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Pudd'nhead Wilson

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At the beginning of Pudd'nhead Wilson a young slave woman, fearing for her infant son's life, exchanges her light-skinned child with her master's.  From this rather simple premise Mark Twain fashioned one of his most entertaining, funny, yet biting novels.  On its surface, Pudd'nhead Wilson possesses all the elements of an engrossing nineteenth-century mystery:  reversed identities, a horrible crime, an eccentric detective, a suspenseful courtroom drama, and a surprising, unusual solution.  Yet it is not a mystery novel.  Seething with the undercurrents of antebellum southern culture, the book is a savage indictment in which the real criminal is society, and racial prejudice and slavery are the crimes.  Written in 1894, Pudd'nhead Wilson glistens with characteristic Twain humor, with suspense, and with pointed irony:  a gem among the author's later works.

160 pages, Paperback

First published May 10, 1893

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About the author

Mark Twain

9,912 books17k followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author by this name in the Goodreads database.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. He is noted for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), called "the Great American Novel", and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).

Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which would later provide the setting for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He apprenticed with a printer. He also worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to his older brother Orion's newspaper. After toiling as a printer in various cities, he became a master riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, before heading west to join Orion. He was a failure at gold mining, so he next turned to journalism. While a reporter, he wrote a humorous story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which proved to be very popular and brought him nationwide attention. His travelogues were also well-received. Twain had found his calling.

He achieved great success as a writer and public speaker. His wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

However, he lacked financial acumen. Though he made a great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he squandered it on various ventures, in particular the Paige Compositor, and was forced to declare bankruptcy. With the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers, however, he eventually overcame his financial troubles. Twain worked hard to ensure that all of his creditors were paid in full, even though his bankruptcy had relieved him of the legal responsibility.

Born during a visit by Halley's Comet, he died on its return. He was lauded as the "greatest American humorist of his age", and William Faulkner called Twain "the father of American literature".

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

Μαρκ Τουαίν (Greek)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,260 reviews
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
458 reviews3,240 followers
September 30, 2020
During the antebellum south on the western shore of the broad, mighty , muddy Mississippi River 2,350 miles long and miles wide, in the golden era of the steamboats ( numbering an astounding 1,200, vessels ) feed by more than a dozen tributaries, they continuously went up and down those waters and entered other streams too. A small , tranquil village named Dawson's Landing stood, half a days travel by boat below St.Louis in the state of Missouri not an important place mind you, yet when an intriguing stranger, Mr.David Wilson arrives from a distant part of the country, seeking to practice law here things pick up, he hears loud barking from an unseen dog on his first day, annoyed greatly the new lawyer tells some curious leading citizens that if he owned half the animal he Wilson would kill it... Shortly afterwards the influential people in town gather and discuss those quite remarkable silly words by the newcomer, after a short conversation come to the unanimous conclusion this Mr.Wilson is a pudd'nhead (translation, an idiot) the unfortunate man quickly receives that nickname Pudd'nhead, his high hopes for being a successful lawyer collapses , no one will hire this obvious moron...At about the same time two look alike children are born both boys, one to Percy Driscoll, Thomas Driscoll, from a prominent family in old Virginia his poor wife soon expires in the effort, another from a black slave the beautiful Roxana ( no surnames given them) her son, she names Valet de Chambers. The interesting thing is Roxana is white in appearance, only one -sixteenth black which makes Chambers one -thirty -second he had a white father however one drop of blood , will change your life. Roxy who takes care of the children, is afraid she and her baby will he sold and sent down the river to a fearful fate , by her owner Percy Driscoll and switches children Thomas becomes Chambers and Chambers , Thomas, nobody notices the difference, still one has a fabulous life of wealth and privilege the fake Tom, ( doesn't known he's black) is a cruel vindictive, coward the real Tom a kind, generous, forgiving , brave man suffers misery , humiliation and beatings frequently by the impostor yes, treated like a slave.... Mr. Wilson has plenty of time for a hobby between doing odd jobs in accounting and surveying to survive, virtually unknown to the public fingerprinting, a system that can identify anyone by the patterns on the tips of your fingers, he takes the prints of all on a glass in the village, the amused citizens think just another eccentricity of the addle- brained man, then a mystery happens, local robberies occur in the quiet, peaceful town . More fascinating the enigmatic Italian twins , Luigi and Angelo Capello nobles they say, somehow find this tiny community through a newspaper ad and rent a room, the entire Dawson's Landing is thrilled some excitement finally here, later duels, a murder and an old woman who keeps being seen and vanishing at the site of further unexplained, petty robberies ...A fine story that starts as a comedy and then unexpectedly turns serious, telling and showing the tragedy of slavery... Mark Twain wrote about this evil institution and reached the American conscious.
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,644 reviews5,102 followers
March 13, 2018
Samuel Langhorne Clemens: I shall write a classic novel, full of my customary barbed wit yet leavened with my compassion for humanity. I shall open the tale with a delightfully wry meta-introduction - before "meta" was even a thing! The wryness shall continue throughout what will be an exciting story of bold misdeeds, uncertain justice, and a compelling and surely very surprising trial. We shall end the tale with evil happily circumvented - but it will be an ending that is also dripping with irony and pointed critique. An important fact: as a classic progressive, I have always been morally opposed to slavery and adamantly in favor of emancipation; likewise I firmly believe in enhancing the rights of former slaves and their descendants. This revolutionary perspective will be present in my tale - but it shall be a trifle muted, to allow for brisk sales.

