Commentary Magazine


"Pudd'nhead Wilson"

To The Editor:

I read with great interest F. R. Leavis’s “Mark Twain’s Neglected Classic” in your February 1956 issue. I take second place to no one in my admiration for Mark Twain, but I believe that Pudd’nhead Wilson . . . [is] not so much a forgotten classic as a piece of literary exercise. . . .

Dr. Leavis says: “. . . An obvious criticism lies against the unfulfilled promise represented by the twins.” Presumably he is not unaware of the companion piece to Pudd’nhead Wilson entitled Those Extraordinary Twins, which explains the mystery and frankly acknowledges the fact that Pudd’nhead Wilson is a patchwork; but I think Those Extraordinary Twins is worth mentioning; in fact that you can’t discuss the one without the other. In the foreword to the latter book Mark Twain says: “Originally the story (P.W.) was called ‘Those Extraordinary Twins.’ . . . I had seen a picture of a youthful Italian ‘freak’ . . . a combination consisting of two heads and four arms joined to a single body and a single pair of legs—and I thought I would write an extravagantly fantastic little story with this freak of nature for hero. . . . But. . . other people began intruding themselves.” These were Wilson, Roxy, and Tom Driscoll. They took over the story and when the author looked around for his original characters he found them “stranded, idle, forgotten, and permanently useless.” What to do with them? “I thought and thought and studied and studied; but I arrived at nothing.” He toys with the idea of having all his superfluous characters fall down a well; but that’s unsatisfactory so he leaves them in. As a result: “The defect turned out to be . . . two stories in one, a farce and a tragedy. So I pulled out the farce and left the tragedy.” He took the trouble to separate the twins, to reduce if not eliminate the farcical aspects of the story. . . .

It seems to me Pudd’nhead Wilson should be considered in the light of a very quick, undeveloped sketch, which it obviously is, because to think of it in terms of a “classic” is unfair to the real classics Mark Twain wrote.

I do not think that this lightweight soap opera really offers any insight into the author’s feeling about race. If his point was that conditioning, not inheritance, makes the man, he would have been careful not to go to such extremes; not to make a horrendous villain out of a mere weakling whose background had conduced to petty delinquency rather than crime.

Oddly enough, Those Extraordinary Twins, the left-over story which in my edition (American Publishing Company, 1894) is appended to Pudd’nhead Wilson, is a hundred times funnier than you would possibly imagine a “freak” story could be, and if there is a neglected classic here, I vote for it.

Grace W. Pierce
Boston, Massachusetts

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Mr. Leavis writes:

I did indeed know of Those Extraordinary Twins, but I do not agree that it and Pudd’nhead Wilson constitute together an “Italian freak.” Nor, in my opinion, do the facts that Miss Pierce presents tend in any way either to prove me wrong, or to show (even if facts of that kind could) that Pudd’nhead Wilson is a patchwork. On the contrary, I find nothing but confirmation in her scholarship. “But . . . other people began intruding themselves”: this is a note, not (surely!) on the botching up of a patchwork, but on the genesis of an inspired work of imagination, a living thing (I need not remind Miss Pierce of the more famous cases of the kind). Wilson, Roxy, and Tom Driscoll, she says, “took over the story.” To the inspired “tragedy” that resulted the “farce” is wholly irrelevant: there is not the slightest ground for contradicting Mark Twain’s judgment. To Pudd’nhead Wilson there is no farcical aspect, and nothing approaching one (unless for prisoners of the convention that twins are intrinsically farcical).

I wish that Those Extraordinary Twins could have been—could be—forgotten: its association with the other tale about twins has certainly played its part in the neglect of a classic of the English language. That Pudd’nhead Wilson is such is, of course, not a fact of scholarship, but a critical judgment, and a critical judgment cannot be coercively demonstrated. Pointing to the essential fact, the created thing, and making the commentary that seems to one called for, one appeals, implicitly, for agreement, even though one anticipates that the responses most worth having will often be in the form “Yes, but—.” I am sorry that an authority on Mark Twain should feel that, for her, there can be no “Yes” in it at all. But what I point to seems to me, still, clearly—and irresistibly—what I judged it to be.

F. R. Leavis
Downing College
Cambridge, England

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