause. ) Readable as it is, Pudd’nhead Wilson nevertheless falters as story, chiefly because of Mark Twain’s dependence upon stock situations. The good boy saves the bad boy from drowning. Babies are exchanged so that the offspring of the doting mother will have honor and riches.
The chief concern of the villain is over a will that will make him either a prince or a pauper. The virtuous slave is sold down the river by the villain. The aristocratic gentleman has nothing but contempt for a son who when insulted fails to challenge the offender to a duel. Capping the stock situations are the stock scenes: the son on his knees before his mother, the worried villain sitting on a sofa with his throbbing head between his hands, the murderer finally convicting himself by fainting when the facts are offered in court. In sum, the overlay of nineteenth-century melodrama is too great to allow the narrative to come through freshly and vigorously.
To say this is not to downgrade the book for lack of realism, but to fault its narrator for failing to portray his fictive world with enough imagination. The story is weaker than it should be, not because it departs from life but because in departing from life it stays too close to other stories. For the modern reader the most interesting aspect of Pudd’nhead Wilson is its social satire or commentary, that component of fabulation that keeps it in touch with actual life, however wildly the author otherwise indulges himself in fantasy. Since this aspect has already been examined at considerable length by others, my task here is simply to suggest how the intellectual freight of the work relates it to the tradition of fabulation.
Most obviously, the ironic treatment of the characters recalls the tone and treatment of characters in the fabulations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is the same range in irony from affectionate amusement to sharp disdain. The characters are similarly discovered to be naive, gullible, fickle, pretentious, and hypocritical. And the reader experiences the same heightening of enjoyment and insight. If we move, however, from Mark Twain’s treatment of the particular men and women of Dawson’s Landing to his consideration of man as species, we suddenly find ourselves contemplating concepts that are not at all implied in the works of earlier writers.
The earlier writers, especially those of the eighteenth century, assumed a rational universe in which people get into difficulties because of their own imprudence or unreason, the operations of malevolent persons or forces, and bad luck. Despite widespread evils, reform in the world of these books seems wholly possible; indeed one is led to expect that in due time reform will undoubtedly come to pass. 18 There are no such encouraging assumptions in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Since it was based on a tissue of false assumptions, the slave culture of the South offered Mark Twain ideal material for exposing what he considered to be the irrationality of man.
Pudd’nhead Wilson exhibits a surprising number of those assumptions: slavery as an unquestionably acceptable social institution; the superiority of the blood of the white race and hence of the race itself; the black as anyone with a black ancestor, no matter how remote; the right of white males to fornicate with black women without incurring any responsibility for the issue of such action; the grave importance of honor, and the duel as the proper way of settling questions of honor; the identification of ability and virtue with such matters as birth, social station, and manners. 19 Of all of these Mark Twain chose to deal most explicitly and vividly with the assumption about the superiority of “white” blood. Roxy is his major instrument. Before we see her, we hear her jabbering away with someone called Jasper in slave dialect. Then Twain stuns us by describing her as “fair,” indeed so fair that she cannot be distinguished from a white Southern belle. Why is she a slave? Because she had a great, great grandparent who was black.
For Dawson’s Landing (and the South), we learn, the one sixteenth of black blood “outvotes” the fifteen sixteenths of white blood and degrades Roxy below the most thick-witted of the whites. To reinforce the point, Twain immediately thereafter introduces her son, a blue-eyed, flaxen haired baby, whose background is white except, of course, for one great, great, great grandparent. No one but Roxy can distinguish him from the baby son of the Percy Driscolls. All of the crimes and tragedies that follow in the story, Mark Twain makes evident, result directly or indirectly from the fact that the Southern whites cling perversely to the myth about blood instead of accepting the evidence of their senses.
The basic conflict in the tale, thus, is not between the moral and the immoral, or between a sound heart and a deformed conscience, but between the rational thought of the author and the irrational thought of man as represented by the people of Dawson’s Landing. As a counter to the unscientific thought of his characters Mark Twain opposes his own brand of science, mechanical determinism. “Training-training is everything,” he had written in A Connecticut Yankee several years before. And by training he meant not only the shaping of the personality by society but also its shaping as a result of the cumulative social pressure represented in heredity. 20 In Pudd’nhead Wilson the concept is most simply dramatized in the real Tom, Thomas A Beckett Driscoll.
After Roxy exchanges him for her own son he is raised a slave. Knowing nothing but hard work and abuse, he grows up quite unspoiled. But when freed because of the discovery of Roxy’s crime, he is wholly unable to re-enter white society because of his training as a slave. This story has about it a parable-like clarity: we are what our training makes us. Unfortunately Mark Twain blurs his point with the false Tom who, pampered as a youth, grows up to be selfish and arrogant as one might expect. But he also turns out to be cowardly and not even above killing his benefactor and selling his mother down the river-traits that are not inevitable because of the training.
Nevertheless, though Mark Twain may botch a demonstration now and then (usually to answer the siren calls of melodrama and burlesque) his belief in determinism emerges clearly in the book as a whole. The blacks are obviously trapped by their training, but the whites do not escape. They are the products of the myths, prejudices, and false assumptions that have been drilled into them since childhood. Possibly the ultimate in entrapment is that none of the characters even remotely suspects that he is trapped. Life as depicted in Pudd’nhead Wilson, then, is a purposeless absurdity in which the men and women simply play out their destined roles. But even this evidence of metaphysical truth does not justify evaluating the work in the realistic tradition.
Cat’s Cradle, Catch 22, The Lime Twig, and Clockwork Orange have their metaphysical truth also, but no one praises them for holding up the mirror to life-or denigrates them for their failure to do so. Like these fabulations of our own time, Pudd’nhead Wilson locates its truth in a bizarre tale in which the irrational is the norm, and coincidence the expected. Even the farce, on reflection, turns out to be bitter. Pudd’nhead Wilson ends with Roxy’s son, convicted of murder, being freed because execution would result in loss of property to his owners. In its absurdity, its satiric bite, and the sweep of its implications the detail is not unlike the ending of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in which Bokonen writes of lying on his back, frozen stiff from ice-nine, grinning horribly, and thumbing his nose at You Know Who.