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Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
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Pudd'nhead Wilson (original 1894; edition 2010)

by Mark Twain

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1,840223,771 (3.69)54
bookworm12's review
An odd mix of Twain’s work, Pudd’nhead Wilson combines the character swapping from The Prince and the Pauper and the race drama in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was not at all what I was expecting. The title character, Pudd’head, is actually the cleverest person in the book.

Roxy is a slave, but is only 1/16th African. Her son is only 1/32nd African and in a moment of desperation she switches her son with her master’s child. The boys are almost identical and after the switch they are raised in their new lives with no knowledge of the past. Years later things become even more complicated as Roxy tried to reconcile the man her real son has become.

The other major theme of the book is a very early look at the use of forensic evidence in detective work. It feels like common knowledge to us now, but at the time fingerprinting was a completely foreign concept. Throw in some twins from another country, a gambling problem and some bad choices and you’ve got a novel.

It’s a strange book, one that doesn’t quite feel like Twain. It has some of his trademarks elements; a sharp wit, commentary on race relations, etc., but it’s unique in some other respects. It feels disjointed and a bit thrown together. I read a bit from Twain after I finished the book and he talked about how he set out to write one book and found himself in the midst of another. I think the plot reflects that and in the end it’s not one of his best.

BOTTOM LINE: If you really like Twain, definitely check it out. If you’re new to his work I would check out Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer before this one.

“When angry count four, when very angry swear.” ( )
  bookworm12 | Apr 25, 2012 |
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This book had been sitting on my shelves for many, and I mean many, years. I finally read it and what a pleasure! I was gripped by this "prince and pauper" tale. It is a gripping story with fantastic characters. It addresses social issues (slavery), character flaws, family issues, and general difficulties faced by just being human. Twain opens each chapter with a couple of so-called entries to Pudd'nhead's personal calendar which are pithy quips. My two favorites appear at the beginning of the same chapter. First, "He is useless on top of the ground; he ought to be under it, inspiring the cabbages". Second, on April Fool's Day, "This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four". Additionally, my Signet edition has an afterword by the author in which he explains the evolution of the novella from an idea, and it is worth just reading this alone.....almost. ( )
  hemlokgang | Feb 10, 2013 |
It's always difficult to review a classic, because it must be considered both for the modern reader as well as the audience for which it was written.

Twain's commentary on race relations, as always, is top notch. His understanding of human nature shines out, and the taste of what life is like in a small town at this time is matchless. Also, as a historical side note, we find the first ever use in literature of fingerprinting as trial evidence.

The story is not a mystery, but rather character study that is resolved in the way that a mystery novel is often resolved. Do not enter into the book expecting a modern mystery story, because those elements do not enter until the last few chapters.

If you're a fan of Twain, read it. If you haven't explored him before, you should start with his better known works first, and move on from there. ( )
  shabacus | Dec 10, 2012 |
An odd mix of Twain’s work, Pudd’nhead Wilson combines the character swapping from The Prince and the Pauper and the race drama in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was not at all what I was expecting. The title character, Pudd’head, is actually the cleverest person in the book.

Roxy is a slave, but is only 1/16th African. Her son is only 1/32nd African and in a moment of desperation she switches her son with her master’s child. The boys are almost identical and after the switch they are raised in their new lives with no knowledge of the past. Years later things become even more complicated as Roxy tried to reconcile the man her real son has become.

The other major theme of the book is a very early look at the use of forensic evidence in detective work. It feels like common knowledge to us now, but at the time fingerprinting was a completely foreign concept. Throw in some twins from another country, a gambling problem and some bad choices and you’ve got a novel.

It’s a strange book, one that doesn’t quite feel like Twain. It has some of his trademarks elements; a sharp wit, commentary on race relations, etc., but it’s unique in some other respects. It feels disjointed and a bit thrown together. I read a bit from Twain after I finished the book and he talked about how he set out to write one book and found himself in the midst of another. I think the plot reflects that and in the end it’s not one of his best.

