When the Wealthy Trumped the Poor

Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

The Prince and the Pauper (Penguin Classics)
By Mark Twain; edited with an Introduction by Jerry Griswold

Of all Mark Twain’s stories,” wrote his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, “none brought him greater joy in the writing than ‘The Prince and the Pauper.’ ” Still, there is something curious about this joyful novel: Everyone seems to know its story about two boys exchanging places (as if, somehow, it had seeped into our unconscious), but few seem to have actually read the book. Perhaps the time has come for rediscovery.

The most memorable moment in the book occurs when Edward Tudor and Tom Canty exchange clothes and stand in front of a mirror. Looking at their reflections, both are stunned, but the prince finally puts their recognition into words:

“Thou hast the same hair, the same eyes, the same voice and manner, the same form and stature, the same face and countenance, that I bear. Fared we forth naked, there is none could say which was you and which the Prince of Wales. And now that I am clothed as thou wert clothed, it seemeth I should be able the more nearly to feel as thou didst.”

At first glance, this scene might seem to signal Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ discovery that “clothes make the man” or, rather, that “clothes make the regent.” In “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” Clemens imagined the ruler of Russia standing before a mirror: “Is it this that 140 million Russians kiss the dust before and worship? Manifestly not! . . . It is my clothes. There is no power without clothes. . . . Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no state could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look and be like everybody else–commonplace, inconsequential.” Of course, that is exactly what Clemens does in “Huckleberry Finn” when he trots out the naked king in the theatrical farce aptly named “The Royal Nonesuch.” This is Clemens’ democratic twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

But what is more significant about that memorable scene is that when the two boys exchange clothes, they do not simply look at each other. They look, instead, into a mirror and consider their reflections. More than the clothes, that mirror might serve as the central symbol of the scene. And if we can imagine that there is a second mirror behind the boys, reflecting what is in the first mirror, then we might be able to imagine them looking at that fascinating ocular image of reflection upon reflection, at a parade of similar images spanning backward through infinite regression. This is perhaps the best symbol of all for Clemens’ novel and its myriad reflections.

First of all, “The Prince and the Pauper” (1882) reflects Clemens’ era. To begin with, many scenes in the novel essentially show adults bowing and worshiping at the feet of The Child. In fact, the subtitle of the book solicits readers and puts them in a category when it defines the book’s audience: “A Tale for Young People of All Ages.” This was, after all, the Era of the Child.

During the decade in which “The Prince and the Pauper” was published, pediatrics became an established medical specialty taught at Harvard University; even the American Medical Assn. acknowledged this new category and the existence of this special kind of creature: the Child. And the same era also saw countless reformers and civic-minded leaders publicly concerned with this new creature: Sweeping child-labor laws were enacted, orphanages and public schools were founded, the kindergarten and playground movements launched and a thousand similar endeavors begun.

In literature, majors (on both sides of the Atlantic) were writing for minors. Heading the bestseller lists of the era (1865–1914) were children’s books, among them “Hans Brinker,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Little Women,” “Heidi,” “Treasure Island,” “Black Beauty,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Anne of Green Gables” and “Tarzan of the Apes.” The leading magazine of the day was St. Nicholas; intended for young readers, its contributors included Charles Dickens, Jack London, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling and a host of other literary notables.

But “The Prince and the Pauper” did not just reflect the era’s obsession with the Child; it also mirrored other enthusiasms of the times–among them the craze for Olde England. Sir Walter Scott’s novels were the rage. The well-to-do were having homes built in the Tudor style, featuring cross-beam architecture. And steamships were doing a brisk business carrying packet loads of American tourists over the Atlantic to see Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. To mention just one example: Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of the best-selling “Little Lord Fauntleroy”) made 52 such crossings herself.

Like “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “The Prince and the Pauper” also reflected the era’s fascination with the Claimant. Burnett’s popular novel tells the story of Cedric Errol (a poor American boy from the streets of New York) who is eventually recognized as the heir of a wealthy English nobleman, although the Little Lord does have some trouble when another, false claimant puts himself forward as the true heir.

In fact, both novels may have been inspired by the most celebrated news story of the 1870s, involving the Tichborne Claimant, an Australian butcher from Wagga Wagga who claimed to be the missing son and heir of the Lady Tichborne but was later shown in court to be an impostor. The Tichborne case spawned dozens of musical plays about missing heirs, and it fascinated Clemens, who paid a researcher to collect 12 scrapbooks of clippings about the case.

But it would be wrong to see “The Prince and the Pauper” only as a reflection of Clemens’ own time. It is, in fact, a timeless story, and this may explain its almost unconscious and mythic appeal.

When by happenstance Tom Canty finds himself among the royals, we glimpse Moses in the bulrushes. When Edward Tudor finds himself among the hoi polloi until his royal birthright is finally acknowledged, we see Oedipus redux.

Many are the heroes and heroines who are prophets without honor in their own county, be they Cinderella or the man from Galilee. The sagas of twins–think of the legend of Cyrus–are, likewise, as old as Persia. Then there are the legends of rulers who go in disguise among their people to discover the true state of their kingdoms, who (like the Buddha or Lear) must give up luxury and mingle with the people to discover pain and truth.

