Commentary Magazine


Mark Twain's Neglected Classic:
The Moral Astringency of "Pudd'nhead Wilson"

“Pudd’nhead Wilson” is not faultless—no book of Mark Twain’s is that—but it is all the same the masterly work of a great writer. Yet it is very little known. One cannot easily find anyone, English or American, who has read it (at least that is my experience), and it would seem never at any time to have had the beginnings of the recognition that is its due. Its reputation—if it may be said to have a reputation—would not encourage a strenuous search for a copy of the book, unless in an admirer of Huckleberry Finn who was curious to look over one of the author’s ephemeral productions, one that also dealt in its way with life in Hannibal, Missouri, the village of Mark Twain’s childhood.

The explanation, I think, is partly that Pudd’nhead Wilson is so very unlike Huckleberry Finn. But it is also, I think, that the nature of the greatness of Huckleberry Finn itself tends not to foe fully recognized. There are, then, two reasons for hoping that Pudd’nhead Wilson may come to be appreciated as it deserves: it is a classic in its own right (if an unrecognized classic may be said to be one); and, further, for all the unlikeness, it bears a very close relation to Huckleberry Finn; a relation of such a kind that to appreciate the lesser work is to have a surer perception of the greatness of the greater.

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Huckleberry Finn, by general agreement Mark Twain’s greatest work, is supremely the American classic, and it is one of the great books of the world. The significance of such a work doesn’t admit of exhaustive recognition in a simple formula, or in several. Mark Twain himself was no simple being, and the complexity of his make-up was ordinarily manifested in strains, disharmonies, and tormenting failures of integration and self-knowledge. These, in his supreme masterpiece, can foe seen to provide the creative drive. There is of course the aspect of return to boyhood, but the relation to complexity and strain represented by Huckleberry Finn is not one of escape from them—in spite of the qualities that have established the book as a classic for children (and in spite of Mark Twain’s conviction, at times, that its appeal should be as such). It is true that the whole is given through Huck, the embodiment of that Western vernacular, or of the style created out of that, in which the book is written. But that style, perfectly as it renders the illiterate Huck, has been created by a highly sophisticated art to serve subtle purposes, and Huck himself is of course not merely the naive boyish consciousness he so successful enacts; he is, by one of those triumphant sleights or equivocations which cannot be judiciously contrived, but are proof of inspired creative possession, the voice of deeply reflective maturity—of a life’s experience brooded on by an earnest spirit and a fine intelligence. If Mark Twain lacked art in Arnold Bennett’s sense (as Arnold Bennett pointed out), that only shows how little art in Arnold Bennett’s sense matters, in comparison with art that is the answer of creative genius to the pressure of a profoundly felt and complex experience. If Huckleberry Finn has its examples of the unintelligence that may accompany the absence of sustained critical consciousness in an artist, even a great one, nevertheless the essential intelligence that prevails, and from the poetic depths informs the work, compels our recognition—the intelligence of the whole engaged psyche; the intelligence that represents the integrity of this, and brings to bear the wholeness.

For in his supreme creation the complex and troubled Mark Twain did achieve a wholeness; it is manifested in the nature of the creative triumph. The charged significance of Huckleberry Finn brings together a strength of naivety and a strength of mature reflective wisdom. Let me quote, with immediate relevance, Mr. Bernard De Voto, most penetrating of the commentators on Mark Twain I am acquainted with: “. . . fundamentally Huck is an expression—a magnificent expression, a unique expression—of the folk mind. The folk mind, that is, in mid-America in the period of the frontier and immediately following, the folk mind shaped for use by the tremendous realities of conquering a hostile wilderness and yet shadowed by the unseen world. He is one of the highest reaches of American fiction.

