Mark Twain's novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is an example of three methods of realist writing in this era of American literature; the use of vernacular dialogue (that is, spelling it out the way someone pronounces it, even if that is technically spelled incorrect), the correspondent-type narrative, and the writing on issues important to contemporary society.
Twain is perhaps the most famous among the American realists for his use of regional vernacular in dialogue as a characteristic of realist style. By spelling out the pronunciation of different dialects, Twain portrayed reality not only with the plot, but with the very words themselvesNot only that, but Twain’s use of so-called ‘lower’ forms of English served to equalize the language
While other realists such as Stephen Crane, Rebecca Harding Davis, and to an extent Louisa May Alcott used vernacular spellings in their literature, none have done it to such an extent or with such commitment as Mark Twain. In fact, writers such as Alcott often spelled out vernacular in quotations, as if they were foreign instead of words native to America. As for Twain himself, he was disdainful of other writers whose vernacular writing was stilted and inconsistent. For this reason, Twain disliked James Fennimore Cooper and Charles Dickens’ writing, which he thought unrealistic because their vernacular was not invariable.
As part of his conveying of reality into fiction, Twain used events from real life as the foundations for his plots—even so far as ripping news from the headlines as inspiration for his stories. The belief he held was that good fiction used true stories as the foundation for fiction, he was adding an essence of authenticity to creation. True stories were sometimes written almost verbatim from their true origins, but for the most part were used as a basis for the story and then completely revised so that the resemblance to true events was less obvious. For instance, if the titular characters of Those Extraordinary Twins were based upon an account of Siamese twins, Twain separated them into identical twins for the sake of their individual mobility within the plot.
Although Twain used stories from the news, he was not wholly reliant on the sensational or beyond his personal experience. His sensational plot devices are usually firmly grounded in scenes of everyday life: the extraordinary switching of two infants in Pudd’nhead Wilson is set in the ordinary environment of a small southern community.
Twain’s narrative style is like a newspaper correspondent, reporting events and counter-events, and aiming to reach a large, generalized audience. The fact that Twain himself had worked as a printer may have influenced him to use this reporter-type of writing. Such narrative is more obvious in Twain’s short stories, which intersperse stories which Twain himself created and those he collected in his travels—one of Twain’s most notorious characteristics as a writer that it is so difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Lastly, of Mark Twain’s realism was his ability to write on topics important to contemporary American society. This included writing on racial issues, such as in Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The fact that Twain dealt with such controversial issues shows how even in his fictional, created universe, the questions and problems of real life were still present.
Puddn’head Wilson is an epitome of realist literature in that it contains all three of these factors: the vernacular representation, the storyteller voice in the narrative, and the contemporary issues which pose questions of race through the main plotline. Although the issue of race is the most obvious in the novel, both the vernacular dialogue and the storyteller voice play a significant part in how Twain’s realistic style is exhibited in the work.
Vernacular spelling is most overt in the dialogue of Roxy. This is especially important since we are told that she is a slave who looks white, but her manner of speaking is characteristic of black slaves and thus sets her apart. If Twain had not written her speech patterns in a genuine way, the reader would not be able to distinguish between her and Pudd’nhead Wilson; vernacular spelling is a necessary factor of Roxy’s characterization. For instance, if Roxy’s dialogue were changed, then her conversation with a fellow slave would appear unnatural, while her conversation with non-slaves would appear to be equal. This can be illustrated by simply changing her vernacular dialogue into a more formal type:
Tom - “You’ll give me a chance—you! Perhaps I’d better get down on my knees now! But in case I don’t—just for argument’s sake—what’s going to happen, pray?”
Roxy – “This is what is going to happen. I’m going straight to your uncle, and tell him everything I know about you”
This excerpt directly precedes Roxy telling Tom that he is the real Chambers, her son and a slave. Tom sarcastically offers to get on his knees to beg her forgiveness, but the irony of this is less pronounced when Roxy talks like an equal instead of a subservient slave. Roxy’s vernacular speech—which serves to demean her to her son—also shows how much she has allowed him to control her.
Vernacular speech is also important in clarifying the difference between Tom and Chambers, because Chambers (the real Tom) is also classified by the way he speaks. After the real Tom is restored to his rightful place as a rich man, his speech “was the basest dialect,” showing that even this fortunate turn of events cannot reverse a lifetime of experience.
The serious undertones are not unique to this novel, but are a common trait in Twain’s other books. Even one of his arguably more lighthearted works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is filled with moral lessons about responsibility and use of common sense. This ethical concern was fully developed in Tom Sawyer’s pseudo-sequel, Huckleberry Finn. Like Pudd’nhead Wilson, Huckleberry Finn deals with concept of race, this time focusing on the perception of slavery from a Southern boy raised to accept the enslavement of black people. But whereas Huckleberry Finn is ambiguous as to the moral conclusion of the story—causing it to be banned during Twain’s lifetime and continuing in controversy about whether it might perpetuate racial stereotypes—Pudd’nhead Wilson takes a more egregious stance against racism. To Twain, race was as much a fiction, perhaps even more so, than the fictional literature he wrote.
In the pantheon of American realist literature from this time period, Mark Twain’s work stands apart as the quintessence of American adventurousness and down-to-earth storytelling. His novel Pudd’nhead Wilson shows that despite Twain’s characters and setting not being of high society or written in the fanciest of English dialects, he nevertheless managed to consider several profound issues of the culture in which he lived.