Pudd'nhead Wilson: I am the moral center of this tale and I shall hold that title with much becoming humility. I shall charm the reader with my unusual observations, sly comments, humane nature, and my prescient knowledge and use of finger-printing - all of this despite the derision of my fellows. I am perhaps a stand-in for the estimable Mark Twain. More importantly, I am also what is known as an Underdog. Rally behind me!

The Italian Twins: We came from a discarded story, where we were once conjoined. But this tale has set us free! Pudd'nhead Wilson may be the hero of the piece, but our joie de vivre, pluck, style, and the utter fun we bring to this tale of dark deeds shall surely make us a favorite among certain lady readers - and certain reviewers like mark monday!

Valet de Chambre AKA Tom Driscoll: I am the villain of the piece - but I shall rally against such diminishing, unempathetic designations! I am only human, after all. I shall enrage the reader with my high-handed, bullying ways, my cunning and greedy nature, my cheeky aplomb, my devious misdeeds done in the dark of night. I am what is known as a changeling, a cuckoo's offspring, an interloper. I am an argument in favor of nurture over nature: it is the spoiling, too-generous nurture of my uncle and aunt that shall sour my nature and turn me into a braggart, gambler, and vindictive villain. Or is this truly the case? Even as a babe in arms, I am characterized by my monstrousness... surely this is not due to my blackness, if being 1/32 part black even constitutes "blackness"? Unfortunately, the author could have been rather more clear on where my innately bad nature sprung from. That lack of clarity certainly muddies the water a bit.

Roxie: "I's sorry for you, honey; I's sorry, God knows I is, - but what kin I do, what could I do? Yo' pappy would sell him to somebody, some time, en den he'd go down de river, sho', en I couldn't, couldn't, couldn't stan' it... 'Tain't no sin - white folks has done it! It ain't no sin, glory to goodness it ain't no sin! Dey's done it - yes, en dey was de biggest quality in de whole bilin', too - kings!"

mark monday: I thought this was an admirable tale in many ways, well-written and enjoyable, with a leisurely but exciting narrative. However - despite its good, progressive intentions - the cloudiness at the story's center, its confusion around "nature vs. nurture", made me increasingly uncomfortable. And reading Roxie's dialogue and monologues - despite being true to place and time - was completely excruciating, at least to these modern eyes.

5 of 16 in Sixteen Short Novels
Profile Image for Kressel Housman.
972 reviews223 followers
August 29, 2016
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has biting social commentary, but Puddin'head Wilson has all-out black humor. It's the story of Roxy, a light-skinned slave woman who successfully switches her even lighter-skinned son with her master's baby, and follows how each one grows up. I would have liked to see more inside the slaves' lives other than from the character of Roxy, but Mark Twain's point was mainly to criticize the spoiled slaveowners. In any case, the courtroom drama in which Puddin'head Wilson reveals the truth will have you riveted.

An interesting literary tidbit: Mark Twain is known to have disliked Jane Austen's work, saying something roughly along these lines, "I can't stand Jane Austen. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her with her own shin bone." But as the Jane Austen fans love to point out, "every time I read . . ." implies that he read her more than once, and Mark Twain's sense of humor was to be negative about everybody and everything. But I think his ultimate tribute to JA comes at the beginning of Puddin'head. Compare this: "There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless" to Darcy's "the wisest and the best of men - nay, the wisest and best of their actions - may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke." Perhaps it's just a universal observation by two satirists, but I think the wording is very close.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.5k followers
March 26, 2021

If you consider a man's “best” books to be the ones with the most consistent tone and the fewest flaws, then Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper are Mark Twain’s best works of fiction. If, however, “best” means the most interesting, the most resonant, even if the flaws are considerable and the results problematic, then that honor belongs to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Huckleberry Finn, and—I would argue—The Tragedy of Puddin’head Wilson too.

The flaws and the problems of Twain’s fiction stem from the fact that the limited but parochial projects of Twain the humorist are often undermined and thwarted by the comprehensive soul of Twain the writer of fiction. In Connecticut Yankee, for example, as much as Twain admired Yankee know-how and despised the “jejune romanticism” of Sir Walter Scott, there was still a part of him that grudgingly admired Southern chivalry and was appalled by how Yankee know-how literally blew that chivalry apart on the great battlefields of the Civil War. For this reason, an essentially humorous book about a cunning modern inventor who outfoxes King Arthur’s finest ends with a bitter picture of modern warfare which considerably alters its tone. And the end of Huckleberry Finn exhibits similar problems in the comic—but essentially unfunny—return of Tom Sawyer to the narrative.