But if Huck expresses the folk mind, he is also Mark Twain’s surrogate, he is charged with transmitting what that dark, sensitive, and complex consciousness felt about America and the human race. . . . Mark Twain was not a systematic thinker. Customarily, like the creature of fable who was his brother Orion, he held in succession all possible opinions about every subject he tried to analyze, held none of them long, and was able to drive none very deep beneath the surface. Especially as a metaphysician he was as feeble a novice as ever ventured into that stormy sea. But in what he perceived, in what he felt, in the nerve-ends of emotion, in the mysterious ferments of art which transform experience, he was a great mind—there has been no greater in American literature. Be it said once more and ever so wearily: insufficiencies and mental defects prevented him from ever completely implementing the artist throughout the whole course of a book. That does not matter—in Huckleberry Finn we get the finest expression of a great artist, the fullest report on what life meant to him.”1

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When Mr. De Voto speaks of the “folk mind” in Huckleberry Finn he is making a plainly valid observation; an observation duly offset, as the quoted passage shows, by the recognition of quite other aspects of the book. But insistence on the “folk” element sometimes goes with an attempt to make Huckleberry Finn American in a sense that would make it an immeasurably lesser thing than the great work it is. Mr. Van Wyck Brooks, in The Times of Melville and Whitman, writes: “He was the frontier storyteller, the great folk writer of the American West, and raised to a pitch unparalleled before him the art of oral story-telling and then succeeded in transferring its effects to paper.” Such an account (and there is a formidable representative intention behind it) serves as a license for insisting on the force of the reply—the obvious and unanswerable reply: Mark Twain was something very much more than a folk-writer, and the art of Huckleberry Finn is no mere matter of managing effects—suspense, surprise, climax, and so on. One cannot intelligently discuss the art without discussing the complex and reverse of naive outlook it conveys. Mr. Brooks, recognizing, as any reader must, an insistent moral preoccupation in the theme, quotes Paine, Mark Twain’s biographer: “. . . the author makes Huck’s struggle a psychological one between conscience and the law on one side, and sympathy on the other.” But there is more to the moral theme of Huckleberry Finn than that suggests. What the book conveys is the drama in a mind in which conscience finds that it is not single, and that the “law” doesn’t speak with one voice, and that what Paine calls “sympathy” itself engages a moral imperative. In fact, Huckleberry Finn has as a central theme the complexity of ethical valuation in a society with a complex tradition—a description that applies (for instance) to any “Christian” society.

The book is a profound study of civilized man. And about its attitude towards civilization as represented by the society depicted in it there is nothing simple or simplifying, either in a “frontier” spirit or in a spirit of reductive pessimism. It is not to the point to adduce such private utterances of Mark Twain’s as: “We have no real morals, but only artificial ones—morals created and preserved by the forced suppression of natural and healthy instinct.” “Never trust the artist; trust the tale”: Lawrence’s dictum might have been addressed to Mark Twain’s case. Huckleberry Finn, the tale, gives us a wholeness of attitude that transcends anything ordinarily attainable by the author. The liberation effected by the memories of youth and the Mississippi was, for the creative genius at his greatest, not into irresponsibility but the reverse. The imaginatively recovered vitality of youth ministered, in sum, no more to the spirit of “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar”2 than to nostalgia or daydream, but to the attainment of a sure and profound moral maturity. That is, to call Huckleberry Finn a great work is not. an exaggeration.

I insist in this way because of a tendency in America (and transatlantic fashions regarding American literature tend to be taken over uncritically in England) to suggest that the beginnings of the truly American in literary tradition come from the frontier and the West. According to this view Mark Twain is a more truly American writer than Hawthorne or Henry James. It is a view that, in offering to exalt him, actually denies his greatness, for it makes the attributed advantage in Americanness a matter of his being alienated from English and European tradition as Hawthorne and James are not. Such an alienation could only be an impoverishment: no serious attempt has been made to show that any sequel to disinheritance could replace the heritage lost. Mark Twain is indeed “frontier” and Western, but in being greatly American he bears as close and essential a relation to England and Europe as that which we recognize in Hawthorne or in James (in some ways he strikes an English reader as being less foreign, less positively un-English, than either of them). The Americanness of alienation may be represented by Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway: the author of Huckleberry Finn, when we think of those writers, seems to belong to another world. Nor as we read the book are we prompted to reflect that he is a fellow countryman of Walt Whitman.

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It is not my business here to enforce these observations in a detailed analysis of Huckleberry Finn, but, with them in view, to suggest how that book is related to Pudd’nhead Wilson, which, different as it is (it makes no show of frontier naivety, but belongs frankly to sophisticated literary tradition), is nevertheless unmistakably by the same hand, develops the same preoccupations and expresses the same moral outlook. With the oral tradition of story-telling, the potent element of recovered boyhood that has so recommended Huckleberry Finn is absent too. But the Mississippi is there in Pudd’nhead Wilson, and its evoked presence occasions a significant expansion:

The hamlet’s front was washed by the clear waters of the great river; its body stretched itself rearward up a gentle incline; its most rearward border fringed itself out and scattered its houses about the base-line of the hills; the hills rose high, inclosing the town in a half-moon curve clothed with forests from foot to summit.

