I’ve never been a huge Mark Twain fan. I read Tom Sawyer as a kid, and Huckleberry Finn in college, and my overall response was “Eh.” I never appreciated Twain’s remarks about Jane Austen, particularly because his own style of writing sometimes felt very…crude? unfinished? to me. Now that I’ve read Pudd’nhead Wilson, however, I feel somewhat more magnanimous towards Twain and his witticisms.
Dave Wilson is a young attorney who moves to Dawson’s Landing, Missouri and promptly makes a foolish joke. People call him a “pudd’nhead” and the name sticks for the next 23 years. Wilson is an intelligent man who takes people’s fingerprints and labels them for a collection. He’s well-read and intelligent, though he cannot shake his reputation as an idiot. Simultaneously, Roxana, a woman who is 15/16 white and 1/16 black fears that her own poor baby will be sold “down the river,” so she exchanges his identity with that of her master’s son, Tom Driscoll. Of course, she pays for the consequences of such choices dearly, and the life that ensues will become increasingly tangled. Only Pudd’nhead Wilson holds the key to solve the mystery.
I felt that Twain’s satirical voice was put to excellent use here. He sarcastically highlighted several social inconsistencies, particularly the “down home” wisdom that is often just ignorance given a reverential platform. The character of Wilson is well-fleshed out, as well as those of Roxy and “Tom.” It’s an engaging novel, but even more so, it really illustrates the damages and problems inherent in slavery. I would recommend this book over all the others of Twain’s I’ve read so far.