Puddin’head Wilson—a smaller but equally resonant work—is comparably problematic. It began as a novel with the title Those Extraordinary Twins, featuring a pair of conjoined twins based on a well known Italian pair, Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci. Twain wished to contrast their relatively happy life with the dark story of two little Missouri boys growing up in the small town of Dawson’s Landing in the years before the Civil War. The two boys look much alike, but Tom is to be the master of the house, and Chambers is to be his slave. The story of how they are made to switch places, together with tale of Puddin’head Wilson, a lawyer who eventually resolves the mystery—if not the resulting tragedy—through the newly emerging science of fingerprinting, is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, it completely overwhelmed the story of the Italian twins. Twain left them—unconjoined- to wander with little purpose through the story, a baffling vestige of his original comic conception.

Still, it is a powerful narrative, particularly in its account of how the institution of slavery molds the characters of both the false master and the false slave. Twain’s touch is not always sure—there are even moments when Twain appears to be saying that even a drop “black blood’ may be enough to taint the human character—but at its basis this is a profound tale of the fatal effect of nurture versus nature, and how two boys switched at birth can be changed irrevocably, particularly when one is slave and one is free.

The novel isn’t perfect, but it is also a rattling good mystery, with a lot of good stuff about fingerprints, an exciting courtroom scene, and a wickedly ironic conclusion to the fate of the faux master. It’s got problems, sure, but it is well worth a read.
Profile Image for LaDonna.
174 reviews2,453 followers
July 24, 2017
WOW!! Without divulging any spoilers, that was my reaction to the last sentence of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. Suffice it to say that the book took several twists and turns that I did not see coming, but each of them definitely kept the story moving.

There was no way I was going to pass on an opportunity to read a book with a premise such a this one: A white man, born free, but switched at 7 months of age to be raised as a slave. A black man, born into slavery, but switched at 7 months of age to be raised as a slave owner. What a freakin' social experiment!! A devil born to a young couple is measurably recognizable by them as a devil before long, but a devil adopted by an old couple is an angel to them, and remains so, through thick and thin. First published in 1894, Twain manages to truly challenge the idea of nature versus nurture, using both humor and suspnse. (Twain even manages to throw in some forensics science for good measure).

In a the words of Langston Hughes, author of this particular edition's introduction,
In Pudd'nhead Wilson Mark Twain wrote what a later period might have been called in the finest sense of the term, a novel of social significance...Twain minces no words in describing the unfortunate effects of slavery upon the behavior of both Negroes and whites, even upon children.

I am quite sure that most of us read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in an English Lit. class, somewhere along the line. But, personally, I would have loved to have read this one. It has been well over 100 years since Mark Twain created this work; yet, it still speaks to criminality our society condones and the racial prejudices that still exist. Even Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar has an adage that speaks to the importance of embracing differences, It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.

If you have not guessed, this book is definitely on my must-read bookshelf. It will truly leave you wondering: Where do we go from here? And, how can we make things better for everyone?

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not the absence of fear --Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar
Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
March 14, 2022
Jorge Luis Borges once commented that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in collaboration with that great American river, the Mississippi and the same could most certainly be said of Pudd'nhead Wilson, an imaginative novel representing a bifurcation of an idea into two stories, the 2nd one being Those Extraordinary Twins.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a tale at once both simple & complex that explores the nature vs. nurture debate when two infants are switched in their cradles by their nanny, Roxana, herself a light-complected, mixed-race slave who has just given birth to a male child, conceived via a white man in the slave-holding village of Dawson's Landing.

Roxana's child, named Chambers, is 1/32nd black, while Tom, the other child is the son of Judge York Driscoll, who owns Roxana & whose wife dies just after giving birth, with the judge demonstrating little interest in his own newborn son.

The switch, made when Roxana fears for the worst for the future of her own child may seem simple enough, given that she senses no one will ultimately know the difference but it sets in motion a life-altering series of events for both, as the two boys mature & settle into the roles and characteristic behavior of their counterparts, lives that would have seemed almost preordained prior to the switch.

Roxana, perhaps the strongest character in the novel and who had considered killing herself and her child prior to the switch, continues to care for both children, not revealing the essential secret of their respective identities until much later.

Another vital character is David Wilson, 25 & a Scot via New York, trained as a lawyer, who somehow wanders into Dawson's Landing, stringing together occasional work and an interest in the new science of fingerprinting, a sort of hobby that eventually becomes an essential skill in solving a mysterious killing.

Beyond that, Mr. Wilson, who is judged as out-of-place in this little river town & called a "pudd'nhead" or buffoon because of his Eastern sensibility and his odd cast of humor, concocts an almanac or whimsical calendar that is both benign and cynically mirthful, patterned by Twain on Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, though Mark Twain took issue with the Franklin almanac.

Thus, David Wilson, initially a secondary character, also has two distinct faces and ends up driving the plot of the novel, a book I found fascinating for its ideas & characterizations, rather than for the writing style employed.