Steamboats passed up and down every hour or so. Those belonging to the little Cairo line and the little Memphis line always stopped; the big Orleans liners stopped for hails only, or to land passengers or freight; and this was the case also with the great flotilla of ‘transients.’ These latter came out of a dozen rivers—the Illinois, the Missouri, the Upper Mississippi, the Ohio, the Monongahela, the Tennessee, the Red River, the White River, and so on; and were bound every whither and stocked with every imaginable comfort or necessity which the Mississippi’s communities could want. . . .

Here, quite plainly, speaks a proud imaginative delight in the memory of the great river; the great river as Mark Twain had known it in boyhood and in his piloting days; and in the memory, or vision, we feel the sense of freedom, beauty, and majesty that informs Huckleberry Finn; but there is something further: the passage unmistakably conveys the sense, sanguine and exalted, of an expanding and ripening civilization.

Mark Twain, we are told, was brought up in a frontier society. “Think,” it has been written, “of the squalor of those villages, their moral and material squalor, their dim and bounded horizon, their petty taboos: repression at one extreme, eruption at the other, and shiftlessness for a golden mean.” But what Pudd’nhead Wilson should make us recognize is that “frontier” is an insidious term. It suggests cultural deprivation and loss—a dropping of the heritage in the battle with pioneer hardship. And no doubt it could be argued that the account just quoted fairly describes Dawson’s Landing; or that so we should have agreed if we had had to live there. But as a matter of fact this is not the tone, this is not how the stress falls, in Pudd’nhead Wilson. After the evocation of the river we read:

The town was sleepy and comfortable and contented. It was fifty years old, and was growing slowly—very slowly in fact, but still it was growing.

It may have been sleepy, but what Mark Twain conveys with great power is an effect quite other than one of rawness and squalor:

In 1830 it was a snug little collection of modest one- and two-storey frame dwellings whose white-washed exteriors were almost concealed from sight by climbing tangles of rose-vines, honeysuckles, and morning-glories. Each of these pretty homes had a garden in front, fenced with white palings and opulently stocked with hollyhocks, marigolds, touch-me-nots, prince’s feathers and other old-fashioned flowers; while on the window-sills of the houses stood wooden boxes containing moss-rose plants and terra-cotta pots in which grew a breed of geraniums whose spread of intensely red blossoms accented the prevailing pink tint of the rose-clad house-front like an explosion of flame. When there was room on the ledge outside of the pots and boxes for a cat, the cat was there—in sunny weather—stretched at full length, asleep and blissful, with her furry belly to the sun and a paw curved over her nose. Then that house was complete, and its contentment and peace were made manifest to the world by this symbol, whose testimony is infallible. 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?

All along the streets, on both sides, at the outer edge of the brick sidewalks, stood locust-trees with trunks protected by wooden boxing, and these furnished shade for summer and a sweet fragrance in spring when the clusters of buds came forth.

The comfort, well-being, and amenity evoked here have more than a material significance; they are the outward signs of an inward grace. Provincial as Dawson’s Landing may be, it represents a society that has kept its full heritage of civilization. True, it is provincial, and Wilson’s fate—the “Pudd’nhead” and the long failure to make way against that estimate—figures for us its attitude towards originality of mind. Moreover an English reader gets what are for him (the human world presented being so essentially unforeign) startling glimpses of mob lawlessness as an accepted social institution. Yet the effect of the opening description of Dawson’s Landing remains: this is a civilized community—one qualified to have exacted a very much more favorable report than any brought back by Martin Chuzzlewit.