BOTTOM LINE: If you really like Twain, definitely check it out. If you’re new to his work I would check out Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer before this one.

“When angry count four, when very angry swear.” ( )
  bookworm12 | Apr 25, 2012 |
Nobody quite combines comedy and tragedy like Mark Twain. His ability to mock the most unfortunate of situations makes even the most scathing of social commentaries enjoyable reading. Puddn'head Wilson is a perfect example of this with its discussion of race and privilege in the South.

Twain accomplishes two goals with this particular work. When discussing the reversed identities, he hits right at the heart of racial prejudice. Tom’s treatment of Chambers, and eventually his mother, is absolutely appalling, especially as the reader understands the true situation. His sense of entitlement because he is “white” is as disgusting to modern readers as it is telling of the difference in mindset between the 1850s and today.

What is fascinating is Twain’s use of the beginnings of forensic evidence in murder trials. The polite interest that turns into overt mocking that then switches to apt fascination is spot on in society’s acceptance of any new scientific methodology. While presenting this new, objective methodology, Twain also continues his biting commentary on the subjectivity of a jury that is hampered by close-mindedness and social stigmas. The crowd’s reaction when they understand that a “white” man of privilege could commit such a horrible crime is humorous in true Twain fashion while simultaneously horrifying at their ignorance.

Puddn'head Wilson is a fascinating look at a society long past. In fact, modern readers can appreciate Twain’s message more than his contemporaries could because we have the benefit of hundreds of years of ingrained social messaging about the equality of races. It begs the question of what Twain’s contemporaries thought about this social commentary. Would they have appreciated what Twain was mocking? No matter what era in which this novel is being read, Puddn'head Wilson provides plenty of fodder for discussion and contemplation, as befits a true classic.
1 vote jmchshannon | Feb 24, 2012 |
Every single critic (or reader) has accused Mark Twain of racism because of his representations in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, needs to read this book, which, while a lesser work of artistic achievement, savages American and Southern racism in their many forms. Roxy is a slave woman who is 1/16 African, and her infant son, who cannot be differentiated from the son of the master, is 1/32 African. On one occasion, Roxy fears that she and her son will be sold from Dawson's Landing, Missouri "down the river." Thus, she switches her son with the master's son, which means that the "slave" is raised as the "master" and vice versa. It takes detective work of a legitimate variety (the fingerprinting done by "Pudd'nhead") to solve the murder mystery that develops as the story goes along, but nothing is solved when the original mixup between the two infant boys is "corrected." The scars of racism run deep, as Mark Twain knows perfectly well. ( )
  corinneblackmer | Oct 9, 2011 |
A Mark Twain story I had never heard of! First published in 1894, it is the story of a slave woman, Roxy, who was as white as the rest of the town, but was 1/16th black, and so, in the times, was classified, "by a fiction of law and custom," Negro. Roxy has a baby son the same age as the nephew of her master, and one day, worried about her sons future, she decides to switch the babies.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a local attorney, whose hobby is studying fingerprints, a relatively new and untested forensic service at the time.
What happens as these boys grow up, and how Pudd'nhead saves the day, is a fun story, with a good moral. The dialect was a little difficult to read, but still, a good book. ( )
  tloeffler | Jan 29, 2011 |
Not as well known as Twain's more popular books, Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pudd'nhead Wilson is nonetheless an intriguing look into racial distinctions and self-identity.

It's thought provoking, sad, and spotlights the unfairness of two children, both similar in appearance, yet one is privileged because he is white, and the other is doomed to a life of slavery merely because he is 1/32 black.

I found this book to be just as clear-cut on the tragedies of slavery as Huckleberry Finn, if not more so. It's a great piece to read and study.

