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Book Review: "Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain

Paul is a big fan of Mark Twain and life on the Mississippi. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of his favorite books.

Roxy harvesting among the kitchens

Roxy harvesting among the kitchens

Puddn'head Wilson

Although overshadowed by Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Puddin'head Wilson is worthwhile reading.

Published in 1894 by Mark Twain, Puddin'head Wilson is the story of a man who rebuilds his reputation by exposing the murderer of a small Missouri town's chief citizen.

This novel is an enjoyable story packed with humor and satire of exciting characters. Puddin'head Wilson also is a commentary on racism and slavery in antebellum America during the first half of the 19th century.

A Biography of Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. His father was an attorney and judge but Clemens was self-educated in public libraries.

Known by the pen name Mark Twain, Twain was an American writer, humorist, inventor, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer.

Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and the Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn.

After serving an apprenticeship with a printer, Mark Twain worked as a typesetter, contributing articles to the newspaper of his brother, Orion Clemens. He later became a Mississippi River riverboat pilot before going west to join his brother Orion in Nevada.

Twain's short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was published in 1865 and brought him international attention.

Mark Twain's important books include Tom Sawyer published in 1876, Life on The Mississippi in 1883, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889.

Twain's wit and satire, in prose and speech, won praise from his critics and peers.

Mark Twain was also fascinated with science. He patented three inventions and was an early advocate of fingerprinting.

Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, in Stormfield House, Redding, Connecticut.

Biographical facts are taken from Wikipedia.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

The Setting

Puddin'head Wilson takes place in Dawson's Landing from 1830 until 1853. Dawson's Landing, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, is half a day's journey by steamboat below St. Louis.

The setting is a small conservative slave town populated by some descendants of the first families of Virginia during the antebellum period of American history.

The story unfolds primarily in Dawson's Landing although some character action is in St. Louis.

Map of the Mississippi River

Map of the Mississippi River

Major Characters in Puddn'head Wilson.

Here is a list of the major characters you'll meet in Twain's novel.

David "Puddn'head" Wilson

Wilson was from New York and came to Dawson's Landing in 1830 at the age of 25. He was educated as a lawyer but had no legal work for a long time due to a remark that Wilson made. People considered him to be a fool and gave him the name Puddin'head. Wilson supported himself by doing surveying and accounting work. His hobbies were palmistry and fingerprinting.

York Leicester "Judge" Driscoll

Judge Driscoll was 40 years old in 1830 and a descendant of one of the first families of Virginia. Regarded as Dawson's Landing chief citizen, Driscoll was the judge of a county court in 1830 and retired in 1850. He was well off, but he and his wife had no children. After his brother died in 1845, Judge Driscoll adopted his nephew Thomas a Becket (Tom) Driscoll.

Percy Northumberland Driscoll

Percy Driscoll was 35 years old in 1830 and Judge Driscoll's brother. He was married but had only one living child Thomas a Becket, who was born on February 1, 1830. Following Driscoll's wife's death shortly after childbirth, his slave girl Roxana raised Tom. Driscoll was prosperous from his speculating work.

Pembroke Howard

Pembroke Howard was 40 years old in 1830. He was a lawyer, a bachelor, and Judge Driscoll's best friend. a descendant of the first families of Virginia, Howard was a gentleman and a Presbyterian.

Roxana (Roxy)

Roxy was 20 years old in 1830. She was Percy Driscoll's slave girl and was later set free when Percy died. Roxy is the mother of Valet de Chabre (Chambers.) She is 1/16 white and looks like a white person.

Thomas A. Becket (Tom) Driscoll

Tom is the son of Percy Driscoll. He was born on February 1, 1830. When he was seven months old, Roxy was caring for both Tom and her child Chambers. Since Chambers and Tom looked the same, Roxy exchanged them in their cradles, and Chambers was raised believed to have the identity of Tom. Tom assumed Chambers's identity and grew up as a slave.

Valet de Chambre (Chambers)

Chambers is the son of Roxy. He was born on February 1. 1830. Chambers was 1/32 white and looked just like Tom Driscoll when raised by Roxy. Chambers usurped Tom Driscoll's identity and grew up to be a spoiled, heartless young "gentleman" and the heir of Judge Driscoll's fortune after his father, Percy Driscoll, died in 1845. Judge Driscoll adopted his nephew "Tom." "Tom" had many bad habits.

Luigi Capello

Luigi is the twin brother of Angelo. He and Angelo are both from Europe and in their early twenties. In 1853, he arrived at Dawson's Landing and lived with his brother as boarders with Aunt Patsy Cooper. Luigi has a bad temper and accepts Judge Driscoll's challenge to have a duel.

Angelo Capello

Angelo is Luigi's twin brother. In many ways, he is different from Luigi. Whereas Luigi likes to drink and not go to church, Angelo is a teetotaler and religious person. Angelo doesn't have a temper. Both Luigi and Angelo claim to be descended from European royalty.

Plot of Puddn'head Wilson

As the story begins, David Wilson has just arrived at Dawson's Landing from New York. Wilson hopes to be successful but makes the mistake of telling a joke that makes people in Dawson's Landing think he is stupid. Hence, Wilson is called Puddn'head and cannot get legal work.

Puddn'head quickly makes the acquaintance of Roxana (Roxy), a slave girl. She is raising both Tom Driscoll and her son Chambers whom Puddn'head fingerprints at the age of five and seven months.

A few months later, Roxy's master Percy Driscoll threatens to sell down the river Roxy and three other slaves in his household for stealing Driscoll's money. This greatly frightens Roxy, who decides to save her son Chambers from this hellish fate. Roxy does this by exchanging the boys, who both look white and alike in their cradles, at the age of seven months.

