A Whisper to the Reader
Twain's "Whisper to the Reader" is a surreal brief introduction to the text. In it he first makes claims for the accuracy of the courtroom scenes in the book, then refers to his stay in Italy, where Pudd'nhead Wilson was written. Twain says he has gotten his legal knowledge from a failed Missouri lawyer who now lives in Florence and works in a horsefeed shed owned by a "Macaroni Vermicelli." Macaroni's horsefeed shed is just around the corner from a spot where, according to Twain, Dante used to sit and watch his child paramour Beatrice as she came home from school. Twain also notes that he's been writing in a villa outside Florence with busts of ancient Florentines looking over him and adding their sanction to his work: his own ancestors, he says, are "but spring chickens" in comparison.
In this introduction Twain mixes a rough-and-tumble American ethos into an old-world setting. Beatrice is not the distant, ethereal child-beauty of Dante's poetry but a little girl scrambling through the streets, throwing wads of cake at opposing political factions. The section is an irreverent mixture of high-class and vulgar, old and new, serious and farcical--in other words, a perfect microcosm of Twain's work. A note of seriousness is present, though, in Twain's claims of legal accuracy and his nod to tradition and history. Pudd'nhead Wilson is to be a tragedy, as its title claims, and despite the playfulness, something important is at stake. By informing the reader that the book was written in Italy, and by making at least a frivolous attempt to place himself in a larger and older tradition, Twain suggests that his book describes a set of problems not exclusive to America; he also argues for his place in the canon of not just American but world literature.
Importantly, too, Twain emphasizes the importance of the legal system to his story but also makes it ridiculous--his legal consultant is a failed Southern lawyer who has never practiced and is now a full-time stable-boy, and the Florentine senators whose statues overlook his study epitomize not justice but corruption. The legal system will be crucial to the plot of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and by beginning to spoof it here Twain reminds his reader to interrogate the concepts of justice and legality that will be encountered in this book.
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