Most scholars believe that near the end of his life, Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) became a brooding, bitter, disillusioned, and cynical man who doubted humans’ ability to right themselves and whose humor became increasingly dark and hopeless. His “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” written in 1898 but first published in an 1899 edition of Harper’s Weekly, represents just such dark humor. Not a single character in this convoluted story offers a redemption theme; rather, every individual seems corrupt and infected with moral depravity in just the way Twain came to think all of America was. Some critics, in fact, perceive Hadleyburg as a synecdoche for the United States of America: a place with the illusion of moral superiority that has failed to live up to that characteristic and promise. Other critics, however, deem the story a condemnation of more than the United States; they view it as a rebuke of humankind’s belief that anyone can actually learn morality. Still others envision it in a completely opposite way, for they imagine it as a “Fortunate Fall myth”: a story that shows a community’s rise through and recognition of its moral failure and then a willingness to resist such temptation again—in other words, an awakening to corruption that teaches one improved morality.
Whatever a reader believes about “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” no one would argue about its focus on morality and virtue. Twain immediately offers a setting of a tiny town that has kept its reputation for honesty “unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions” (20). Instantly, Twain offers an irony, for he knows that two of the greatest sins against virtuous morality are the sin of pride and the sin of covetousness. In addition, he calls attention to the fact that “a young man hailed from Hadleyburg was all the recommendation he needed when he went forth from his native town to seek responsible employment” (20). In other words, the very virtue of the town becomes the tool for financial gain. Twain also follows this introduction to the scene with a description that reveals that “also, throughout the formative years temptations were kept out of the way of the young people” (20). In essence, they have never allowed their virtue to be tested.
This very facet of the town sets up Twain’s plot, for along comes a stranger, Pinkerton, who feels himself slighted by the town, so he devises a way to test every one of its members by enacting a plan that “will corrupt the town” (21) by focusing upon the very source of its vanity: its claim to honesty. The plan, quite complicated and multilayered, involves the leaving of a supposed fortune—a bag of gilded coins that weighs 160 pounds—along with a note that is published in the local newspaper and a set of identical letters sent to 19 members of the town. The focal characters in this drama become the elderly couple, Edward and Mary Richards (at whose home Pinkerton initially leaves the money), along with the Reverend Burgess—a kind of foil against the others, for he is accused of another crime he has actually not committed—and the ever observant town bum, Jack Halliday. Halliday embraces a kind of soothsayer trope, for he alone recognizes the sudden changes in the town and its citizens.
And change they do, for everyone wants some of that money, so each of the 19 recipients concocts a story to explain why he deserves the fortune. Ironically, everyone believes only a dead citizen of the town could deserve the money, for they all willingly admit that only he could ever have been so kind—so virtuous—as to give a needy stranger $20 and the advice “ ‘You are far from being a bad man. Go, and reform’ ” (31). Yet each citizen rationalizes whatever lie he invents to explain that he deserves the money because he has done a good turn for the deceased.
When at last the day of public announcements during a town meeting arrives, the lies are revealed. Instantly, the citizens of Hadleyburg react—and ultimately, they fear most that their social capital, their reputation, might be destroyed. Simply, they fear exposure. Pinkerton, however, is so disappointed in this reaction, for he had “wanted to damage every man in the place, and every woman—and not in their bodies or their estate, but in their vanity” (46), that he offers them three final jabs: the completion of the advice, “or mark my words—some day, for your sins, you will die and go to hell—or Hadleyburg—Try and Make it the Former”; the revelation that the gilded disks are but lead and worthless; and a reward for Edward Richards. Edward does not deserve the reward, either, of course, and ultimately burns the bank notes because “they came from Satan” (54). He becomes insane but finally confesses on his deathbed so that he “may die a man and not a dog” (54).
Yet perhaps the town remains a dog, for in the end, it only changes its name and alters its seal to read, “Lead Us into Temptation” (55). Does the change in name represent contrition, morality learned, or only an erasure of the past, a denial of its dishonesty? Does the motto metamorphosis symbolize true repentance, or only yet another infantile level of morality? Is Satan the Pinkerton character who sets the plan in motion, or have all of the townspeople displayed the demons within them because Pinkerton altered their insulated little world and their responses demonstrated the dark truth of their souls?
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