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J O H N M. B R A N D The University of Northern Colorado The Incipient Wilderness: A Study of Pudd’nhead Wilson It is hardly an understatement to suggest that Mark Twain would not have appreciated the use of any works of Cooper to throw light on one of his own. Nevertheless, one way of making entry into Pudd’nhead Wilson is through The Prairie, where the aged Natty Bumppo warns travellers who have left the settlement and ventured deep into the uncharted wilderness: 'Why then do you venture in a place where none but the strong should come?’ he demanded. ‘Did you not know that when you crossed the big river you left a friend behind you that is always bound to look to the young and feeble like yourself?’ ‘Of whom do you speak?’ ‘The law—’tis bad to have it, but I sometimes think it is worse to be entirely without it. Age and weakness has brought me to feel such weakness at times. Yes—yes, the law is needed when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of. I hope, young woman, if you have no father you have at least a brother.’1 The sense of tension which we get from parts of The Prairie stems from the repeatedly helpless wanderings of just these people, who in reaching that area have entered an ethical no-man’s-land where law, the ordering force of the settlement, is non-existent, and way­ farers must create their rules as they go along. The loftiness of Natty Bumppo and Ishmael Bush in large measure emerges from their ability to exist in that very situation. Pudd’nhead Wilson lacks the zest and flair of Cooper’s novel. A great river has been crossed, but the crossing was made so a settle­ ment could occur. Just west of the Mississippi River, Dawson’s Landing is anything but spectacular. Neither, for that matter, will its hero dazzle us, for David Wilson’s primary resources in attacking challenges are his wit, wisdom and patience. Compared to the likes of Natty and Bush, Wilson is prosaic. So is the novel as a whole. Its plot, for example, is stationary, as few characters go anywhere; the action occurring does so within the rather puny confines of Dawson’s Landing. But to say the novel is stationary is not to label it static, because it has its own dynamics and in its own way is akin 1James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (New York, 1964), 28. 126 Western American Literature to The Prairie. For granted the prosaic and even hum-drum quality of life in Dawson’s Landing, a kinship with Cooper’s world arises when existing law proves insufficient to reorder a threatened society. In fact, from the beginning of his novel, Twain traces the inexhorable process by which the lawlessness of the wilderness slowly permeates the settlement. It is true that, unlike the situation in Cooper’s novel, law does exist in Dawson’s Landing. However, in­ stead of being based on something like natural rights or Christian ethics, it is shakily rooted in custom and tradition, in the case, white prejudices against black people. Law is thus impotent in caring for “the young and feeble” like Roxy, a white woman who, because of a tiny part of her, is judged legally black by her community. Frustrated by the enduring unfairness of things, and thus goaded into rebellion, she switches her white, but legally black child with the child of her master and therein sets in motion forces which further disorder the life of Dawson’s Landing. For her real son Tom, becoming well-versed in the ways of the young white master, eventually turns in his scorn upon both black and white humanity, in this case, his own step-father, who he murders. Because the dis­ graced Italian twins, Luigi and Angelo, are the first to arrive at the murder scene, and because the people have a handy grudge they would like to exercise, they are only too eager to use the law to convict and dispose of the two. In effect they...


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pp. 125-134
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