Monday, April 23, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“PUDD’NHEAD WILSON” by “Mark Twain” (first published 1894)

A book, about two young people growing up at the same time, that purports to deal with the intimate interaction of different races? This puts me in mind of a book from over a century ago that really does deal with such interaction.

There’s always a danger when I recommend “Something Old” on this blog that I appear to be giving that “Something Old” unmitigated praise. Not so. As you’ll know by now, I’m as interested in things that show the attitudes of the age in which they were written, as I am in things of great literary merit.

This week’s “Something Old” has real literary merit, but it is definitely no masterpiece. Pudd’nhead Wilson, a short novel or long novella, was written late in Mark Twain’s career and some time after Tom Sawyer (1876), Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur (1889), the three books for which Twain (1835-1910) is still best known. All the biographies I’ve consulted also tell me that Pudd’nhead Wilson was written in haste when Twain had debts to pay off. It shows. The texture of the story is lumpy and uncertain, often veering off the point, hastily wrapping up some episodes and lingering too long over others. But there’s still real gold here.

In its framework, it’s a simple satire on the way communities can completely misjudge people.

In one of Twain’s favourite settings, a small antebellum Missouri town (here called Dawson’s Landing) on the Mississippi River, a young lawyer called David Wilson arrives in about 1830. Because he makes an ironical joke which the local yokels don’t get, they imagine he’s a simpleton. They nick-name him Pudd’nhead. This local reputation means he gets very little legal work. The arc of the story has Pudd’nhead eventually (and triumphantly) vindicated. This arc involves a duel, a murder and finally a court-room scene where finger-prints are produced to uncover the murderer – a concept which would probably have been new and exciting still at the time the story was written. The story also includes a pair of aristocratic Italian twins, who excite curiosity in the small Missouri community. Until the last couple of chapters, the twins are very badly integrated into the story. I am not surprised to discover that Twain originally intended to make them his focal point, but he changed his mind as he got more interested in other aspects of his own story. Great creative writers sometimes work that way.

Considered in terms of its structure, Pudd’nhead Wilson is rambling and undisciplined, despite its brevity. Sometimes Twain seems to have included things simply because he couldn’t resist a joke, as in his riotous account of an anti-temperance meeting.

So this is a story poking fun at small-town prejudice. As things turn out, it’s not Pudd’nhead who’s the pudd’nhead, but the community.

But as you read this odd and lop-sided short novel, it is in fact another pair of characters who really hold your attention and make the book the interesting read that it is.

On the same day that David Wilson arrives in town, two boys are born. One is the son of the slave-owner Driscoll, and one is the son of Driscoll’s nurse-maid, the slave Roxy (Roxana). Roxy is “high-yeller” – a woman of such fair complexion that she could “pass” for white. Her baby is even fairer than she is. Mistreated by her master, and threatened with the dread punishment of being “sold down the river”, she reflects on the unfairness of fate that has made her son a slave while the master’s son will grow to a life of privilege. So she swaps the two boys in their cradles. Her biological son Tom grows up to a life of privilege. Driscoll’s biological son Chambers grows up to a life of slavery. Only she knows which boy is really which because (as the novel’s silences ironically imply) wealthy white Southern parents were so ready to pass over child-rearing duties to their slaves that they hardly bothered to look closely at their own infant offspring.

This book will not be taught in high-schools any time soon. The word “nigger” appears even more frequently than it does in Huckleberry Finn. Perhaps more distressing, the loquacious Roxy’s dialogue is in dialect. She speaks thus while switching the babies:-

             You’s young Marse Tom fum dis out, en I got to practise and git used to ‘memberin’ to call you dat honey, or I’s gwine to make a mistake some time en git us bof in trouble. Dah – now you lay still en don’t fret no mo’, Marse Tom – oh thank de good Lord in heaven, you’s saved, you’s saved! – dey ain’t no man kin ever sell mammy’s po’ little honey down de river now!

There are pages and pages written that way. For me this creates a fruitful ambiguity. Mark Twain was a Southerner and would certainly have heard black people speaking for much of his life. There’s the strong possibility that Roxy’s dialogue does actually reflect authentic speech. But to our ears it immediately has overtones of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, Jim Crow humour, Amos ‘n Andy etc. It seems as demeaning a convention as theatrical blackface, whatever its documentary basis. We think of those controversies that lasted right up to the time William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner. What right has a white writer to represent the speech and thoughts of black characters?

If there is fruitful ambiguity in the dialogue, there is even more fruitful ambiguity in the story itself. Roxy is far and away the most interesting character in the story, and certainly the most resourceful. Her interplay with her biological son Tom is what gives the novel interest. She comes to have life-and-death power over the spoilt young man who has grown up white. She tells him, when he is old enough to understand, that she can expose his true parentage and reduce him to slavery at any time. A moment’s reflection tells us that this life-and-death power is the one that slave-owners had over slaves as a matter of course. Roxy simply replicates in her behaviour what the (white) rulers of her society have taught her.

The whole situation that Twain sets up ridicules the concept of separation and classification by race. After all, the two boys are indistinguishable. If one can grow to adulthood mistaken for the other, then why should they be treated differently anyway? Isn’t racism patently nonsense?  In this sense Pudd’nhead Wilson is a powerful attack on the institution of slavery.

Yet at the same time, and as a Southerner, part of Twain buys into the very mythology of race that his rational mind is rejecting. When Roxy’s biological son turns out to be a sneak and a thief, Roxy gives him a lecture saying that even though he is 31 parts white [i.e. he would be classified as black on the basis of one black great-great-great grandparent], nevertheless his evil soul must be “nigger”. I have the feeling that Twain partly agreed with this. A drop of black blood morally “spoils” a young white man.

Or maybe not.

The novel’s punch-line is devastating and Twain’s conclusion suggests that upbringing does more to shape character than race or biology – nurture rather than nature. It is also intriguing to find Twain tacitly admitting (as in the two boys’ ancestry) that slave-owners routinely used their female slaves for their sexual pleasure. This is something that the “chivalrous” myth of the Old South would rarely have admitted at the time Twain was writing, although since Twain’s time, detailed sociological studies have considered this aspect of slavery in the antebellum South.

I have come to Pudd’nhead Wilson only recently. I know that Twain wrote it, like Huckleberry Finn, well after the American Civil War had been fought and slavery had been abolished. In one sense he is looking back on his own past (the whole story takes place in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, when Twain would have been a child and young man) and there is an odd note of regret to it even as he fires off his social criticisms. The tone is often urbane and ironical, far removed from the rough cracker-barrel frontier humour with which, fairly or unfairly, Twain is sometimes identified.

A literary curiosity then, and one whose ambiguities outweigh its defects.

Interesting footnote – Look up the Pudd’nhead Wilson Homepage [created by the University of Virginia] and among much else you will find an interesting collection of reviews of this novel which came out when it was first published. My, how some of those old Southern reviewers hated what Twain was saying!

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