Or maybe he made an awesome Hal Holbrook who, after all, created the one man Twain show Woody was starring in. Regardless of which you’re familiar with (if you know neither look for the video bonus below), you’d come away with a strong belief that Twain was a great aphorist. Yet you can work your way though The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the historical romances without a bevy of pithy earworms taking root in your cerebrum. So what gives?
Well, most of the witty moments driving that show are actually sourced from one place: Puddn’head Wilson. (For some reason unknown to me, this now-in-the-public-domain volume is sometimes entitled The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Rest assured, it’s the same book.) Published ten years after Huck Finn, it revisits some of Twain’s best loved territory: Missouri, childhood, mistaken identity, shiftless foreigners and, of course, race. That’s an awful lot to pack into 122 fast-paced pages. (The novel was originally serialized in The Century Magazine and keeping the readers buying each installment no doubt helps account for the pace.)
Here’s the tale in brief: David Wilson, an aspiring lawyer. brings himself to the frontier town of Dawson’s Landing, Missouri to start his professional life. But on his first day in town Wilson says something in passing that his new neighbors take as an indication that he’s a bit simple. And so, until he returns near the end of the tale, he’s simply branded Puddn’head and left to go about his business which, whatever it may be, is not the law.
Also in town lived the Driscolls a slave-owning family. One of their house servants, Roxy, who was 1/16 black and therefore entirely so, had a child that was the same age as the heir to the family fortune. And so she took care of both Thomas A Beckett Driscoll and her own child, Valet de Chambres. And when things got ugly, and there was a threat of being sold down the river, Roxy did what any mother would and took steps to protect her own.
You can see where this ends up. But even as Twain skewers all the idiocy of this race-base, no, race-consumed society he’s amusing and entertaining. Reprising the appearance of the ‘Dolphin’ in Huck Finn, the town is fortunate to attract the attention of two ‘Italian’ noblemen who decide to stay in the fair burg. These two have as much claim to Italian nobility as the Dolphin did to the throne of France.
Like a Feydeau farce, everyone winds up in the same constrained place, missing each other by the merest chance. It is, of course, Pudd’nhead who puts it all together and somewhat saves the day (and wins his first trial). There’s even an Aesop-like moral for anyone who missed the point about race being a matter of mind not matter.
My last encounter with Twain was, you may recall, painful. So it was refreshing to revisit this lesser work and rediscover the writer I first liked. The critics have plenty to say about Pudd’nhead. Much of it is obvious even to a less critical reader. And yet…
Ernest Hemingway, his own particular problem, once said that “All modern American literature starts with Huckleberry Finn.” I’m not smart or well-read enough to know if that’s true. But I know that it’s almost impossible to read this book without some enjoyment. And in the end, isn’t that really why we read?
The Gods of Hulu have decided that only a 90-second Cheers preview shall be available for free and that doesn’t include Woody. So here’s Holbrook: