Monday, November 26, 2007


Mark Twain might have been a sad, grim man with the bleakest conceivable outlook on life, but the man could turn a phrase like nobody's business.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fairly short novel, but there's a lot going on. There's a white baby switched at birth with an identical-looking 1/32nd black baby (who is therefore a slave). There are political and financial machinations all around.

Most interesting is Twain's use of fingerprinting as a crime-solving device. He was, in fact, ahead of his time, as governmental police agencies were only beginning to use fingerprinting to identify criminals a few years after this book was published. What seems to us now to be rather common sense and everyday must have been cutting edge, CSI type stuff to Twain's original audience.

Twain uses his trademark distinct, vivid and real vernaculars when writing dialogue, including the heavy use of the N-word, which ignorant people have been fussing about for generations. We also get a very vivid idea of exactly what it means to be "sold down the river" in its original sense.

My copy of the novel has an introduction by Langston Hughes, which I recommend first-time readers skip until they have completed the novel, because he basically walks the reader through the book's plot in five pages.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a fast, engaging novel, combining mystery with Twain's typical biting social commentary.