Without wishing to give the ending away, in reading this novel one comes to more fully understand the meaning of the phrase "being sold down the river" and the perceived differences between master/slave relationships in this border state vs. in the "Deep South", at least in 1830 when the novel begins. I suspect that this novel is not often read & many may not even be aware of it but it is an excellent counterpoint to the more well-regarded classic tales by the author.

Meanwhile, Those Extraordinary Twins, which served as a kind of literary parent to Pudd'nhead Wilson is less a story of ideas and much more light-hearted and amusing, involving two Italian conjoined twins of completely differing personalities. Luigi is a pipe-smoking, hard-drinking reader of Deist books, an irreverent free-thinker, while his brother Angelo is mild-mannered, an anti-alcohol, non-smoker who considers himself a Methodist & reads pious books.

David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson has the task of defending the two twins in court when one of them is charged with kicking Mr. Tom Driscoll but where deciphering which twin is the guilty party presents a major challenge. Twins also figure in Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson but with a very different impact on the story.

As with almost everything written by Samuel Clemens, there is a sense of an authorial split personality, with the homespun Missouri lad from a small town along the Mississippi River contrasting and contesting with the successful Eastern-based author & world traveler with an honorary degree from the University of Oxford, an aspect that is present in almost everything Twain wrote.

This is particularly with regard to Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson, two novels that confront America's racial divide. Interestingly, the African-American writer, David Bradley sees Samuel Clemens as white and Mark Twain as his black alter ego and Bradley is not alone in this view.

*Within my review are two images of the author + an engraving from an early edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson.
Profile Image for Kevin.
495 reviews83 followers
May 26, 2022
“A home without a cat—and a well fed, well petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home perhaps, but how can it prove title?” ~Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

It is ironic that this book was first banned by institutions that thought Twain was promoting southern racist tenets, and then later banned by those who realized he was lambasting those tenets in exaggerated parody. Such is the nature of exquisite satire. Twain was a beacon of sanity in an era of ignorance and inhumanity. If I believed in the existence of God I would thank him for gifting us this witty and insightful genius.
Profile Image for Ivana Books Are Magic.
523 reviews191 followers
March 25, 2021
Pudd'nhead Wilson proved itself much more serious, dark and tragic than anything I'd expect from Twain's writing, but all the better for it. In that sense, the book was a pleasant surprise. I was honestly very saddened and moved by this story. There is a detective element to this novel, but on overall this book seems to revolve around the topic of slavery. In that moment when Roxane (a white skinned slave) decides that it was better to kill her child and herself then to risk the horrible fate of being sold 'down the river' some day, I was reminded of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Roxana, however, opts out of that fate and that basically creates the plot of this novel. When Roxana decides to put on some fancy clothes on her and her baby before attempting suicide and murder, she realizes that there is another way to save her child- and that is by switching him with the master's child (both of them being infants of the same age and colour making it impossible for anyone but her to tell the difference). A cruel act, but Roxy pardons herself by the difficulty of her position and her maternal instincts. From that point on, there are quite a few twists and turns as well as a lot of brilliantly sarcastic social commentary.

Despite being written in recognizable Twain's style and filled with humour, this novel digs much deeper then any other work of Twain's I have read so far. Puddn'head Wilson reveals the true horror of slavery. For all its sarcasm and humour, this is a profoundly serious and sad novel. The plot as such was entertaining if somewhat predictable. I found it easy to predict the ending and I could see most of the plot unfold in advance. That being said, the events seemed logical enough and I still enjoyed seeing the story unfold. Some descriptions were a bit too sentimental for my liking, but I could see how they fit the story and Twain's style. What I enjoyed most about this book were two things: the successful character study and the insightful social commentary. Pudd'nhead Wilson was a well portrayed character and I greatly enjoyed his calendar 'writing' that served as a wonderful introduction to every chapter. I think this novel can serve as a warning against slavery. It is probably not up to today's standards in matters of racial discussion, but there is no doubt that it was progressive for its time. I do recommend this book.
Profile Image for Raymond.
338 reviews247 followers
July 8, 2017
I read this book in a Southern Literature class about 10 years ago. I remember liking the book very much it is short and was a book that I was unaware that Twain had written.
Profile Image for Jim.
Author 7 books2,028 followers
March 28, 2019
I read this as a teen, so probably 45 years ago. I thought I remembered fairly well. Nope! Oh, I remembered the main points, but it was almost like a new book & really worth reading. This is Twain's answer to nature versus nurture while satirizing race, religion, 'honor', & small town life. While the destination is wonderful, it's the trip that is best.

The story is so well known enough that there will be spoilers in this review.

Tom & Chambers are switched at birth by their nurse who had her baby the same day as her master's wife. She raises them both & doesn't want to see her son endure a life of slavery, so she swaps them since no one else can tell them apart. Tom is 'white' while Chambers is 1/32 black, thus is 'black' by the 'One Drop' rule & raised as a slave. (IIRC, this is about how much Indian blood Elizabeth Warren claimed.) The white child becomes a spoiled, cowardly, vicious despot while the black one becomes ignorant & servile, but good of heart & strong.

