Mark Twain was born in 1835 in a small town in Missouri. He was not known as Mark Twain then; his given name at birth was Samuel Clemens. Some early family problems led him to leave home and seek work. The most well known of his jobs was as a riverboat officer, and eventually pilot, on the Mississippi River. He fought briefly in the Civil War, then deserted and headed for Nevada, where he fell into journalism. As his career as a public speaker and humorist took off, he adopted the name Mark Twain, stolen, according to his account in Life on the Mississippi, from an old riverboat captain who used the pseudonym in newspaper articles. Twain's first major work was The Innocents Abroad, a satirical account of his European travels, which appeared in 1869. Most of his major works, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, appeared in the 1870s and '80s. Even before he became well known, Twain, recognizing new opportunities for celebrity in America, developed an immediately recognizable public persona based on carefully chosen clothing, mannerisms, and speech. At the peak of his career he was one of the most famous men in this country. Critics often claim that a series of personal financial disasters in the mid-1880s caused Twain's writing to become pessimistic and dark. The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson was written during this so-called dark period.
Pudd'nhead Wilson was also written at a time when it had become apparent that Reconstruction--the process of reintegrating the Confederate states into the United States and of trying to make a place for freed slaves in society--had totally failed. The Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan gatherings characterized race relations. Twain himself no longer lived in the South, although he continued to write about it. Curiously, his works are all set before the Civil War, in the years when Twain himself was a boy. Perhaps this is because he wanted to write about what he knew from his own childhood; or perhaps he set his works in the past because he sought not a description of the present but a look at its causes or alternatives--what could have been, had things been a little bit different. While Huckleberry Finn offers up a fantasy of what might have been, though, Pudd'nhead Wilson seems to suggest that there was no way to avoid the current mess.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is itself a bit messy in structure. Twain admits in an "Author's Note to Those Extraordinary Twins" that the novel was originally meant to be about the twins Angelo and Luigi, whom he had originally drawn as Siamese twins. This explains their sideshow past more clearly, and it also accounts for some of the awkwardness of the text. As the story got away from its original aim and turned into something else, Twain went back and made changes to make the plot work. While he is often criticized for being a sloppy writer, it is important to notice that many of these awkward places actually contribute in deep ways to the story. Twain may have been trying to avoid rewriting whenever he could, leaving some rough edges, but he was nevertheless consistently a perceptive and intelligent author.
One of Twain's major contributions to American literature is his use of dialect. His black characters (and some of the white characters too) display speech patterns and use pronunciations that are often, according to linguists, fairly realistic. While these passages can be difficult to read, they have a certain aesthetic quality to them; and, while Twain may not be entirely above reproach in his representation of racial issues, his use of dialect does seem to indicate that he cared about giving his black characters a voice of their own. His manipulation and deconstruction of stereotypes, particularly sentimental ones, suggests at least an attempt to let the black characters in his works become fully human. The fate of Tom Driscoll at the end of Pudd'nhead Wilson, which is so directly tied to his way of speaking, is a powerful example of Twain's interest in voices.
Twain died in 1910, a successful lecturer and public figure to the very end.