In Pudd'nhead Wilson, a slave woman is about to kill her infant son and herself in order to spare him a lifetime of slavery when she realizes that he's 31/32 white and that her master's son looks just like him. So she switches the babies. Thus Thomas à Becket Driscoll, heir to a wealthy Missouri family, grows up as a slave; Valet de Chambre — no last name, since slaves don't have them — is initiated into a life of privilege. Too much privilege: as a child he's nasty, even sadistic, and though as an adult he tries to keep up appearances he's still unpleasant and thoroughly dissipated. When gambling debts threaten to leave him disinherited, he turns to crime — robbery at first, but eventually the town has a murder case on its hands.

Those Extraordinary Twins, by contrast, is about a wacky pair of conjoined twins from the courts of Italy who come to a hick town in Missouri. See, it's funny, because one's a teetotaler and the other's a boozehound except when the boozehound drinks it's the teetotaler who gets drunk, and one's a Whig and the other's a Democrat and they run against each other for alderman, and they kick this guy and go on trial for assault and the prosecution can't prove which one of them did it. Also there are pictures in the margins so you can laugh at the freak. Freaks. Whatever.

When Mark Twain submitted his initial manuscript for publication, these were the same book.

He actually started with the twins, based on a real set of conjoined twins from Italy, intending to knock off a quick short story about them; he then added a household of people to interact with them: two old women, a dim teenage girl and her two younger brothers. But then he made the mistake of trying to flesh out the town a bit, adding characters whose concerns were more serious, and they took over the book. Deciding (after the book was turned down for publication) that circus-geek farce and sociological drama didn't mix, he separated the conjoined storylines as best he could and submitted the dramatic one. This was accepted — but it was deemed too short. Books were still sold by subscription and length was a big selling point. Even increasing the font size and widening the margins to fit in running commentary by illustrators didn't fill out the required number of pages. So Twain added... the leftover chapters! In this era of DVD extras it might not strike some as strange to have the discarded bits of a first draft included for the reader's perusal. Trust me. It's pretty damn strange.

But also revelatory. See, Pudd'nhead Wilson, though widely acknowledged as Twain's last great work, feels a bit... off. Certain bits seem to be emphasized for no reason. We get setups with no punchlines. For instance, why does the arrival of the (now separate) Italian twins cause such a hullaballoo around town? I mean, they're just zese guys, you know? Why the elaborate introductions of the people who host the twins, when they end up not doing much of anything? Why the kicking and drinking bits when they have no point without the participation of a pair of conjoined twins? Twain answers in a note accompanying Those Extraordinary Twins: it was "too much trouble" to substantially change the incidents of the novel. (Twain was in desperate financial straits and needed to close the sale as soon as possible; he was also suffering from depression. More on this later.)

The thing is, while Pudd'nhead Wilson is an extreme case, almost every text is like this. Parts get cut out and rearranged; Ready, Okay! went from 201,112 words to a relatively svelte 145K, for instance. But usually authors try to make the seams less obvious than those in Pudd'nhead Wilson. I found myself thinking, what if Twain had been less slapdash about reconstructing the narrative — changing the twins to a single aristocrat, say, or simply making another resident of the town serve the same functions... but then it occurred to me that, y'know, financial considerations aside, why not have the slavery stuff and the conjoined twin business in the same story? Yes, it might make for an inconsistent tone, but life has an inconsistent tone. And actually, who's to say that the tones would necessarily clash? Some of the best literary works ever written deftly mix comedy and tragedy. If you don't think over-the-top farce can work hand in hand with deadly serious issues, I have two words for you: Doctor Strangelove.

Today Mark Twain is thought of in large part as a writer of aphorisms (I guess because they're easy to quote). But aphorisms don't really play a role in Twain's work until Pudd'nhead Wilson, in which they appear at the beginning of every chapter. They're ascribed to the title character, a smart New York lawyer who moves to backwoods Missouri and is immediately written off as an imbecile because the first thing he says is a joke that goes over the heads of the townsfolk. His calendar of aphorisms only confirms their opinion: "irony was not for those people," the narrator notes.

Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar has some funny stuff in it, mixed in roughly equal proportion with lines that could have come out of a fifteen-year-old goth girl's Deadjournal. Here's the heading to chapter two:

Adam was but human — this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.

Heh! That's one of the good ones. But then there's chapter three:

Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world.

Buh? Another one: "Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved." Ho ho ho! Zing! Yeah, death rocks.

Even moreso than Hank Morgan, Twain's Connecticut Yankee, whom he resembles, and unlike the children Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Pudd'nhead Wilson is written as an ideal adult. So what's he like? He's a smart Northeasterner surrounded by ignorant Southerners; he's a neophile, as most clearly demonstrated by his obsession with the then-revolutionary discovery of fingerprinting; he's virtually emotionless and remains aloof from society, and certainly has no romantic entanglements of any kind; he never changes, is exactly the same man a quarter of a century later as he is when he first arrives in town, and eventually the town discovers that he's the most intelligent guy there and elects him mayor. His sense of humor, straddling the line between the jokebook and the suicide note, is all that keeps him from being an Ayn Rand protagonist. (The afterword notes that Wilson's triumph is just "by every standard except that of human sympathy" and that the events of the novel destroy "several lives, benefiting no one except a lawyer.")

Pudd'nhead Wilson is mainly taught today for its treatment of race. It's a portrait of a society built on a binary opposition between white and black: if you're white, you're free, and if you're black, you're a slave — and a portrait that recognizes that this binary opposition is a fiction.