The other main character is David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson. He makes a joke when he first comes to town & it flies so high over the town folks' heads that they think he is serious, thus a pudd'nhead. It takes him 20 years (about 1830-50, the entire course of the novel) & one of his foibles (a hobby of collecting fingerprints) to reclaim his reputation despite the constant evidence of his character & intellect. He does so only through public spectacle.

The use of fingerprints as the crux of the story is long foreshadowed for us, but I'm not sure how obvious it was in 1893 when this was published. It wasn't until about 1860 that fingerprints were documented in our current civilization (Chinese used them in 300BC.) In 1892, an Argentinian cop first used them to nail a murder according to this quick history. I recommend reading it. Interesting.

One of the high points of the novel is each chapter beginning with an aphorism from Pudd'nhead Wilson's calendar, mimicking Poor Richard's. Many of Twain's best known come from this source.

The characters are well voiced by Norman Dietz. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for B. P. Rinehart.
747 reviews254 followers
June 11, 2016
"There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author, and
the three form a rising scale of compliment: 1—to tell him
you have read one of his books; 2—to tell him you have read
all of his books; 3—to ask him to let you read the
manuscript of his forthcoming book. No. 1 admits you to his
respect; No. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries
you clear into his heart.
" —Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man."
-Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

Nothing like some good ol' Mark Twain quotes.

This story is very short for a Twain novel and also very somber. It has his classic wittiness in it, but it is as its original title suggest, a tragedy. Mark Twain at this point had become as leftist as he would be in his career. He was deeply anti-imperialist (which made him a harsh critic of Presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt) and he was much more liberal on race than many in his day (despite serving in a Confederate militia for a few weeks, he would marry into an abolitionist family and would be outspoken in near-equal rights for African-Americans) and his experiences with Slavery in his youth (his father was a part-time slave trader) would haunt and guilt him for much of his life and present a sort of dual nature within him.

This book is set in Missouri (Mark Twain's home state) and makes great use of standard Twain motifs like the Steamboat, the Mississippi River, and smart-ass dialogue; it is extremely different in its seriousness and heart-breaking look at slavery. The institution is the real villain here because it implicitly and explicitly touches and destroys the lives of almost everyone involved in this story.

Also this book, I think, breaks barriers because the title character is a Scotsman and I can't think of any American title in which the big character is from the northern part of Great Britain. I also am very keen on how this novel reminds me of Leo Tolstoy's short stories and I don't know any other Mark Twain work-not even The Mysterious Stranger-to use so many tropes from the realist genre and it makes me wonder if Twain was aware of it since he is much strongly influenced by the more popular Victorian style that dominated the Anglo-sphere and is what he primarily worked out of.

In the end this novella, partly inspired by a Black woman who lived on as neighbor to one of his in-laws, is to me a more serious,somber look at slavery than "Huck Finn" and anyone who wanted a substitute to that book ought to take a look at this one.

"Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."
-Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

"APRIL 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four."
-Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

"October. This is one of the particularly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."
-Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

P.S.: Each chapter begins with one or two sayings from Dave "Pudd'nhead" Wilson's Almanac/Calendar. They are all hilarious.
Profile Image for Joe.
178 reviews93 followers
September 30, 2020
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a brisk concoction; mixing adventure, mystery, and social commentary. Mark Twain trains his wit upon the arbitrary nature of 19th-century slave laws and rightfully skewers that wicked institution. But even as Twain's righteous humor often finds the mark, he nearly as often proves his naivete, as when he appears to condone another brutish custom; 'honorable' duels to the death.

Elsewhere, Twain cleverly explains the forensic power of fingerprints (before they were commonly used in criminal investigation) but also ascribes scientific power to the flimflammery of palmistry. Even the title feels odd; the nominal Mr. Wilson isn't the main character. He's an educated man who solves the mystery during the denouement, but he doesn't get that much page-time and doesn't drive the action. This novel would be more appropriately titled; Whiny Villain Tom Driskoll.

But this is still an entertaining read; there's no shortage of drama or action (though the numerous turns of fate often feel arbitrary.) And the courtroom climax makes for a smashing conclusion.

Edited 9/30/2020
Profile Image for Monica.
592 reviews622 followers
April 27, 2018
Amusing and cautionary tale of deception which doubles as a fable on the evils of slavery. This is perhaps one of the first novels that outlines "white privilege". Written in the late 1800s, this novel is way ahead of its time. Twain was able to see the viability of fingerprints as a form of evidence long before it was adopted in real life. That ability to understand the long term impact of science in ways that change world views is extraordinary. The book is not without it's pitfalls. Slavery is painted in a genteel light. Rape and torture appear in the novel as bravado, actual pride and bullying. Gross abuse of power and position are seen as minor items, boys will be boys or a mean streak. Also, the actual experience of the "real" Tom Driscoll is glossed over and presented sparsely. Roxana is the only slave voice presented and she was freed at an early age from "benevolent" masters. A visually imperceptibly negro (1/16 negro) woman who demonstrates well above average intelligence. I will give Twain credit for writing an intelligent female character, but no credit for writing an intelligent negro character. Overall a very interesting book. The novel touches on some truly important themes that are still prevalent today. A worthy read.
Profile Image for P.V. LeForge.
Author 26 books7 followers
September 27, 2012
Although I enjoyed reading Pudd’nhead Wilson, I enjoyed it more because Twain is generally enjoyable rather than because of anything remarkable about the book. In fact, I found the book to be more than a bit ragged. Hindsight is always easy, I know, but the knowledge of how the book came to be written and published points out the book’s flaws in a way that is hard to ignore.

