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Literature Study GuidesPuddnhead WilsonA Whisper To The Reader Summary

Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | A Whisper to the Reader | Summary



Mark Twain begins his story by noting it contains some legal elements, and he assures the reader he has had those chapters vetted by a lawyer named William Hicks. Hicks briefly studied law in Missouri before moving to Florence, Italy, 35 years ago. He now helps out in "Macaroni Vermicelli's horse-feed shed" in return for food and lodging. Twain assures readers Hicks "rubbed up" on his law and assures Twain the "legal chapters are right and straight, now."

Twain also lets it be known he is writing this novel in his villa near Florence.


This humorous author's preface is typical of Mark Twain. He has employed similar devices at the beginnings of other novels, assuring the reader the author can be trusted. A good example can be found in the "Explanatory" note at the start of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In it Twain explains the use of various dialects in the book. He assures readers they were distinguished "painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech." In other words, they are accurate because he himself says they are. Twain gives readers a similar assurance in this "Whisper." In doing so he makes clear his purpose is to entertain and not to inform.

Readers may suspect—rightly—Twain has invented the lawyer William Hicks. The name is a play on the word hick, a negative term that refers to someone who is rural, unsophisticated, and possibly poorly educated. A hick lawyer, therefore, is a lawyer who doesn't know the law very well and whose country practice hasn't provided broad legal experience. Twain says explicitly it has been 35 years since William Hicks studied "part of a while" in rural Missouri. Since then he has been living in Florence. This underlines how inexpert he is. Such a person—if he existed—would be completely unsuited to vet any legal technicalities in the novel. Yet Twain uses the fictional Hicks's assurance of their accuracy to vouch for his "legal chapters."

There is still more in this preface to amuse readers. One is the extreme length of the sentence about Hicks's life in Florence. It is 179 words long and rambles on not only about Hicks's life but also about the history of Florence. Hicks is said to work for Macaroni Vermicelli, which is not a real name. It combines the names of two types of pasta, a mainstay of the Italian diet. Twain seems to be making a not-so-subtle comment on pasta when he says the man's business is horse feed. When talking about the horse-feed business's location, Twain drops two iconic names associated with Florence: the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and the artist Giotto di Bondone (c. 1266–1337). But his focus is not actually on Dante and Giotto. Nor is it on Beatrice, the Florentine noblewoman to whom Dante dedicated the majority of his writings. It is actually on the chestnut cake Beatrice supposedly used to defend herself when caught up in a scuffle between warring political factions. The cake was apparently so heavy and dense Beatrice could throw it like a rock. When Twain calls the cake "light and good," he is being ironic—saying the opposite of what he means. Hence, he goes on to assure readers "this is not flattery, far from it." Twain seems to have liked Florentine chestnut cake as much as he did pasta.

By 1892, when he began work on Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain had lost substantial money from investing in a typesetting machine and launching his own U.S. publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Co. He and his family had moved to Europe and leased a villa outside Florence from September 1892 to June 1893. His enjoyment of the villa imbues his description of it. At the same time, he is typically humorous when discussing the sculptures of the ancestors of the family associated with the villa. Readers get the sense he finds them pretentious.

It is typical of Twain to imbue a few words with a vast amount of background knowledge. When Twain points out that "adopt[ing]" the people depicted in the busts would add 600 years to his own ancestry, he references the United States's short history. In 1893 the United States was not yet 120 years old. In comparison the Villa Viviani, where he was staying, was first built in the 1200s. It was acquired by the Cerretani family, whom Twain mentions, in 1600—seven years before the founding of Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement in what would become the United States.

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