It recognizes that in the antebellum South, "white" and "black" didn't correspond to anything. What were they supposed to mean? Light skin vs. dark skin? Straight hair vs. tightly curled hair? Angular features vs. rounded ones? None of the classifications of the ethnologists allow us to draw a line, for a couple of reasons. One is miscegenation: as the professor of a friend back at Cal put it, "When two populations come into contact, they may fight, but they will fuck." Often this is voluntary; in the South it was largely a matter of white masters raping their female slaves. The population of the society Twain deals with in Pudd'nhead Wilson thus comprised not two distinct racial groups, but a smooth spectrum full of so-called mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons and so forth. Any line you could draw to make a binary distinction between white and black would be arbitrary.

The other peculiar feature of the American South was that of hypodescent, the law that said that one drop of "black blood" (as if the blood cells themselves were somehow racially marked) makes a person black. The character of Roxana in Twain's novel has pale skin, straight blonde hair, and European features — and she is declared black and a slave, because she is believed to have a single African ancestor four generations back. In other words: we know that race is based on phenotype, not genetics, because (a) there's more genetic variation within racial groups than there is between them, so a particular Korean, say, might be more genetically similar to a particular Senegalese than to another Korean, and (b) when racial classifications were first devised back in the colonial period the science of genetics was unknown. It was all about skin color, brow and lip shape, that sort of thing. And yet apparently it's not about phenotype, because all of these obviously white people are classed as slaves! So what is it?

(Note that the idiocy of hypodescent continues today. I can't count the number of articles I've read that have asked whether Colin Powell's "skin color" was a handicap (prejudice) or an advantage (affirmative action) in his rise through the military ranks... and every time I have to shake my head. Skin color? Colin Powell has the same skin tone as George Bush! When I was first told in during Gulf War I that he was a black guy I thought it was a joke. But, nope, in our society Colin Powell is a black man despite his white skin and Scottish coat of arms, thanks to hypodescent.)

Twain also makes the point that the correlation between race and other characteristics such as behavior and speech is purely arbitrary; here are some of the first lines spoken by some of the key characters in the novel:

But the most compelling questions Twain raises are epistemic ones. In the absence of any biological test for race (because races are arbitrarily defined categories) how do we know what race a person is? The plot is predicated on the premise that "Tom" will suffer a fate worse than death if his 1/32 African ancestry is revealed — but the very baby-switch that kicks off the plot shows that paper trails aren't perfectly reliable. Everything revolves around the idea that "Chambers," the real Tom, is 100% white, but who knows who might be lurking in the Driscoll family tree? Perhaps the Driscoll who first moved from Virginia to Missouri was a mulatto who took that secret to his grave. The average "white" Southerner in antebellum times had at least a little African ancestry — I've read figures as high as 15% for how much — so Roxy's fiction that her child is the 32/32 white one and her master's is the 31/32 one might be no more a lie than the other way around. Who knows?

My father. Which pigeonhole would the ethnologists stick him in?

All my life I have been subject to people squinting at me and asking, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" (For some reason "California" is never an acceptable answer to the latter question.) And the thing is, I don't know. My mom was adopted; my dad has never really told me much about his past. I have gathered that, going back two generations, I'm 1/4 Iraqi, 1/4 Indian, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 unknown, but this is based entirely on what I've been told and some dubious paperwork. It could be wrong: my mother thought she was German/Dutch until 1979. And whatever ethnicity you think you are — you could be wrong, too. Sure, you can go by phenotype, but tell that to Tom Driscoll. (I remember a discussion in one of my college classes about the desirability of a "color-blind" society in which one participant stood up and made a speech about how proud she was of her Jewish ancestry and about how the Jewish blood in her veins defined her identity and stuff, and I couldn't help but think, "So what happens tomorrow when you find out you're adopted?")

In fact, I'd take this a step further. Race can't be established from first principles. You can guess at it, but often you will guess wrong. (The people who squint at me and ask, "What are you?" usually guess that I'm Iranian if they're on the west coast, Puerto Rican if they're out here in the east. My brother, whose skin is darker than mine, has been called a nigger before.) It depends on dissemination of information. And since the information that's being disseminated is about categories whose boundaries exist only in human minds, if the information disappears, so does the answer itself. A lot of people seem to think that the answers to such questions are written on Platonic solids in God's basement or something. But race — unlike something like the percentage of light reflecting off a person's skin or something, which is meaningless but at least measurable — has no objective existence. It is a fiction.

Great White Father
Speaking of race: George Bush recently declared about Iraq, "There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily— are a different color than white can self-govern."

So "ours" equals "white," eh? "Guess he wasn't talking to me," I remarked when I came across this quote. To which someone replied, "Adam, I have seen you. You can easily pass for white."

I was sort of stunned by that because I know from experience that it's not true, at least not all the time. Otherwise there wouldn't be the squinting "what are you?" ordeals or lines like the memorable "Why ain't chu got no towel on yo haid?" I got in my math section at Cal one time. (Ask me about athletic scholarships sometime!) So I tried to figure out what he could have meant. It depends what "white" means. If it means Anglo, then no, I don't think I could pull that off. If it means the hoary old Victorian notion of "Caucasian," then sure, given that it encompasses people clear down to India, I'm white as Wayne — but in that case, it also includes Iraqis, right? But if Iraqis are white, then Bush's quote makes no sense, so he must have meant, uh... and then I took a step back and thought, "Gah — look what stupid circles the notion of race makes us run around in."

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