The book was to have been called “Those Extraordinary Twins,” and was to have been a farcical love story between a lightweight heroine named Rowena and one half of a pair of Siamese twins. An interesting idea and one that would not only have leant itself to many humorous opportunities but one that was staple Twain fare at the time. Twain was, after all, known as a humorist; he even called himself a “jackleg” novelist rather than a literary or serious one.

In 1893, Twain had already written all of his best works of long fiction. Although a famous man by that time, he had made several bad investments and, refusing to take advantage of bankruptcy laws, assumed a $100,000.00 debt. Although a world tour helped, the expenses of this tour were in themselves hefty, so it was necessary to sell something quickly. “Those Extraordinary Twins,” which he had begun several years earlier, was the thing closest at hand. Unfortunately, over the years, other characters had crept into his story and had literally taken it over. At the end of the new version, his original characters had become insignificant. He ended up taking out the entire original story of the twins, cut them apart to make them two whole men, and came away with the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. Unfortunately, in his haste to publish and his creative time consumed with financial matters, Twain didn’t do as good a job of revising the manuscript and smoothing out the story as he could have. Several references to Luigi and Angelo as “freaks” were left in, both subtle and overt. Also left in is a scene where Luigi kicks Tom Driscoll over a bank of floodlights. Not only is the reason for Luigi’s anger unfathomable, but the idea of such a kick is improbable.

Does these omissions half-revisons ruin the book? Well, partly. The relationship between Tom Driscoll and Rowena is only hinted at, as if Twain did not want to take the responsibility of actually bringing that pair together, knowing what was to happen to Tom later. It is an unfortunate omission because it would have been interesting to see how he would have handled it.

Four characters stand out in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Tom Driscoll is hateful almost from the moment of his birth and remains so. Wilson, called Puddn’head, is seems genuine and stable, although the reputation he has with the town is not as believable as it might be. He is obviously a smart man and well spoken. Judge Driscoll, the third important character, changes almost in mid-step. His feeling of warmth and friendship for the twins turns to disgust on only the word of his nephew, who has never shown the slightest tendency toward telling the truth or doing the right thing. Roxana, probably the strongest character in the book, changes as well. She is shown as a likeable young woman early in the book, yet becomes hard and deceitful, supporting Tom’s burglary activities. Of course, her baby was switched at birth with another. Did this harden her? Perhaps, but I would have liked to see it come out more gradually.

It is also disturbing that Twain seems to leave unchallenged Roxy’s assertion that having even a drop of black blood makes a person bad. Even if she had not said it, the example of Tom and Chambers would have made the same statement. And, of course, Roxy had her own streak of evil. Twain never mentioned what Roxy thought when she heard that it was her son that killed the judge. Would she have supported him in that, too, even though she wanted the twins executed for the deed when she thought that they were guilty? Another omission.

All in all, this book should be read by Twain aficionados only, and only as an example of what might have been.

Profile Image for Amanda NEVER MANDY.
454 reviews98 followers
July 27, 2016
The transparent plot earned this read a three star rating. The author’s voice was very unique and distinct but the story itself was so-so. It had a missing piece feel to it like it was part of a continuous storyline and I happened to snag book three. The only memorable part for me was how the character obtained his childishly silly nickname. You know I walked around for at least three days calling everyone in my house a Pudd’nhead.
Profile Image for SheAintGotNoShoes.
1,610 reviews1 follower
May 23, 2019
Glad that is over !
I did not like this book much.
The idea of the infant switching was a good one, but then it got too convoluted and became a chore to continue reading.
The excessive use of the slave dialect was maddening and tiresome and this most certainly is not my favorite work by Twain at all.
Profile Image for Elena.
130 reviews40 followers
March 11, 2018
Very uneven read for me. Contemplated abandoning the book two or there times but at the trial time of the plot picked up myself and ended up enjoying the book, especially after it ended - reading the author's notes about the evolution (metamorphosis even) of the story itself.
Profile Image for John Warner.
753 reviews23 followers
January 16, 2020
Pudd'nhead Wilson received his nickname because many townspeople considered him a fool. Although Pudd'nhead is not the protagonist, he plays an integral part to the story. I guess a subtitle could be, "How He Got His Name Back."