One of Twain's best. ( )
  quillmenow | Jan 27, 2011 |
I've never read this entire book before but have vague memories of references to it in discussions of other Twain novels or of general turn of the century literature. The one discussion I remember most vividly was a discussion of "courtroom drama" literature and how this particular book helped set up that format and in particular helped set up the presentation of evidence, especially the concept of using fingerprints to help solve crimes.

Apart from the vague discussions about theme, I went into this novel fresh and really enjoyed it. I've always loved Twain's writing. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite all time books. In Pudd'nhead Wilson there is a lot of similar tone, setting, dialog and feel that made Huck Finn seem so real.

This book is set in a Missouri town (Dawson's Landing) in the early 1800s and (although I'm not an expert on the 19th century South), it felt very authentic. Once again, Twain captures great elements of dialog and mannerism and does a great job of creating vivid environments and characters.

The story is intriguing and feels at times like a Shakespearean "mistaken identity" play writ large. In the first few pages we're introduced to the townsfolk and shortly after introduction we watch a slave do the ol' switcher with two babies…her 'black' baby (1/32 black, and thus very easily confused as 'white') and her master's white baby. We stick with the worried mother Roxy for a few months and then fast forward through the childhood and adolescent lives of the switched boys. The story picks up with them in their early 20s and really kicks into overdrive as two twins arrive from Italy, vices of the switched "black" boy come to light, and murder is committed in the town. The story ends with the title character, Pudd'nhead, working to solve the crime and act as defense lawyer for the accused.

There are many themes present throughout this book. They are all presented in Twain's subtle, ironic, humorous tones. Moreso even than in some of his other books, Twain keeps the various "morales" very subtly in the background. He never seems to overtly or explicitly condemn anyone for any of their crimes, prejudices or vices. Instead, he presents a variety of situations ranging from tragic to humorous to ridiculous and lets the reader make his/her own judgment call.

So even though Roxy commits a crime in switching her black baby for her master's white baby, Twain never condemns her. He never makes any commentary on what he presents as the absolutely ridiculous practice that even a drop of "black blood" can make a person "black" and thus a slave, no matter how "white" that person really is. He doesn't even really speak out against slavery (even in the subtle way he did in Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer) though he does make is somewhat evident that he's not a fan just through the way the various interactions take place.

The closest he comes to condemnation is through Roxy's dialog later in the book as she talks with her son and reveals his true heritage to him. Through Roxy, he condemns "Tom's" behavior…his despicable treatment of blacks, his many vices, his horrific act of selling "down the river" and more and more.

Pudd'nhead acts almost as a counterpoint to Roxy's scathing comments. He seems sometimes to be the voice of reason or at least of calm, pensive thinking. Through his logical reasoning and his instinctive insight, we have a character who, although thought by his peers to be a dunce, is actually quite bright and has great wit and wisdom.

As the full title (The TRAGEDY of Pudd'nhead Wilson) suggests, this book doesn't have a 'happy' ending per se. In the end, all the crimes are resolved and the innocent parties are restored to their freedom while the guilty parties are punished. However, the tragedy seems to be in how "matter of fact" the state of affairs is presented. After the trial is complete, the wrap up is somewhat disheartening. The white boy ('Chambers') who lived his life as black is now caught between worlds, not fitting into any place. The boy's uncle (Judge Driscoll) is dead and his estate now belongs to an out of place nephew newly restored to 'whiteness.' Roxy's punishment is almost a reward. And 'Tom', who should receive one major punishment is instead set "free" in terms of 'justice' but left a "slave" because of the value of a black man.

This book is a very thoughtful and intriguing piece. It had in its underlying tone, much of the humor and irony that I really love about Twain's work. I really like the characters and the general story. I loved the presentation of the work and had a lot of fun reading this book. If I had to choose only one Twain, I'd still choose Huck, but this is another one that I'd recommend reading if you have any interest in Mark Twain, 19th century south, slavery, or American Literature in general. It's a great read.