The fall, dispossession, involuntary adoption into changed circumstances, difficulties with those who fail to acknowledge one’s true identity and eventual recognition–this is an old and human story, and “The Prince and the Pauper” incarnates it. So, like mirrors lined up and reflecting each other, Clemens’ novel presents a vista of storied resemblances reaching back to the head of time.

Or we might venture in the other direction and consider how Clemens’ novel especially speaks to our own times. If movies are our shared dreams and indicate the particular concerns of our own era and culture, then we should notice the many recapitulations of “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” (Paramount Pictures, 1983).

In “Coming to America,” for example, Eddie Murphy plays an African monarch who travels to the States and becomes a pauper, even taking a job at McDonald’s until he returns home in glory. In “Trading Places,” Murphy and Dan Aykroyd do just that: They play a street hustler and a wealthy stockbroker who, like Clemens’ Tom Canty and Edward Tudor, exchange places. “The Last Emperor” tells of the fall to the proletariat of China’s last ruler, while “Dave” and “King Ralph” tell of the rise of an average American prole to the White House and Buckingham Palace, respectively. In their own Pygmalion fashion, “Working Girl” and “Pretty Woman” recount feminine versions of the tale. Dozens of other examples might be mentioned.

Why is that? When other stories might preoccupy us, why is our own era fascinated with versions of “The Prince and the Pauper?”

It may be that our own times are not so different from those of the 16th century England pictured in Clemens’ book. Recall that it was a time when there was a growing division between the well-to-do and the poor, between the have’s and have-not’s. Clemens also tells us how the wealthy are self-satisfied and the government out of touch. Though he is speaking of a time long ago and of a distant place, it does not take much to see that he is painting a picture not unlike, say, the film “Grand Canyon,” with its portrait of contemporary Los Angeles as a place of BMWs and Brentwood on the one hand and inner-city decay and desperation on the other.

Looking in the mirror of this novel, observing both the time that Clemens writes about and our own era, we might come to the conclusion that there is really little difference between them and us.

It may be that “the poor will always be with us,” but many cultures seem to move in a cyclic fashion through episodes when poverty becomes more acute and social harmony begins to disintegrate.

For the generation that came of age after 1980, the great tragedy is that they may never know that the situation wasn’t always like this: that there was a time in America and elsewhere when it wasn’t routine to see hundreds of homeless sleeping in the streets

For the generation that came of age after 1980, the great tragedy is that they may never know that the situation wasn’t always like this: that there was a time in America and elsewhere when it wasn’t routine to see hundreds of homeless sleeping in the streets, when it wasn’t routine to worry about gang violence, when it wasn’t routine to be accosted for spare change by a man covered with a blanket or a woman holding a child, and when it wasn’t routine to react to these circumstances in an unfeeling way.

In the 1960s, then-President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty; in the 1990s, legislators launched a War on Welfare.

This is where “The Prince and the Pauper” can be of use in our time. At its heart, Clemens’ novel grows from the statement “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The way someone understands that statement is a kind of litmus test. From one point of view, what may be expressed is envy (of those whose good fortune could have been our own) or relief (that another’s troubles haven’t befallen us). But there is an entirely different way to take that statement. From a different point of view, when we say “There but for the grace of God go I,” what can be expressed is fellow feeling, compassion and sympathy, identification instead of distancing.

The Prince and the Pauper” turns on that difference, and Clemens’ novel means to forcibly shift the first point of view to the other. The last lines of the book speak of how Edward Tudor (once he ascended the throne) challenged the hardhearted and prosperous, how he encouraged in them mercy and fellow feeling. But, in truth, that was the lesson from the beginning when he exchanged clothes with the pauper and stood before the mirror. In this way, “The Prince and the Pauper” still summons, and creates, sympathetic readers.

Here, then, is one of Clemens’ finest novels and its hall of mirrors, in which we see not only the life of an author who went from barefoot boy to Oxford honors but also a parade of reflections spanning backward in time, images lined up one after another in infinite regression, in which we glimpse some of the world’s oldest stories.

We also see that Clemens’ 16th century England is not so different from our own world and that, ultimately, there is really little difference between us.

When that moment occurs, fortunate readers of “The Prince and the Pauper” may witness a miracle and see how the very book they hold in their hands is transformed into a mirror in which they, themselves, are reflected.

Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” continues to fascinate me. I wrote about it at length in my bookAudacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Storywhere I linked the story with the “impostor phenomenon”; that novel and “l’angoisse de l’imposteur” was also the subject of my essay in a French book. Then I spent a year working with Canadian, U.S. and British first editions of the novel to create a new and “established” edition of Twain’s story for Penguin books; I also contributed to the text an Introduction, Bibliography, and an Appendix (where I reprinted a missing chapter of the book). Because “The Prince and the Pauper” seems unusually relevant to our own era (where the luxuries of Hollywood coexist with L.A.’s Skid Row), the Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 30, 1997) published the excerpt from the Penguin edition above.

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20. December 2016 by
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