Monday, August 16, 2004

Untragic Yarn

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain, Read by Michael Prichard, Tantor Media, Inc., 2002

Mark Twain gave this book a peculiar title. It is called a tragedy and the man on whom tragedy should fall is named as well. Yet, looked at with both modern and classical definitions of the word “tragedy,” it fits neither. At the book’s end, Wilson is in a better position than at the beginning (thus it could be a classical comedy, if he only got married), and nothing particularly bad befalls him in the novel’s entirety.

I rather suspected a Shakespearean style tragedy, too, as Pudd’nhead involves twins, murder, and mistaken identity, but alas. The guilty person gets caught, the hidden twin is discovered, and Wilson is vindicated as not being such a pudd’nhead after all. If there is a tragedy, it’s the hidden twin’s.

Thomas Driscoll is born the same day as his family’s slave Valet de Chambre, who only has one-thirty-second part black blood and as such looks so much like his white master’s son people mistake them for twins. Fearing that some day her son will be sold down the river, Chambers’ (as he is called) mother, Roxy, switches the two boys while they are babies. No one notices and the former slave lives a life of spoiled luxury, while the Driscoll heir is raised a slave.

David Wilson, the pudd’nhead of the title, is a clever man, who on arriving at the town of Dawson's Landing years earlier made an unfortunate comment (which I found hysterical) that got him dubbed Pudd'nhead. He takes fingerprints long before it is known to the police. This peculiarity proves conclusive later, though for the townfolk only consider it some of his empty-headed nonsense. It is the fingerprints of the “twins” before and after the switch that provides the court room climax, though I’m not revealing anything you couldn’t see coming down the pike. Twain mixes this up with palmistry, a notion that doesn't quite hold up to the test of time.

Pudd’nhead Wilson neatly demonstrates how environment shapes a person, regardless of race. The switched out slave child finds himself an important personage and becomes spoiled and cruel. The white boy in his slave status becomes kindly and passive. I worried throughout the book that the argument could just as easily be made that the cruelty of Tom would be attributed to his genetics and not his upbringing. Some characters do pose this, but the book never makes that argument persuasively. And it is underscored by the book’s end, when the real Tom Driscoll finds himself unable to feel at ease in his family’s church pew or at all the high society functions, preferring the company of the house slaves.

What the book does do particularly well is tell a tangled tale of one lie compounded by another, how you need to tell one lie after another just to keep the original lie and then the lying history a secret. The fake Tom engages in lying, theft, election fraud, and eventually murder just to keep the original secret of his birth. While unintentional, this ever-shifting action is mirrored in the book’s amorphousness, as Twain explains in an afterword.

Michael Prichard, who seems to be the reader I most frequently run into, is perfectly matched to the material this time around, his gruff voice giving the tale an old country feel. It is easy enough to close your eyes and feel you are sitting on a porch in a rocking chair, a glass of lemonade sweating in your hand, as Prichard unwinds an amusing small town drama. The incident of the visiting Italian twins proves his weakness for accents, but this is a small part of the story and makes for a small flaw. Had I directed this book, I would have asked Prichard to play up the accents a bit more floridly, as a yarn-spinner in the old South might have.

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