Puddn'head Wilson

by Mark Twain

I’m not much on fiction; I never read modern fiction. However, I will rarely try one of the classics. Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read most of what he published, but I had never gotten around to this one, and so I was glad to finally settle down with it.

Like all fiction, it’s much lighter reading than I’m used to, and so the pages flew by quickly. It’s a great story; although events in the first chapter make it clear how the story will end, the path from beginning to end is much more twisted than you would expect. It’s fascinating how a story can have an obvious ending yet still produce fascinating surprise after surprise.

The book turns on the fact that slavery was determined matrilineally: if your mother was a slave, then you were a slave. Inasmuch as white slaveowners had no compunction about raping their female slaves, there were a lot of half-white slaves. This process could continue to the point where, in the book, one of the main characters is one-sixteenth black and fifteen-sixteenths white – and she is a slave. She gives birth to a son who is, guess what, only one-thirty-second black, who is absolutely indistinguishable from the boy born on the same day to her owner’s wife. The slave is caretaker to both boys and, realizing that only she knows the difference between them, switches them. Now her child is the high-born son and the “white” boy is the slave.

One would expect the book to dwell on the role reversal incumbent in this situation – and one would be wrong. Yes, the role reversal generates its fair share of irony. But it doesn’t dominate the book. Instead, the book is much deeper than the obvious. The two central characters are Roxy, the slave mother, and Tom, her son. Roxy is the smartest person in the book, easily outwitting everybody else, coming up with clever plans to handle every twist and turn. She’s an admirable character, even though she readily resorts to lying and theft when necessary. Roxy is so badly abused by everybody that she must be devious to survive. That’s one of the books main lessons: that the evil of the slavery system forced fundamentally virtuous people to engage in behavior that they knew was wrong – but had to do anyway.

Tom, her son, represents the concept carried to its logical extreme. Tom, raised as the privileged child of a wealthy white, is spoiled rotten. He’s a nasty, brutal, cowardly, lying thief. He represents the way that the slavery system could utterly corrupt the slaveowners.

These are the two main characters, but there remain some other fascinating characters: Puddn’head Wilson, the unemployed lawyer; Judge Driscoll, the stern old southern gentleman and Tom’s ostensible father; and the Italian twins. You would not believe the wild twists and turns the story takes with these characters.

As always, Twain’s ear for language delights: here’s a scene where a now-freed Roxie meets her son years after they were separated:

“My lan’ how you is growed, honey! ‘Clah to goodness, I wouldn’t a-knowed you, Marse Tom! ‘Deed I wouldn’t! Look at me good; does you ‘member old Roxy? Does you know yo’ old nigger mammy, honey? Well now, I kin lay down en die in peace, ‘ca’se I’se seed–“
“Cut it short, ____ it, cut it short! What is it you want?”
“You heah dat? Jes de same old Marse Tom, al’ays so gay and funnin’ wid de ole mammy. I’uz jes as shore–“
“Cut it short, I tell you, and get along! What do you want?”
“Oh, Marse Tom, de po’ ole mammy is in such hard luck dese days; en she’s kinder crippled in de arms en can’t work, en if you could gimme a dollar – on’y jes one little dol–“
Tom was on his feet so suddenly that the supplicant was startled into a jump herself.
“A dollar – give you a dollar!” I’ve a notion to strangle you! Is that your errand here? Clear out! And be quick about it!”
“Marse Tom, I nussed you when you was a little baby, en I raised you all by myself tell you was ‘most a young man; en now you is young en rich, en I is po’ en gitt’n ol, en I come heah b’lievin’ dat you would he’p de old mammy ‘long down de little road dat’s let’ twix’ her en de grave, en–“

This book is ultimately a moral sketch of the old South, and the picture that Twain draws is an ugly one. Slavery contaminated Southern society, ruining all it touched.