restricted access The Naming of a Slave: Roxy’s Power in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson
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The Naming of a Slave
Roxy’s Power in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson

There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Mark Twain understood the power of a name. After trying out names like W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, he finally settled on a familiar term from his Mississippi River boating days for his personal pseudonym. Twain never forgot that his own mother chose not to name him immediately after he was born, because she was afraid her sickly baby boy would soon die.1 He also knew that the ability to name was powerful; while he had the power to rename himself, many were denied the right even to a surname. Twain demonstrates the power of names and naming throughout his works, but especially in Pudd’nhead Wilson where many characters including David Wilson, Thomas à Becket Driscoll, and Valet de Chambers are renamed without consent, and yet none of them gains any understanding of the power of naming. Each in his own way perpetuates the circular momentum of oppressive naming, either by failing to recognize what has been done to him or by naming others. Only Roxy, the slave who appears white and spends her life struggling between the groups, learns to harness the innate power of naming by being fully aware of the negative experiences she has with naming at the hands of her oppressors. As someone who wields the power of naming, Roxy is connected to Twain, the ultimate namer and self-named man. [End Page 96]

In the elite group of Pudd’nhead Wilson are characters such as Judge York Leicester Driscoll, Pembroke Howard, and Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex. These characters are powerful, influential, and white; and Twain gave each of them a decidedly British name in order to demonstrate their disconnection from the American plight. Twain named York Leicester Driscoll for two important cities that sit ninety-two miles apart in Great Britain. Driscoll is the first to give David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson his nickname, and the name adheres because of Driscoll’s influence in Dawson’s Landing. Pembroke Howard’s first name is Welsh and English and means “lives in the headland” referring to areas with steep cliffs in the northern United Kingdom. Like Judge Driscoll, Pembroke descends from what Twain calls “The First Families of Virginia” and works as a well-respected lawyer. Twain named Colonel Essex after William Cecil, 1st Baron Burleigh, who was Queen Elizabeth’s adviser and served as the Lord Lieutenant of Essex from 1588 to 1598. The name Cecil means “blind,” and Burleigh means “lives at the castle’s meadow fortified.” Colonel Essex is Chambers’s father who dies before the action of the novel begins and remains largely absent except in Roxy’s memory. Twain’s decision to give each member of the privileged class such strongly British names actively separates them from the plights of the other characters. These men are out of touch, old, stuffy, and even though they are Americans, they are decidedly un-American in Twain’s eyes.2 The elite group of Dawson’s Landing may have the power to name, but they never demonstrate any comprehension of naming’s power or importance.

In the marginalized group are the often-unnamed slaves. These characters are powerless, owned by others, and completely at their owners’ mercy. The tragedy of these characters, and of slavery as presented in the novel, is not purely the physical abuse they suffer, or their lack of freedom, but their lack of identity. For many slaves, namelessness, whether in the form of being numbered like stock or in the lack of a last name, was one of the most pervasive reminders of their irrelevance. Refusing the privilege of a name (as Twain writes, “no surname—slaves hadn’t the privilege”) to...