Twain's novel Pudd'nhead Wilson can seem like an enigma at first, since it is a story about slavery written almost forty years after the end of the Civil War. Certainly race was still a pressing contemporary issue for Twain at the time: by 1893 Reconstruction had failed and race relations in the United States were a mess. Although a black man no longer had to fear being sold "down the river" as Roxy and Chambers do, extreme forms of violence were a distinct possibility. Part of the point here is that although the institutions surrounding race may have changed since 1850, the fundamental problems, even by 1893, had not. By featuring characters who are racially indeterminate--that is, characters who can "pass" or who are not immediately identifiable as black--Twain confuses the issue still further. When slavery was still legal, an individual's racial profile mattered on a concrete level: someone who is one-thirtysecondth black, like Chambers, could be owned as a slave, while someone with no known black ancestry could not. Racial identity, by the 1890's, had become a much more nebulous concept.
Broader issues of identity are a compelling problem in this novel. Although this is by no means a carefully structured and polished piece of literature, Twain's multiple plots and thrown- together style do serve to inform a central set of issues, with the twins, Pudd'nhead, and Tom and Chambers all serving as variations on a theme. The coexistence of many characters and many localized plots mirrors the novel's setting. In its vacillation between the tiny town of Dawson's Landing and the metropolis of St. Louis, and in the centralized presence of the Mississippi River, with its possibilities for endless mobility, the novel offers both hope and despair: the world is too big a place for everyone to be known absolutely to their neighbors, yet one also has the ability to start over in a new place.
The idea of being able to start over is continuously interrogated in American literature. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which appeared almost exactly one hundred years before Pudd'nhead Wilson, sketched out the ideals of self-determination and personal identity in American culture: a man can become whatever he wants, no matter what his background, as long as he has a plan and the work ethic to realize it. Echoes of Franklin can be seen in the eccentric, scientifically-minded Pudd'nhead Wilson, whose writings mirror Franklin's and whose careful analysis and re-categorization of the world around him is also reminiscent of the American icon. Pudd'nhead's self-realizations, though, are dark and socially unsuccessful. Twain's characters live in an America where social mores are largely fixed and one's success depends not on determination but on fitting into a pre-existing public space.
Twain, like Franklin, was a celebrated public figure, immediately recognizable as a collection of carefully developed mannerisms and trademark items. Like Judge Driscoll in this novel, Twain somehow found himself high placed enough in society so as not to be bound by its rules. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, though, Twain looks at those who avoid constraints of reputation and public opinion by being so far beneath society as to be almost irrelevant. He also looks at those who, like the twins, get caught in the middle, in a mire of shifting opinions and speculations. The "plot" of this novel, if it can be said to have one, is a detective story, in which a series of identities--the judge's murderer, "Tom," "Chambers"--must be sorted out. This structure highlights the problem of identity and one's ability to determine one's own identity. The solution to the set of mysteries, though, is an incomplete and bleak one, in which determinations about identities have been made but the assigned identities do not correspond to viable positions in society. The seemingly objective scientific methods espoused by Pudd'nhead may have provided more "truthful" answers than public opinion, but they have not helped to better society. In the rapidly changing American culture of the 1890s, where race, celebrity, and publicity were confounding deeply ingrained cultural notions of self-determination, the depopulated ending of Pudd'nhead Wilson is a pessimistic assessment of one's ability to control one's identity. Twain's novel moves us from Franklin's comic world of possibility to a place where self- determination is accompanied by tragic overtones, a place reminiscent of the world of another, later American novel about a self-made man that does not end well: Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
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