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And further, it is not unaware of its provinciality, and is far from having lost the desire to keep in touch with the remoter centers of its civilization and with its past. This comes out notably in its reception of the twins, the presentment of which illustrates the complex poise of Mark Twain’s attitude. The comedy of the reception is not satiric. Dawson’s Landing displays, not merely its crudenesses and limitations, but also a touching positive humility, a will to pay homage to something other than provinciality and philistinism and the standards of everyday life. The exhibition of democratic mæurs at Aunt Patsy’s is finely and subtly done, and quite clear in its significance. These democrats, without being in the least inclined to go back on their democracy, respond imaginatively to their traditional memories and to the sense of ideal values belonging to a richer life that is now remote from them. It is an utterly different thing from snobbery, and, as Mark Twain presents it, something that the social crudity of the occasion sets off as the reverse of trivial or crude:

None of these visitors was at ease, but, being honest people, they didn’t pretend to be. None of them had ever seen a person bearing a title of nobility before, and none had been expecting to see one now, consequently the title came upon them as a kind of pile-driving surprise, and caught them unprepared. A few tried to rise to the emergency, and got out an awkward ‘My lord,’ or Tour lordship,’ or something of that sort, but the great majority were overwhelmed by the unaccustomed word and its dim and awful associations with gilded courts and stately ceremony and anointed kingship, so they only fumbled through the handshake and passed on, speechless.

Then, significantly, this homage to a glimpsed ideal superiority is followed by the homage to art:

Here a prodigious slam-banging broke out below, and everybody rushed down to see. It was the twins knocking out a classic four-handed piece on the piano in great style. Rowena was satisfied—satisfied down to the bottom of her heart.

The young strangers were kept long at the piano. The villagers were astonished and enchanted with the magnificence of their performance, and could not bear to have them stop. All the music that they had ever heard be-fore seemed spiritless prentice-work and barren of grace or charm when compared with these intoxicating floods of melodious sound. They realized that for once in their lives they were hearing masters.

The poise is beautifully maintained; those first two sentences serve only to enforce the serious and profound significance of the last, the closing one of the chapter.

In its whole attitude towards distinction that appeals to standards other than the “democratic,” Dawson’s Landing represents a subtler civilization than accounts of “the pioneer community” might suggest. Consider, for instance, the special license accorded Judge Driscoll in an environment that doesn’t encourage moral independence or free play of mind. “Judge Driscoll,” says Mark Twain, “could be a freethinker and still hold his place in society because he was the person of most consequence in the community, and therefore could go on his own way and follow out his own notions.” But York Leicester Driscoll isn’t represented as having achieved his leading place by preeminence in the qualities that one would have expected to tell most among pioneering democrats. We are told of him:

He was very proud of his old Virginian ancestry, and in his hospitalities and his rather formal and stately manners he kept up the tradition. He was fine and just and generous. To be a gentleman—a gentleman without stain or blemish—was his only religion, and to it he was always faithful. He was respected, esteemed, and beloved by all the community.

It is quite unequivocal: he is “respected, esteemed and beloved” (a set of terms that defines something quite different from the attitudes towards the smart and therefore successful man) because he is a “gentleman,” representing as such an ideal that doesn’t belong to the realm of material “success” and is above the attainment of the ordinary member of the community. And we come here to that complexity of ethical background which I have spoken of as providing a central preoccupation of Mark Twain’s, in Pudd’nhead Wilson as in Huckleberry Finn. I am not thinking merely of the persistence of an aristocratic tradition in a democratic society. That society has also its Christian allegiance, and, while the Judge is “just and generous,” the total concept of “gentleman” is decidedly not Christian. When we come to Pembroke Howard, for whom to be a gentleman is not his only religion, the situation, with its irony, is focused in the one actor:

He was a fine, brave, majestic creature, a gentleman according to the nicest requirements of the Virginian rule, a devoted Presbyterian, an authority on the ‘code,’ and a man always courteously ready to stand up before you in the field if any act or word of his had seemed doubtful or suspicious to you, and explain it with any weapons you might prefer from bradawls to artillery. He was very popular with the people, and was the Judge’s dearest friend.

For the gentleman, “honor stood first”: the laws of honor “required certain things of him which his religion might forbid him: then his religion must yield—the laws could not be relaxed to accommodate religion or anything else.” And the Christian and democratic community, with a complete and exalted conviction, gave its approval.

The people took more pride in the duel than in all the other events put together, perhaps. It was a glory to the town to have such a thing happen there. In their eyes, the principals had reached the summit of human honor.

