Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

This book revealing the endemic racism in American society of yesteryear seems especially timely right now, although that’s purely coincidental.

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead WilsonThe Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an antebellum Missouri a slave woman who is only 1/16 black has a child by a white man. At the same time, the mistress of the house gives birth to another baby and dies. Roxy, the slave/mother, raises both while the absentee father can’t tell them apart. She switches the two babies, both blond and blue eyed, during infancy so that her baby will grow up with the privileges of a white man and not be sold down the river. Her scheme backfires since her son grows up to be a nasty, spoiled character who despises her. The white baby ends up as a kitchen slave.

If this were a modern novel the “black” baby, known as Tom throughout most of the book, would turn out to be a fine stalwart young man in order to show that African-Americans are just as inherently intelligent and of as good character as whites. Political correctness would dictate it. Instead, Roxy and, apparently, Twain, attribute Tom’s evil character to that word-a-white-guy-can’t-say blood. The book is a tough read because of the blatant bigotry and unappealing characters. Tom is by far the main character, yet the book is named after the secondary character, a white lawyer, who eventually uncovers the truth. Perhaps these choices were mandated by the political correctness of the day, but they still grate. Even so, Twain is known to historians as an adamant abolitionist.

Perhaps I had a romanticized recollection of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which I think I read as a child, but I may even be remembering the Disney movies. I thought Twain was satirizing the racism and humanizing the black characters in those, and perhaps he was, but the same cannot be said for this one. It is also just not as well-written as those. Wikipedia attributes this to the rush of his impending bankruptcy, but critics seem to agree with me that it is poor from a stylistic standpoint. Even so, it serves as a stark reminder of how far we’ve come in the area of civil rights, and perhaps suggests that we could do better than we have.

The reader did an excellent job despite how difficult it must have been to speak the racially offensive dialect with appropriate enthusiasm and sincerity.

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