Pudd'nhead Wilson Setting

Instructor: Tina Miller

Tina earned an MFA in Creative Writing, has several published novels and short stories, and teaches English and writing.

Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson is a novel about murder, slavery, switched identities, and fingerprints. Such events take place in Dawson's Landing during the mid-19th century. Hitch a ride to traverse along the Mississippi and learn more about the setting of this tale.

The Backdrop

In Mark Twain's novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Pudd'nhead Wilson is a transplant resident of Dawson's Landing. He is a fingerprinting lawyer with limited success in the small town. That is until a crime occurs and fingerprints become an integral part of the case. Let's see how Twain sculpts a town in which such drama could occur.


While the story begins in 1830, a majority of the novel takes place in the 1850s, a time when ''The people took more pride in the duel than in all the other events put together, perhaps. It was a glory to their town to have such a thing happen there.'' It is a time when towns situated along the Mississippi rarely received world travelers. ''There's never been a traveler in this town before, Ma, I shouldn't wonder if they've seen kings!'' It is a time when there is a city fashion and an Eastern fashion. Meaning, that Pudd'nhead was a fancy dresser, something the townspeople were not used to.

Puddnhead Wilson


As Twain describes, Dawson's Landing is ''on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day's journey, per steamboat, below St. Louis'' It is a picketed fence type of town, where one- and two- story houses are covered in ivy and florals. The houses are adorned with wooden window boxes. The landscapes are decorated with terra-cotta pots ''in which grew a breed of geranium whose spread of intensely red blossoms accented the prevailing pink tint of the rose-clad house-front like an explosion of flame.'' Gardens are embellished with, ''hollyhocks, marigolds, touch-me-nots, prince's-feathers, and other old-fashioned flowers''. Can't you smell springtime in Dawson's Landing?

The main street runs parallel to the river a block away. This is where the businesses are. Two- and three- story brick buildings intermix with the ''little frame shops'' along the six-block street. There's the barbershop, donned with the candy-striped pole. The tin maker's business sits on one of the corners of the main street. Unlike the barber's shop, the tin shops pole remains unpainted, although tin items, like pots and pans and cups, decorate the pole, giving ''notice to the world (when the wind blew) that his shop was on hand for business.'' Can't you hear the whistle of the river's winds as they whisper to the dancing tin chimes?

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