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There is nothing remarkable about the ability to observe such facts. What is remarkable is the subtlety of the appraising attitude that Mark Twain, in terms of impersonal art, defines towards them—as towards the whole inclusive situation presented in the book. Astringent as is the irony of Pudd’nhead Wilson, the attitude here has nothing of the satiric in it (the distinctively satiric plays no great part in the work as a whole). Mark Twain unmistakably admires Judge Driscoll and Pembroke Howard. And it is important to note that, if they are “fine,” the “fineness” is not a mere matter of their being “just and generous.” The total attitude where they are concerned is not altogether easy to describe, not because it is equivocal, but because it is not a simple one, and has called for some subtlety of dramatic means to convey it. The two most sympathetic characters in the drama give the “code” itself their active endorsement. It is not for instance suggested that Wilson, in acting as second in the duel, does so with any self-dissociating reservations or reluctance, and he rebukes Tom for not telling his uncle about the kicking and “letting him have a gentleman’s chance”: “if I had known the circumstances,” he says, “I would have kept the case out of court until I got word to him and let him have a gentleman’s chance.”

“You would?” exclaimed Tom, with lively surprise. “And it your first case! And you know perfectly well there would never have been any case if he had got that chance, don’t you? And you’d have finished your days a pauper nobody, instead of being an actually launched and recognized lawyer to-day. And you would really have done that, would you?”

Certainly.

Tom looked at him a moment or two, then shook his head sorrowfully and said:

I believe you—upon my word I do. I don’t know why I do, but I do. Pudd’nhead Wilson, I think you’re the biggest fool I ever saw.”

This reminder of the circumstances of the rebuke will serve to enforce the point that Wilson, the poised and preeminently civilized moral center of the drama, whom we take to be very close in point of view to Mark Twain, is not, all the same, to be identified with him. Wilson is an actor in a dramatic whole that conveys its significances dramatically. The upshot of the drama is to set a high value on the human qualities fostered by the aristocratic code: to endorse the code even as far as Wilson does would be quite a different matter, and no reader of the book can suppose it to be doing that. Against the pride and the allegiance to an ideal of conduct that make personal safety a matter of comparative indifference, we see the ignominy and ugliness of Tom’s complete self-centeredness, which is as unchecked by pride or concern for any ideal as by imaginative sympathy. Hearing that the Judge, fighting in his cause, has survived the duel, he reflects immediately, with an exasperation untouched by shame, how blessedly all problems would have been solved had the Judge been killed: the duel has been wasted.

The exposure of human nature in Tom Driscoll has an essential part in the total astringency of the book. But it will not do to suggest that human nature, as the book presents it, reduces to Tom. If the Wilson of “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” is not the Wilson of the drama, neither does he represent the imagination and the sensibility that inform this as a conceived and realized whole. Such utterances of Mark Twain’s as this marginal note from a book, characteristic as they are, mustn’t be credited with a kind of conclusive authority they certainly haven’t:

What a man sees in the human race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own heart. Byron despised the race because he despised himself. I feel as Byron did and for the same reason.

The exhibition of Tom’s viciousness has its convincing force, no doubt, because we recognize in ourselves the potentiality, as Mark Twain did in himself. But it would be misleading to say that we despise Tom; that would be to suggest an animus that we do not feel when we place him, unequivocally, as contemptible: we are not engaged and involved in that way. The irony of the work as a whole means a very secure poise, and the poise is secure because the author has achieved a mature, balanced, and impersonal view of humanity. He himself is not involved in the personal way that involves animus in condemning.

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The attitude of Pudd’nhead Wilson is remote from cynicism or pessimism. The book conveys neither contempt for human nature nor a rejection of civilization. It is concerned with the complexities of both human nature and civilization as represented in a historical community—for Dawson’s Landing, it may reasonably be said, is one that, at a given time in actual American history, Mark Twain had intimately known.

We are not, by way of dismissing the suggestion of any general contempt, confined to adducing Wilson himself and the “fine, brave, majestic creatures” who uphold the code of the F.F.V. Most impressively, there is Roxy. It is true that her heroic maternal devotion plays against the extremity of mean heartless egotism given us in Tom. But her significance is not exhausted in that irony. We feel her dominating the book as a triumphant vindication of life. Without being in the least sentimentalized, or anything but dramatically right, she plainly bodies forth the qualities that Mark Twain, in his whole being, most values—qualities that, as Roxy bears witness, he profoundly believes in as observable in humanity, having known them in experience. Although born a slave, she is herself a “fine, brave, majestic creature,” whose vitality expresses itself in pride, high-spiritedness, and masterful generosity. Her reckless presence at the duel defines Mark Twain’s attitude towards the “code” more decisively than Wilson’s participation does. When she proudly tells Tom that he is descended from the best blood of Virginia the effect, for all the irony, is not satiric. And her confident and justified reliance on the loyal comradeship, not only of her fellow-“niggers,” but also of the officers of the Grand Mogul, has its part in the appraisal of human nature conveyed by the book as a whole.

