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The Tragedy of Mark Twain, by Pudd'nhead Wilson

Stephen Railton
Nineteenth-Century Literature
Vol. 56, No. 4 (March 2002), pp. 518-544
DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2002.56.4.518
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2002.56.4.518
Page Count: 27
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The Tragedy of Mark Twain, by Pudd'nhead Wilson
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Abstract

Why did Mark Twain title his last published novel about America The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)? Wilson's share of the story seems anything but tragic: he rises to popularity and fame while restoring a disrupted social order. By looking closely at Wilson's climactic courtroom performance, however, in this essay I argue that Wilson achieves his celebrity status by surrendering to his audience's social and racial prejudices. I further suggest that in ironically measuring the cost of Wilson's public triumph, Mark Twain is rehearsing his own uneasiness with his career as a literary performer– especially his decision to end Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) with the "Evasion" that turns that novel's treatment of racism and enslavement into a farce. Like Wilson's courtroom theatrics, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is a socially reassuring act of erasure that haunted Twain enough to lead his imagination back to the slaveowning village once more, this time to narrate the quest for popular approval that Tom Sawyer had sought and Huck Finn had tried to run away from as a tragedy. By looking closely at the larger story of Pudd'nhead Wilson–including Twain's commentary on it, the contemporary reviews of it, and Frank Mayo's successful dramatization of it–I suggest that even in this novel the operations of racism are mainly being perpetuated rather than exposed. Whatever Samuel Clemens may have believed about race, a Mark Twain performance finally had to placate rather than confront the prejudices of its American audience.

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