****
4.5 out of 5 stars ( )
  theokester | Aug 6, 2010 |
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a novella, born of a longer novel that Twain cut in two; it is a great adventure story and also a satire on slavery and what makes a man a man; but its plot is so similar to The Prince and The Pauper that it at times seems unoriginal.

The characters are certainly well-drawn, although we see little of Wilson. His calendar entries are exceedingly witty, and are worth reading several times over (I certainly have). However, by writing all of Roxana's dialog in a kind of phonetic mash, some segments of the book prove difficult reading; it is worth comparing how Kennedy Toole handled dialect in A Confederacy of Dunces, set in much the same part of the world. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jun 25, 2010 |
By all rights, Pudd'nhead Wilson should not have been published. This isn't a novel. It is the best draft you're ever likely to read.

It tells the story of Roxy, a slave who, in a moment of desperation, exchanges her infant son with the identical boy of her Master. Hence her child, now called Tom Driscoll, is raised free and privilaged. And consequently turns into a complete horror.

That's about as much of the plot as one needs to know. It started as a farce about a different set of twins, but as he wrote it Twain was distracted by the secondary characters; so he re-wrote his novel as a tragedy without completely doing away with the old trappings.

Consequently, Pudd'nhead Wilson is many things. It is quite unpredictable. The plot leaps from one thing to another without settling. Some parts of it are very tragic, full of cruel irony. At other points, the farce elements still come through (such as during the brief cameo from the Fire Department). Though stylistically inconsistent, the hodgepodge of moods and plot threads did keep me turning the pages.

The writing herein is quite good, and Twain's wit is legendary. The cast is a fine set that interacts well, and he does an excellent job at crafting the community of Dawson's Landing.

And yet all these elements never mesh into something more. I liked this novel, but perhaps my hopes were a little too high. I was certainly not expecting it to be this messy. Characters are used; they do not live, or if they do, Twain ignores them until he has a use for them. Luigi and Angelo are introduced as if they mean something, yet are given precious little to do. Rowena's view is given for two whole chapters, then she vanishes completely. Most surprisingly, the titular character is given little to do. He emerges only when needed, and cannot be described as the main character.

The focus is placed heavily on Roxy and Tom, yet they aren't the main characters either. The true protagonist is the omniscient narrator (the author) who tells this odd little tale.

Well, I did like this. It was engrossing, I smiled at the witticisms and was even moved from time to time, as Twain had a marvelous grasp of humanity. My favorite quote from the book was this:

"When the forenoon was nearly gone, she recognized with a pang that this most splendid episode of her life was almost over, that nothing could prolong it, that nothing quite its equal could ever fall to her fortune again."