Mr. De Voto makes the point that she represents a frank and unembarrassed recognition of the actuality of sex, with its place and power in human affairs, such as cannot be found elsewhere in Mark Twain. That seems to me true and important. It is an aspect of the general fact, that she is the presence in the book of a free and generous vitality, in which the warmly and physically human manifests itself also as intelligence and spiritual strength. It is this far-reaching associative way in which, so dominating a presence, she stands for—she is—triumphant life that gives the book, for all its astringency and for all the chilling irony of the close, its genial quality (to be both genial and astringent is its extraordinary distinction).

How far from satiric the spirit of Pudd’nhead Wilson is may be seen in the presentment of the subtleties of conscience and ethical sensibility in Roxy. Consider the episode of the stolen money and the threat to sell the Negro servants down the river. We are no doubt very close to the satiric note in the irony with which the chapter ends—in Percy Driscoll’s self-gratulation on his magnanimity: “that night he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself.” But we are remote from satire here:

The truth was, all were guilty but Roxana; she suspected that the others were guilty, but she did not know them to be so. She was horrified to think how near she had come to being guilty herself; she had been saved in the nick of time by a revival in the colored Methodist Church, a fortnight before, at which time and place she had “got religion.” The very next day after that gracious experience, while her change of style was fresh upon her and she was vain of her purified condition, her master left a couple of dollars lying unprotected on his desk, and she happened upon that temptation when she was polishing around with a dust-rag. She looked at the money awhile with a steadily rising resentment, and then she burst out with—“Dad blame dat revival, I wisht it had ‘a be’n put off till to-morrow!”

Then she covered the tempter with a book, and another member of the kitchen cabinet got it. She made this sacrifice as a matter of religious etiquette; as a thing necessary just now, but by no means to be wrested into a precedent; no, a week or two would limber up her piety, then she would be rational again, and the next two dollars that got left out in the cold would find a comforter—and she could name the comforter.

Was she bad? Was she worse than the general run of her race? No. They had an unfair show in the battle of life. . . .

In spite of that last phrase, we know that what we have been contemplating is not just an exhibition of Negro traits: “her race” is the human race. These naive and subtle changes and adjustments of conscience and the moral sense we can parallel from our own inner experience. But there is nothing cynically reductive in Mark Twain’s study of the moral nature of man; he shows the clairvoyance of a mind that is sane and poised, and the irony that attends the illustration of subtleties and complexities throws no doubt on the reality or the dignity or the effectiveness in human affairs of ethical sensibility.

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I have not yet touched on the central irony of the book, the sustained and complex irony inherent in the plot. Pudd’nhead Wilson should be recognized as a classic of the use of popular modes—of the sensational and the melodramatic—for the purposes of significant art. The book, I have said, is not faultless, and an obvious criticism lies against the unfulfilled promise represented by the twins—the non-significant play made with them, their history and the sinister oriental dagger. Mark Twain, we can see, had intended to work out some interplay of the two parallel sets of complications: twins and interchanged babies. He abandoned the idea, but didn’t trouble to eliminate that insistent focusing of expectation upon the twins. The fault is in a sense a large one, and yet it is not, after all, a very serious one: it doesn’t affect the masterly handling of the possibilities actually developed.