Chambers grows up usurping the name and position of Tom Driscoll. He has a bad temperament and is racist toward Tom, who now has the identity of the negro slave Chambers.

In 1845 when "Tom" is 15, Percy Driscoll dies, and "Tom" is adopted by his uncle Judge Driscoll. At the same time, Roxy is set free and becomes a chambermaid on a Mississippi River steamboat.

Judge Driscoll sends "Tom" away to Yale for two years, where he picks up the gambling habit and never finishes school.

After "Tom" returns to Dawson's Landing in the early 1850s, he doesn't get a job but spends a lot of time in St. Louis gambling and losing money. To pay off his gambling debts, "Tom" sells his mother, Roxy, who has just returned to Dawson's Landing in 1853 down the river to an Arkansas planter.

In 1853, the Capello twins Luigi and Angelo take up residence as lodgers with Aunt Patsy Cooper in Dawson's Landing. As European royalty, they immediately become popular with the townspeople. At an anti-Temperance meeting, "Tom" insults Luigi, who immediately kicks "Tom."

What follows gets Puddn'head Wilson and Judge Driscoll involved in a duel between Luigi and Judge Driscoll. This leads to a story with an exciting and unusual ending.

Themes in Puddn'head Wilson

Some of the major themes in Puddn'head Wilson are:

  1. Good over evil
  2. Nature versus nurture
  3. Significance of new technology
  4. Ancestry
  5. Racial distinctions
  6. Slavery
  7. Betrayal versus loyalty

1. Good Over Evil

The protagonist Puddn'head Wilson is a good man but he is looked down upon by the antagonist Tom Driscoll and many of the town citizens throughout most of the story. At the end of the novel, however, Puddn'head is in great standing with the town and Tom suffers his deserved fate.

Puddn'head Wilson in the courtroom

Puddn'head Wilson in the courtroom

2. Nature Versus Nurture

At the age of seven months, Tomas a Becket Driscoll and Valet de Chambre, both white and similar, are switched in their cradles. Chambers usurped Tom's identity and postion as the slave master's heir while Tom is identified as the child of a slave girl.

As both boys grow up into young men, nurture wins out over nature. Chambers is educated and talks and acts similarly to white people. He is also very racist in how he treats his mother Roxy and Tom. Tom, on the other hand, grows up talking and acting meekly toward whites just like a black slave.

3. Significance of New Technology

Palmistry and fingerprinting are two hobbies of Puddin'head Wilson. For over 20 years, Wilson collects the fingerprints of all Dawson's Landing citizens. By the end of the story, Puddin'head as a lawyer demonstrates the usefulness of fingerprints in solving a major crime in Dawson's Landing.

4. Ancestry

Judge Driscoll and Pembroke Howard emphasize that they are descendants of the first families of Virginia. Roxy is very proud that Chambers' father is a colonel and also a descendant of the first families of Virginia.

5. Racial Distinctions

Racial distinctions are used often in Puddin'head Wilson. Roxy laments that although she and her son Chambers are 1/16 and 1/32 black respectively and appear white, they are still considered black and slaves.

When Chambers and Tom are growing up, Percy Driscoll punished the black slave boy Chambers for hitting his son Tom.

6. Slavery

Roxy cannot understand why black people are slaves if God created everyone equal. She also freaks out at the thought that masters can sell their slaves down the river because that is a fate worse than going to hell.

7. Betrayal Versus Loyalty

Roxy decides to save her child Chambers from being sold down the river by having him usurp Tom Driscoll's identity as a baby. After he grows up, Chambers betrays and sells his mother down the river to repay gambling debts.

Four Reasons You Should Read Puddn'head Wilson

You should read Puddn'head Wilson for the following four reasons:

  1. Entertaining use of humor and satire
  2. The masterful use of local dialect
  3. Understanding of slavery
  4. Insight into racism

1. Entertaining Use of Humor and Satire

Puddn'head Wilson is filled with entertaining use of humor and satire. Two examples are reflected in the themes of ancestry and racial distinctions.

Twain's satirical treatment of the twins Luigi and Angelo Capello is extremely hilarious. Viewed by the citizens of Dawson's Landing as European royalty, Luigi and Angelo exaggerate their European background.

The slave girl Roxy also exaggerates how she is descended from Pocahontas.

As to racial distinctions, Twain goes against convention and delights in showing how Tom Driscoll who has a black slave's identity is a better person than Chambers the black slave boy who has usurped the identity of Tom Driscoll.

2. The Masterful Use of Local Dialect

Twain makes one of the major characters Roxy come alive by using the local black slave dialect in recording her interactions with Tom, Puddn'head, and other characters in the novel.

3. Understanding of Slavery

Mark Twain quickly initiates the reader into the system of slavery in the antebellum United States in the early 19th century. Distinctions between the slave and master classes are clearly shown in the novel. The evils of slavery such as whipping and being sold down the river are also described.

4. Insight Into Racism

It is interesting to read that racism was practiced by both northerners and southerners. After Roxy was sold down the river to an Arkansas planter, she describes that the Yankee overseers were even crueler and more racist than southern overseers.

Although Roxy and her son Chambers were only 1/16 and 1/32 black, they were still identified as being black. Both could pass as whites but the "black blood" in them adulterated their identity as being black.

One Reason You Should Not Read Puddn'head Wilson

If racism and lack of political correctness upset the reader, you should not read Puddn'head Wilson. Twain freely uses the n___ word, especially in the speech of Roxy. He also transcribes the black slave dialect that many people would find disparaging.

© 2022 Paul Richard Kuehn