I owe a note of thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for his comment that led me to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a rather neglected work by Mark Twain. This very funny, very darkly humorous and ironic tale is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper and all those switched-at-birth fables and comedies – this time, with a slave and a slave owner as the subjects.
The title character is not really the main character, nor is he the fool (puddinghead) that everyone takes him for on the basis of one offhand remark he made twenty years before the main action of the novel in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri. Of course, the slave woman Roxy doesn’t seem to be what she is, because she is white to the eye, but a certified, bought and sold negro. So too with her son, Valet de Chambers. She cares for him, and The Master’s son, Tom, whom her own child resembles. As with all slaves, Roxy lives in fear of being ‘sold down the river’ to hard servitude in the deep South, but she fears even more for her son: What might happen if her good and kind master dies and his heir or creditors are hard hearted? She resolves to protect the future of her son by switching him with Tom, and Tom’s rather negligent father is none the wiser.
Her son, now Tom, grows up to be an arrogant, profligate, disreputable gambler, while the real Tom grows into a typically obsequious house slave. So much for blood telling all. There are some Italian twins who visit, a murder, a trial, and a thrilling resolution by Wilson, a frustrated lawyer who finally gets his chance to show his wits in court, saving the falsely accused twins with his fingerprint collection, a hobby he has pursued for years. Of course, these same prints reveal the secret about Tom and Chambers, and their situations are set right, in traditional comedic fashion. Of course, the story was originally called The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson because things don’t turn out so well, when people are restored to their proper places within the social system.
Twain is savaging just about everything in this short novel. The reader has the sense that he was throwing up his hands with disgust at the fatuousness and cruelty of the human race. You can read the entire text of this strange work, and view some fascinating illustrations and associated materials at this excellent website.