Mark Twain's tale involves a slave, 1/16th black, impregnated by the slave owner, Judge Driscoll. She gives birth to twins, now 1/32nd black, one to become the heir to the estate while the other to remain a slave. The mother switches the two at birth; therefore, the fate of the two are reversed. As the heir, Tom Driscoll grows to manhood, he engages in profligate living resulting in significant gambling debts. His outlook on life is worsened when his mother appears and reveals that Tom is actually black. Despondent, he disguising himself as a woman breaking into wealthy homes to address his gambling debts. However, matters only become worse.

Much of this book satirizes racism since the mother and twins essentially appear white. Another theme involves nature versus nurture or "clothes make the man."

One of the reasons that Pudd'nhead receives his nickname is that he has a hobby of collecting fingerprints, which plays an important part in the climax of the book. Since this book was published in 1893, it is worthy to note that fingerprinting as a forensic tool had only been introduced a year earlier by Inspector Eduardo Alvarez in Argentina and Mark Twain incorporated it into the plot of this book.

A lesser known book of Mark Twain I was glad I read.

Profile Image for Camie.
899 reviews186 followers
January 28, 2020
This is Mark Twain’s darkest novel about a master and slave switched at birth. When Roxy a “ light skinned” slave swaps her son Chambers with the master’s son Tom ( Twain’s favorite male character name) they grow up in completely different lifestyles, as you might expect. When one of them commits a brutal crime the eccentric town lawyer Puddin’ Head Wilson himself is called in to figure it out. Luckily he has previously fingerprinted all of the townspeople as an odd hobby he happened upon and manages to set things straight.
Back in the day this was published as a periodical in the newspaper. As with many circa 1890 reads I’m not sure Twain’s humorous satirical fable about race and identity translates all that well to today.
Read for On The Southern Literary Trail - 3 stars
Profile Image for Kevin Lake.
49 reviews10 followers
July 18, 2012
Found myself laughing out loud as I read this one. Mark Twain's style of implementing his dry, cynical wit into his writings was magnificent. If you happen to pick up the version with the forward by T.S. Elliot, skip the forward. All he does is talk of why Twain sucked as well as all other American authors except his beloved Henry James. The book is hilarious and has some great, down home wisdom in it.
Profile Image for Tom Mathews.
662 reviews
January 31, 2020
This entertaining American version of H.M.S Pinafore is a good book that suffers greatly from having to exist in the shadow of its more adventurous siblings, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Like its English cousin, it uses the old switched-in-the-cradle plot device to explore the subject of class divides, in this case racial. Sadly it also reveals a good deal about what Mark Twain himself thought about the subject which, despite his commendably progressive attitudes, still reflects an acceptance in physiological differences between races that have since been discredited.

Bottom line: This is not a perfect story so I can’t give it five stars but it is entertaining and it was also written by Mark Twain, who is one of the few writers whose shopping lists I would happily read. I definitely recommend this book.
Profile Image for Elizabeth .
1,012 reviews
March 18, 2015
I found this book utterly fascinating. I had no idea what this book was about until I delved into it and I was completely absorbed from page one.

This book deals with prejudice in just about every area that you can think of: intellect, race, gender, social class and there was even some xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

This is a wonderful book for discussion!

Profile Image for David Sarkies.
1,785 reviews307 followers
April 28, 2016
The Show Trial
21 January 2013

I had never heard of this story until I purchased a Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain) book that contained it with two of the stories of his (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) that I wanted to read (and it also contained the Prince and the Pauper). In a way this story is very similar, but very different, to Prince and the Pauper. The similarities involve two boys that take each other's place, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. This story is set in the United States and the two boys are switched at birth, not by accident, but deliberately. Further, the story only focuses on one of the boys, since the switch involved a pure white baby and a baby that was 1/32 part Negro, but because of that really minor part that was Negro, he was still considered a Negro.

The character whom the title is named after, David Wilson, really takes a back seat for most of the story, and only comes to the fore in the last few chapters when he is finally given the chance to prove his worth. Basically Pudd'nhead is a lawyer that moves out to a small town south of St Louis and on his first day makes a stupid comment and is then cursed with the name Pudd'nhead, which basically means stupid. Pudd'nhead is more eccentric than stupid, and one of the things that makes him eccentric, his collection of fingerprints, is what ends up turning him around and making him a hero.

Some have said that this story is a courtroom drama, but most of the comments that I have read about it have suggested that it is not. While there is a courtroom scene, it only makes up a small part of the story, though much of the story builds up to this scene. In a courtroom drama the murder is usually commented near the beginning, or even before the story begins. However the murder in this story does not occur until near the end, and while it is clear why the murder was committed (money and unpaid gambling debts) it is more like an anti-climax.

The thing that impressed me the most about this story though was that forensic fingerprinting played a very major role in an era before fingerprinting was actually accepted as evidence in court. However remember, this is a small town in rural America, and as such courtroom scenes become more like some sort of show (as is indicated in this book) than some really serious matter as one would expect in the city. Remember, everybody knows everybody else, including the judge, and it is basically the person that performs the best show that wins the trial.