It's a pity that this book, with all its sundry elements of greatness, was a rush job that switched horses in midstream. But nevertheless, I still found it very enjoyable. ( )
  nymith | Dec 13, 2009 |
As I read more Mark Twain, I become a bigger fan. Sure, this book is not among his best works, but even mediocre Twain is above so much out there. Unlike Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, in my mind, this book was a little confusing with what the message was regarding Twain's feelings on slavery. Whereas the other books had Jim as an uneducated, yet intelligent, honorable and very likeable character, the main black character in Pudd'nhead Wilson was detestable and even the secondary black character only allowed for partial sympathy regarding her actions. The plot outcome was very predictable, but it was still fun reading on as Twain took me there. The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the preface where Twain explained what the book had started as and who the main characters had been before the story ran in a different direction and the way he came up with disposing of the then-useless characters was a moment for actual laughter. That alone is worth giving the book a chance, if for nothing else than to read the preface. ( )
  Sean191 | Dec 2, 2009 |
This novel was amazing, it really holds up to Mark Twain’s writing standards that I have grown to love over the years. Mark Twain does an amazing job with the writing of this novel as he develops the characters and the reader gets to see the twists of the baby-switch. The reader is able to follow the footsteps of both “Tom” and “Chambers,” who are clueless that they should be living eachothers lives. Thanks to one Pudd’nhead Wilson the whole fiasco is straightened out in the end however.
The reason this novel is so entertaining is because of what the innocent slave woman Roxy does in the beginning, and the fact that the conflict is solved because of Pudd’nhead’s thought to be irrelevant fingerprinting. I personally enjoyed watching this whole plot unfold infront of me and the fact that had Roxy not done what she did to help her own child, maybe things could have turned out better. Roxy’s son, Chambers, or “Tom,” ended up being spoiled and vicious. Perhaps not that much better of an outcome over a slave. “Tom,” must ask for money to buy Roxy back from her owner down the river, otherwise Roxy will tell everyone who he really is. I admire Roxy for holding this over his head because it is the one really big thing she has on him. Chambers gets into the judge’s house who is asleep at his desk with money strewn about. Chambers accidentally drops his knife sheath and wakes the judge, whom Chambers then kills. Had Chambers not of killed the judge at this moment Tom would have likely never known who he really was.
Mark Twain is an amazing author, and gets really in depth with his books and writes extremely well in a way that is not too confusing. At face value this book seems as though it would be confusing but Mark Twain successfully pulls off the book. The setting Twain uses is fitting for time, early-mid 1800s, is a small little frontier town in Missouri named Dawson’s Landing. Dawson’s landing is just off the Mississippi River, which is the river specified when referencing “down the river.” The Mississippi was a great way to transport slaves quickly and cheaply to the South, and to much harder labor.
I enjoyed this book so much because of the amazing plot twists and turns that happened so often in the novel. Whether a white slave was giving her child a chance at a free life, or that same white slave is holding over her child’s head who he really is, this novel is full of suprises. Especially since Pudd’nhead’s baby fingerprints that the public frowned upon so badly ended up saving the day. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Mark Twain, or really anyone who wants to read an awesome book. Overall I would give this book 5 of 5 stars and may have to read it again sometime in the future.
  abrownfa | Aug 25, 2009 |
This is a fun little book that I first read in tenth grade. In fact, I think it's the only Twain I've ever read, though I really ought to change that. I was recently perusing my shelves for a short book that was a change of pace from my other current reads, and when I spotted this one, I knew I'd found it.

This is such a neat little story as far as plot goes. He lays everything out for the reader from the beginning, all in plain sight, and then proceeds to tell a nicely interwoven complex tale, and you're not entirely certain where it's going until it actually gets there. My favorite part is the whole use of fingerprints in the story, a fairly novel thing in the time and culture this was written. Twain also manages to delve into the topics of race and circumstances of blood and upbringing, and what makes a man who he is.

A short and enjoyable tale I would recommend to anyone, and one I would reread (and have). ( )
  VKNask | May 5, 2009 |
I didn't really "get" this book when I was younger, but now I think it's brilliant, and a lot of fun to teach. ( )
  tsjoseph | Apr 23, 2009 |
Anyone familiar with American slave narratives will quickly find that they have read the first 18 chapters of Twain's book, even if they have never before heard of the novel itself. While I am unsure where Pudd'nhead Wilson falls on a time line of slave narratives and African American literature, from a contemporary reader's point of view Twain's narrative is tired and uninspired. The story itself is without passion, and the narrator is largely detached from the events. Twain fails to establish an emotional base for his readers, and as such this novel comes across as a pale imitation of other accounts.

However, the final four chapters are outstanding. From chapter nineteen the "real point" of the novel comes to light, and the connection between a seemingly secondary character and the title is finally made clear. The events are widely dramatic, yet believable, and the sentiments largely missing from the rest of the book are present. While Pudd'nhead Wilson merely whimpers for the first 157 pages, it really goes out with a satisfying bang. ( )
  Luxx | Apr 22, 2009 |
Quite readable minor work from Mark Twain. A child 31/32 white is switched with a child 32/32 white as an infant. The novel primarily sets the stage for the climactic scene in the last chapter where the deception is revealed. Reading contemporary commentary on the story and understanding the political climate at the time of the book (Plessy V Ferguson was in process) reveal the significance of the work. But was he writing an opinion, or was he merely stirring the pot and creating controversy for its own sake? I don't know.
  mebrock | Sep 23, 2008 |
Reviewed Dec. 1999