The ironic subtleties that Mark Twain gets from the interchange of the babies in their cradles seem, as one ponders them, almost inexhaustible. There is the terrible difference, no more questioned by Roxy than by her master, between the “nigger” and the white. The conventionality of the distinction is figured by the actual whiteness of Roxy, whose one-sixteenth of Negro blood tells only in her speech (with which, indeed, it has no essential relation, as is illustrated later by the inability of “Valet de Chambers,” now revealed as the pure-white heir, to shed the “nigger”-speech he learnt in childhood). So awful, ultimate and unchangeable is the distinction that Roxy, as, in order to save her child from the fate hanging over the slave (to be “sold down the river”), she changes the babies in their cradles, justifies herself by the example of God. The rendering is an irresistible manifestation of genius, utterly convincing, and done with a delicate subtlety of ironic significance:

She flung herself on her bed and began to think and toss, toss and think. By-and-by she sat suddenly upright, for a comforting thought had flown through her worried mind:

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—kingsl

She began to muse; she was trying to gather out of her memory the dim particulars of some tale she had heard some time or other. At last she said:

Now I’s got it; now I ‘member. It was dat ole nigger preacher dat tole it, de time he come over here fum Illinois en preached in de nigger church. He said dey ain’t nobody kin save his own self—can’t do it by faith, can’t do it by works, can’t do it no way at all. Free grace is de on’y way, en dat don’t come fum nobody but jis’ de Lord; en he kin give it to anybody he please, saint or sinner—he don’t kyer. He do jis’ as he’s a mineter. He s’lect out anybody dat suit him, en put another one in his place, en make de fust one happy for ever en leave t’other one to burn wid Satan.

There is of course a glance here at the Calvinism of Mark Twain’s youth. And it is to be noted that Roxy, while usurping the prerogative of the predestinating Deity, has shown a wholly human compassion, and has invoked a compassionate God in doing so:

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’, and I couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t stan’ it.

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In saving the child from the consequences of the awful distinction that she assumes to be in the nature of things, she demonstrates its lack of any ground but convention; she demonstrates the wholly common humanity of the “nigger” and the white. The father himself cannot detect the fraud: he cannot tell his own child from the other. And—one of the many ironies—it is his cruel, but confidently righteous, severity that imposes the full abjectiveness of slave mentality upon his own child, who becomes the defenseless and rightless servant of the slave’s child. On the other hand, Roxy’s success in saving Valet de Chambers (the name her proud tribute to an ideal “white” lordliness) from the fate of the slave erects a dreadful barrier between child and mother. Treated as “young Marse Tom,” not only does he become that different order of being, the “master”; in Roxy herself the slave attitudes that she necessarily observes towards him find themselves before long attended by the appropriate awe. When at last, outraged by the humiliating and cruel rebuffs that meet her appeal for a little kindness (she is in need) to the old “nigger-mammy,” she forgets habit and the ties of motherhood, and pants for revenge, she has to recognize that she has placed him in an impregnable position: no one will believe her tale. A further irony is that, if he has turned out bad, a portent of egocentric heartlessness, that is at least partly due to his spoiling as heir and young master, the lordly superior being.

It is a mark of the poised humanity characterizing the treatment of the themes of Pudd’nhead Wilson that, worthless and vicious as “Tom” is, when he has to face the sudden revelation that he is a Negro, we feel some compassion for him; we don’t just applaud an irony of poetic justice when he is cornered into reflecting, with an echo of his mother’s self-justifying recall of the Calvinistic God:

Why were niggers and whites made? What crime did the uncreated first nigger commit that the curse of birth was decreed for him? And why is this awful difference made between black and white?

Compassion, of course, soon vanishes as the dialectic of utter selfishness unfolds in him. The developments of his incapacity for compassion are done with a convincingness that the creator of Tito Melema would have envied. When Roxy offers to be sold back into slavery in order to save “Tom” from being disinherited, and he, with dreadfully credible treachery, sells her “down the river,” the opposite extremes of human nature are brought together in an effect that belongs wholly to the mode of Pudd’nhead Wilson, and is equally removed from melodrama and from cynicism. It can hardly be said, when we close the book, that the worst in human nature has not been confronted; yet the upshot of the whole is neither to judge mankind to be contemptible nor to condemn civilization. And it is remarkable how utterly free from animus that astringency is which takes on so intense a concentration in the close:

Everybody granted that if “Tom” were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him—it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life—that was quite another matter.

As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.

It is an irony of the tale that this, the fate to secure him against which Roxana had committed her crime, is, as an ultimate consequence of that crime, the fate he suffers.

_____________


Footnotes

1 From Mark Twain at Work.

2 In the book, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s collection of cynical aphorisms, more or less in the spirit of Mark Twain’s private utterances.—ED.

_____________

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