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  • “Clo’es could do de like o’ dat”: Race, Place, and Power in Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
  • Garrett Nichols (bio)

Michel Foucault teaches us in The Order of Things (1966) that the principle of resemblance guided premodern systems of knowledge and organization. He writes:

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. It was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them. . . . And representation—whether in the service of pleasure or of knowledge—was posited as a form of repetition: the theatre of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.


Premodern western society relied on resemblance to structure and create discourses of knowledge and truth, providing order to the vast realm of what was “known” to be true. This old order, according to Foucault, started to break down when knowledge took up “residence in a new space” in which identity was no longer based on visibility and similitude but on “the relation between elements (a relation in which visibility no longer plays a role) and of the functions they perform” [End Page 110] (218). Modern identity and social ordering began to depend on the functions and internal structures of individuals rather than mere similarities between them.

Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) maps a similar transition from an old order of similitude and appearance based on genealogy to one of internal function based on biology. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain’s characters must move beyond the visible surface in a power structure based on fluid notions of appearance and behavior to resituate power within individual biological difference. Dawson’s Landing, the antebellum Missouri town in which the novel takes place, operates under an older power regime that becomes disrupted when miscegenation threatens to undermine social order and appearance and behavior are no longer sufficient designating race because the system is now openly about biology and the body. Thus, either the social order must change, or new strategies must arise to maintain the old one.

The strategic maneuvering by which these changes take place relies on a specific understanding of the social relationship between racism and geography. The novel’s thematic tension surrounding the blurring of racial divisions mirrors a similar anxiety about the blurring of social and cultural boundaries separating Dawson’s Landing from the outside. Twain positions Dawson’s Landing as an antiquated river town populated by residents who quickly dismiss more cosmopolitan outsiders. By the end of the novel, these two parallel tensions—between racial purity and miscegenation and between insider traditions and outsider influences—intersect as a cosmopolitan outsider “solves” the racial confusion resulting from miscegenation.

Pudd’nhead Wilson has two central conflicts. The first conflict lies largely at the level of plot and informs the second. The novel’s main plot involves Tom Driscoll, born a slave named Valet de Chambers to his mother, Roxy, who switches him at birth with her master’s son. Roxy’s ruse succeeds because, due to a long history of miscegenation, she and Tom look white. Tom grows up believing he is a white aristocrat, mistreats his slaves, and pays off gambling debts by disguising himself in drag to rob homes. When Judge Driscoll, his guardian, catches him trying to steal money, Tom stabs him with a knife he has stolen from Luigi and Angelo Capello, two Italian twins with aristocratic ties who recently moved to Dawson’s Landing. This plot conflict lies in whether or not David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson, an East Coast-educated lawyer from New York, will discover the real murderer and reveal the switching of the babies.

Thematically, the novel’s conflict lies less with Tom than it does with the manipulations and machinations of power strategies by Roxy and Wilson. Both are keen observers of human nature, and both understand how power works in [End Page 111] Dawson...


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pp. 110-126
Launched on MUSE
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Ceased Publication
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