Pudd'nhead Wilson
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

. It was serialized in The Century Magazine
The Century Magazine
The Century Magazine was first published in the United States in 1881 by The Century Company of New York City as a successor to Scribner's Monthly Magazine...

 (1893-4), before being published as a novel in 1894.


The setting is the fictional Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...

 frontier town of Dawson's Landing on the banks of the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...

 in the first half of the 19th century. David Wilson, a young lawyer, moves to town and a chance remark of his causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead" - a nitwit. His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the townsfolk's eyes, who see him as an eccentric and do not frequent his law practice.

Puddn'head Wilson moves into the background as the focus shifts to the slave Roxy, her son, and the family they serve. Roxy is only one-sixteenth black, and her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as "Chambers") is only 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold "down the river", to a master further south, Roxy fears for her life and the life of her son. First she decides to kill herself and Chambers to avoid being sold down the river, but then decides instead to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs so that her son will live a life of privilege.

The narrative moves forward two decades, and Tom Driscoll (formerly Valet de Chambre), believing himself to be wholly white and raised as a spoiled aristocrat, has grown to be a selfish and dissolute young man. Tom's father has died and granted Roxy her freedom. Roxy worked for a time on river boats, and saved money for her retirement. When she finally is able to retire, she discovers that her bank has failed and all of her savings are gone. She returns to Dawson's Landing to ask for money from Tom.

Tom meets Roxy with derision and Roxy tells him that he is her son, and uses this fact to blackmail
In common usage, blackmail is a crime involving threats to reveal substantially true or false information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand is met. It may be defined as coercion involving threats of physical harm, threat of criminal prosecution, or threats...

 him into financially supporting her.

Twin Italian noblemen visit the town to some fanfare, a murder is committed, and the story takes on the form of a crime novel.

"The reader knows from the beginning who committed the murder, and the story foreshadows how the crime will be solved. The circumstances of the denouement, however, possessed in its time great novelty, for fingerprinting had not then come into official use in crime detection in the United States. Even a man who fooled around with it as a hobby was thought to be a simpleton, a 'pudd'nhead'." (From Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance...

' introduction to the novel)

The story describes the racism of the antebellum south, even as to seemingly white people with minute traces of African ancestry, and the acceptance of that state of affairs by all involved, including the black population.


Roxy is a slave, originally owned by Percy Driscoll and freed upon his death. Roxy is only 1/16 black, and could easily pass for white based on appearance alone. However, due to societal conventions
One-drop rule
The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as black of individuals with any African ancestry; meaning any person with "one drop of black blood" was considered black...

 she is considered black, and she herself considers herself black, speaking the dialect of slaves in the antebellum South. She is the mother of Valet de Chambre and acts as nanny to Thomas Driscoll. Due to her son's light skin and Percy Driscoll's inattention as father, she is able to switch the children's identities as infants, thus guaranteeing an upper-class upbringing for her own son.

Thomas Driscoll

Thomas à Becket Driscoll is the son of Percy Driscoll. Tom is switched with Roxy's baby Chambers when he is only a few months old, and is called "Chambers" from then on. Chambers is raised as a slave and is purchased by Judge Driscoll, childless and sad, when the judge's brother Percy dies, to prevent "Tom" from selling him "down the river". Chambers is a decent young man who is often forced to fight bullies for Tom. He is kind and always respectful towards Tom but receives brutal hate from his master. Raised as a black man, he speaks in the black dialect spoken during slavery.


Valet de Chambre is Roxy's son. Chambers is 1/32 black, and as Roxy's son, was born into slavery. At a young age he is switched by his mother with Thomas à Becket Driscoll, a white child of similar age born into an aristocratic family in the small town. From then on he is known as "Tom", and is raised as the white heir to a large estate. Tom, the focus of the novel, is spoiled, cruel and wicked. In his early years he has an intense hate for Chambers even though Chambers protected Tom and saved his life on numerous occasions. Tom's feelings and attitude portray him as the embodiment of human folly. His weakness for gambling leads him into debt, and his uncle (and adoptive father) Judge Driscoll, frequently disinherits him, only to rewrite his will yet again.

The Twins

Luigi and Angelo Capello, a set of near-identical twins, appear in Dawson's Landing in reply to an ad placed by Aunt Patsy, who is looking for a boarder. They say they are looking to relax after years of traveling the world. They claim to be the children of an Italian nobleman who was forced to flee Italy after a revolution and died soon afterward.

Pudd'nhead Wilson (David Wilson)

Wilson is a lawyer who came to Dawson's Landing to practice law, only to find himself unable to set up a profitable law practice due to the townsfolk's low opinion of his intelligence and common sense. He nevertheless settles down to a comfortable life in the town, acting as a bookkeeper and pursuing his hobby of collecting fingerprints. Although the title character, he remains in the background of the novel until he becomes prominent in the final chapters.

Those Extraordinary Twins

The characters of Luigi and Angelo Capello were originally envisioned by Twain as conjoined twins
Conjoined twins
Conjoined twins are identical twins whose bodies are joined in utero. A rare phenomenon, the occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 50,000 births to 1 in 100,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southwest Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and a smaller fraction of...

, modeled after the actual late-19th century Italian conjoined twins Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci. They were to be the central characters and the novel was to be titled Those Extraordinary Twins.

During the writing process, however, Twain realized that secondary characters such as Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roxy, and Tom Driscoll were taking a more central role in the story than he had envisioned. More importantly, he found that the serious tone of the story of Roxy and Tom clashed unpleasantly with the light tone of the twins' story. As he explains in the introduction to "Those Extraordinary Twins",

The defect turned out to be the one already spoken of--two stories on one, a farce and a tragedy. So I pulled out the farce and left the tragedy. This left the original team in, but only as mere names, not as characters.

The characters of Luigi and Angelo remain in Pudd'nhead Wilson, as twins with separate bodies. Twain was not thorough in his separation of the twins, and there are hints in the final version of their conjoined origin, such as the fact that they were their parents' "only child", they sleep together, they play piano together, and they had an early career as sideshow performers.

"Those Extraordinary Twins" was published as a short story, with glosses inserted into the text where the narrative was either unfinished or would have duplicated parts of Pudd'nhead Wilson.


A movie in 1916 and a made-for-TV movie in 1984 were based on the book.

External links

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