After the first reading of this book several years ago, I felt that this book (amongst others)should be required reading for Junior High School. and now after re-reading it again this December I find that I still feel this way. Twains grip of this era is wonderful, he eaves everything in...through reading the Negro speak is a bit difficult unless you do it fast. The mystery and suspense is as good as any modern mystery (accept the reader knows who did if from the beginning) but how the murderer is discovered is extremely entertaining. As a historical story it seems accurate while poking fun of the people at the time. the characters are very developed and interesting to read about. I had forgotten what a free-thinker Twain is, (could Twain have seen himself as Tom’s uncle?) Looking back almost 100 years to the customs and lifestyle of the time, a modern reader is flabbergasted by how far society has come. Puddenhead keeps us further entertained throughout with quips from his calender. “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” And many more.

52-1999 ( )
  sgerbic | May 8, 2008 |
Rather belabored plot, but funny and well-written--Puddin'head's chapter openers are Twain at his best ( )
  tzelman | Feb 16, 2008 |
3015 Pudd'nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain [Samuel L. Clemens] (read 24 Sep 1997) This 1894 book deals with a switch of a slave boy and an heir at seven months, so the slave grows up as the white boy, who then kills his "uncle" and the title character proves, through fingerprints, the switch and the murderer. The courtroom procedure is totally unlawyerlike, and the narrative devices creak, and the dialect of the slaves is annoying to read. But the last two chapters make good reading. But that this book should be claimed to be a great novel amazes me. ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 27, 2007 |
The Bantam Books edition has a fine introduction by Langston Hughes. This is a fascinating novel, with Twain taking on the questions of race and of nature/nurture head on. It was the first novel to bring finger-printing into the plot. The Norton Critical edition is very good, too. ( )
  ostrom | Dec 5, 2007 |
Two half brothers look so similar as infants that no one can tell them apart. One, the legitimate son of a rich man, is destined for a life of comfort, while the other is condemned to be a slave as he is part black. The mother of the would be slave is also the nurse of the other; to give her son the best life possible she switches the two. Soon the boy who is given every advantage becomes spoiled and cruel. He takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting his half brother. As they grow older, the townspeople no longer notice that the boys look similar, and they readily accept that each is born to his station.
A local lawyer, David Wilson has had a similar experience. On his first day in the village he made an odd remark about a dog, and the towns people gave him the condescending name of "Pudd'nhead." Although he was a young intelligent lawyer, he is unable to live down this name and toils in obscurity for over twenty years. Finally he is presented with a complex murder trial and is given the chance to prove himself to the townspeople and shake this unjust label.
This complex murder mystery is a psychological study that explores how perceptions shape character. Twain combines biting satire, with his trademark scenes of farce and levity.
  kattykathy | May 28, 2007 |
Mark Twain never fails to bring a smile to my face. This isn't his best work, but it's still darned good. It's another book about the American South (I had a class) but this one isn't so obsessed with the South's fall (because it hadn't happened yet) as the Faulkner or the Welty. It is concerned, like those two, with the provinciality and callow nature of the Southern small town, and the consequences this has for a select group of elite. Pudd'nhead Wilson, the title character, is actually one of those elite. Twain's intellectual elite, Wilson, a wonderfully promising lawyer, has his career quashed by his townspeople when he makes a conversational flub and is dubbed "Pudd'nhead Wilson" permanently. This is the story of his revival, as told (oddly enough) by the culprit of the biggest crime the town has known. Beyond the immediate main character, this book is also a bitter condemnation of slavery and racial prejudice. It's well worth a read, and deserves all the time it's given. 8/10 ( )
  hrissliss | Jul 10, 2006 |
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