Twain did not write The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson for young readers, but his book has many ideas that are particularly stimulating to young adults. On its simplest level, it is an exciting tale of a mystery, which David Wilson—the village misfit—brilliantly solves with fingerprint evidence (something not done previously in a novel). Twain had a lifelong interest in exceptional people whose genius is not recognized by their own neighbors. It is an idea that many adolescents can easily appreciate, and the novel’s conclusion is gratifying: After years of snubbing Wilson, the villagers finally admit that they are the true “pudd’nheads.”
Wilson’s own story is not, however, the true center of the book. This character was almost an afterthought to Twain, who at first was writing a quite different novel. His original story was to be a farce about Siamese twins with contrary personalities. As he developed this story, other characters—notably Roxy—intruded, pushing him in new directions. Eventually, he dropped the farcical elements, separated the Siamese twins (the Capello brothers), and allowed Roxy and her son to come to the fore. Wilson was merely a device to pull the diverse characters together. Although the finished novel shows signs of its patchwork origins, it is rich in complex role reversals and difficult social questions. Its importance lies primarily in its exploration of identities—in particular, what it means to be black or white, slave or free.
For the gimmick of switching babies to work, Twain made Roxy only...
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Although The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson has long been classified as part of Mark Twain’s “Mississippi Writings,” which include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it has also long been regarded as untypical of his best work. Its somber tone has doubtless contributed to its comparative lack of popularity. Moreover, its frank treatment of the evils of slavery and its tacit admission of miscegenation (Roxy’s implied sexual liaison with a white man) have also contributed to its past neglect. During the mid-1950’s, a resurgence of interest in the novel began, with one scholar even calling the book a “neglected classic.” Since then, it has found its way increasingly into literature courses, while earning recognition as an important contribution to understanding American identities.