However, that is still very much the case today. Trials are less to do with actually finding the truth and more to do with who tells the more believable story, and who the judge prefers to believe. In my time in personal injury litigation there are always stories about soft judges and hard judges. This is basically determined by who likes plaintiffs and who hates plaintiffs, and even then, their word is never final. When somebody else ends up paying the court fees, the ability of plaintiffs to actually prosecute their case increases.
Profile Image for Dusty.
774 reviews184 followers
August 23, 2012
Mark Twain wrote this novel when he was pretty old, pretty crabby, and living in Europe to avoid creditors and the other people who made him feel old and crabby. Really, it's a simple story: A light-skinned slave woman swaps her baby with her master's baby, hoping to ensure the former a happier life without the risk of being "sold down the river," and the rest of the book builds suspense for the "big moment" when true identities are revealed.

I've read a few reviews that allege that Pudd'nhead Wilson is a book against slavery, but this isn't quite accurate, as the Civil War had made slavery effectively illegal a quarter century before it was published. Instead, Twain writes a book to counter "scientific" claims made in the late nineteenth century in support of (white) racial superiority. Slavery is over, he argues, but people who believe nature (one's heritage) has a larger impact than nurture (the social conditions into which one is born) are essentially slave-holders in their modern reincarnations. On one hand, I'd like to fault Twain for writing a book ostensibly about being black in the United States without including a single character whose skin is noticeably dark. But on the other hand, it's a treat how he points out real and artificial differences between white skins. There is, after all, less difference in color between "white" master and "black" slave than there is between the Italian twins who move into town, who are able to be distinguished only because one is slightly "darker" than the other.

Twain stages his conclusion in a courtroom, where poor Pudd'nhead Wilson finally has the chance to practice the law he studied oh-so-many years ago. For those of us who're accustomed to (and extremely tired of) the courtroom formula that plays out every week in Law and Order and a dozen other TV series, I think this is a bit of a let-down after what is otherwise an imaginative and caustic romp. However, I can't deny that that "big moment," when it finally happens, is written masterfully. Four stars.
Profile Image for David.
602 reviews128 followers
April 30, 2020
Mark Twain's fiction has always left me feeling conflicted, and this has not improved with age. His incredible insights into human behavior, and his ability to dissect the (dys)functions of small town society, still pack a punch. He was a talented humorist and pithy philosopher. His portrayal of rural Black folk, on the other hand, has become more noxious with time. It's simply not possible to pass off these usually undignified, vulgar, shifty portrayals as "character studies". It's pretty clear that he thought "coloreds" - slave or free - were worthy of better treatment than they were receiving at the time, sure, but also not remotely the equals of White Americans or Europeans.

This is a great yarn well told. The plot is interesting and the pacing excellent. The entries from Pudd'nhead Wilson's almanac are marvelous. What a shame it's shot through with racist sentiments.
Profile Image for Emma.
66 reviews
November 29, 2020
Mark Twain is a very interesting author...an author I usually always enjoy. Not to say I didn't enjoy this book at all, it was just...different. I never really fully grasped the whole plot or purpose of the story. And then it ended and left me very perplexed. I did laugh many times throughout it and enjoyed some of the characters, but this is one I probably won't pick up again.
Profile Image for Yibbie.
1,091 reviews43 followers
May 12, 2016
I liked this one much better than the last Twain work I read, but then I rather like the tongue in cheek type of humor. Twain is certainly a master there.
I shelved it as a mystery even though you, as the reader, are never mystified; instead it's a mystery to the characters. It done well enough. The only week point was Wilson's refusal to consider Tom as a suspect. It made for a more dramatic ending, but seems far fetched.
There is a lot of social commentary woven in. It doesn't take much to figure out where Twain stood on the most prominent issue. Because it was written about slavery and the effects it had on all parties, there are numerous words that today are considered offensive.
I don't know for sure (I haven't read many of his works), but it seems that he favors situational ethics. This time it was actually rather convicting. Does our 'religion' wear off and let us do what ever we want, or does is change us through and through?
Profile Image for WJEP.
241 reviews14 followers
April 28, 2023
Roxy knows her boy Chambers is the "de lowdownest orneriest hound dat was ever pup'd into dis worl.'" Likewise, Judge Driscoll has torn his will to shreds many times, disinheriting his nephew Tom on account of degenerate behavior. But parental instinct keeps reviving these curs. Both bad-seeds are involved in a variety of crimes: breaking & entering, assault & battery, human trafficking (down de river), homicide, and most importantly identity theft.

The town fool is on the case. Wilson got his nickname from the townsfolk misunderstanding his sarcastic quips and pet fads. One of Wilson's fads, fingerprinting, turns out to provide key forensic evidence.

In the Author's Note at the end, Twain confesses to not having the novel-writing gift. He explains how this story "changed itself from a farce to a tragedy while I was going along with it--a most embarrassing circumstance." It seems to me to be equal parts tragedy and comedy, a seminal work of black humor.
10 reviews
September 30, 2022
surprisingly hilarious. Twain gets my humor I suppose cause I rotfl. also very deep, nice societal message and Wilson is an icon 🙌
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