The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, 1900
THE MAN THAT CORRUPTED HADLEYBURG
by Mark Twain, 1900
"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is one of Mark Twain's greatest short stories. A century after it was written, it seems as contemporary as ever. Representative of Twain's late pessimism and his attacks on the "damned human race," the story has no specific locale. Theme more than place is to the fore, and Hadleyburg is a representative American town. It is every town. Similarly, the characters are types more than individuals, with the collective more important than the whole. Although broad strokes of Twainian humor characterize the narrative, the ultimate effect of the story is sobering and somber. The story ends by highlighting death, cruelty, and abiding human folly. A companion in some ways to The Mysterious Stranger, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" denies readers the perspective of the innocence of boyhood that consistently humanizes the longer work. There are no children in "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," and Twain has aimed the story at adults.
But the title character of the two works links them. The mysterious stranger is the man who corrupted Hadleyburg, and the stranger in both works is Satan, although he is more lovable in his Austrian than in his American manifestation. For the stranger who returns to Hadleyburg with his "apple" (a bag of "gold" coins) is vindictive, bent on revenge. He is, as New England Puritans had dubbed him, the great deluder, and in Twain's story he is seeking whomever he may devour. For a time he may also deceive some readers, but he is too clever by far—Twain's story being not realistic but emblematic—and by the story's end it is obvious that the gambler Stephenson has been using a pseudonym. On his deathbed Edward Richards says of the checks the gambler left with him, "They came from Satan. I saw the hell-brand on them, and I knew they were sent to betray me to sin." At the beginning of the story the narrator had identified the gambler as "the mysterious big stranger." Late in his career, Twain was increasingly fascinated by the figure of Lucifer, whose story he knew from childhood, and, perhaps taking a lead from his mother, he came to consider him a too maligned character. It is clear from "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" that Tawin had come to know Milton's Satan, too, and had found him a somewhat congenial character. Twain seems to have concluded that Lucifer had some important lessons to teach gullible human beings.
The stranger's effort to teach a lesson to Hadleyburg structures Twain's story, which recounts a perfect revenge. The mysterious stranger is avenging a slight, an insult from the leaders of Hadleyburg, and he wants to expose all of them. (Like Milton's Satan, Twain's is a proud being.) He plots his strategy carefully. As in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," that other American short story classic of revenge, timing is all. The stranger waits patiently for some years until Goodson dies, for he had a decency that might have thwarted the stranger's plan. But when the moment is ripe, the stranger puts his huge temptation before the leaders of Hadleyburg. The love of money is the bait that will expose the hypocrisy of the community. For a perfect revenge there must be considerable duration to the agony. Thus, waiting is central to the action of the story, and the Committee of Nineteen has three weeks to wait between the inciting incident and the public gathering at which truth, or much of it, becomes manifest. As in Poe's story, the victims must have ample time to ponder what is being done to them and who is doing it. The avenger knows his victims' weaknesses and counts on these weaknesses to lead them into his trap. Finally, there is the satisfaction of the victims' agony, which in Twain's story is made palpable in the painful deaths of Mary and Edward Richards. When the stranger leaves Hadleyburg, it is utterly changed. The survivors are east of Eden, as it were. Satan has reversed the petition from the Lord's Prayer, and Hadleyburg adopts a new model: "Lead Us Into Temptation." The motto strikes a Miltonic note, for in "Areopagitica" Milton avows that he cannot praise a cloistered virtue.
As in Paradise Lost, Satan has some of his most impressive moments in a public arena. Twain creates his own Pandemonium when the citizens gather on the appointed Friday (perhaps Good Friday) to learn who deserves the "reward" left by the gambler. Each of the illustrious Committee of Nineteen has submitted a statement claiming that he meets the stipulated test identifying him as the one who did the mysterious stranger the deserving good deed. (Twain's naming of the citizens—Billson, Wilson, Thompson—underscores how much of a piece they are.) The town's citizens enter into the fun of the exposures that follow. As is usual for Twain, there is a "hoss sense" character useful to the exposure. He is Jack Halliday, "the loafing, good-natured no-account, irreverent fisherman, hunter, boys' friend, stray dogs' friend, typical 'Sam Lawson' of the town." The humor is most raucous in this section of the story, the longest of its four parts, and the satire seems pointed at American institutions. Twain exposes the folly of American elections in the speeches that follow, known as spin control today, for Hadleyburg is in the midst of a political campaign. Not surprisingly, the advantage in spin control and the ensuing election go to the so-called Dr. Clay Harkness, who has become wealthy from a popular patent medicine and who is able to turn disgrace into triumph through negative campaigning and to win the election. Crowds in Twain's work are typically fooled by clever oratory, and Hadleyburg gets the politicians it deserves. Here, as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is not much to love in humankind, the species.
Like Milton, Twain ends his account of lost innocence with focus on a pivotal couple, not on the assembly. When the town meeting ends, in the community's view Mary and Edward Richards are the uncorrupted ones. They have escaped exposure because the Reverend Mr. Burgess wished to save them, remembering that Edward had done him a kindness. Edward knows how minimal that kindness was, how cowardly he had been in letting Burgess bear a punishment he did not deserve. Mary and Edward know that they are no more virtuous than the other council elite. Satan is not, it turns out, ready to leave the Richardses alone, for he wants to make sure that their innocence is real. His new plan completes the revenge, as the Richardses expose themselves publicly. From the beginning of the story, Twain has presented them as an aged Adam and Eve. They meet temptation, succumb to it, and fault each other. They regain no paradise, and Twain's story darkens considerably as the old couple realize the wages of sin. Their final despair is existential. Edward confesses to Mary, "I—I wish I were dead, Mary. I wish I were out of it all." Darkest of all, the couple concludes that free will is only an illusion: "We—we couldn't help it, Mary. It—well, it was ordered. All things are." Hadleyburg proclaims the importance of individual integrity, individual choice, and individual responsibility. But Twain's story shows its citizens to be all of a piece, doomed to hypocrisy and deceit and finally to despair, the essence of the damned human race.
—Joseph M. Flora