The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Cover of the first edition of
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
|Publisher||Harper & Brothers|
|Preceded by||Is He Dead?|
|Followed by||A Salutation Speech From the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth|
"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is a piece of short fiction by Mark Twain. It first appeared in Harper's Monthly in December 1899, and was subsequently published by Harper & Brothers in the collection The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900). Twain encouraged readers to understand it as a satirical replay of the Garden of Eden story.
Hadleyburg enjoys the reputation of being an "incorruptible" town known for its responsible, honest people that are trained to avoid temptation. However, at some point the people of Hadleyburg manage to offend a passing stranger, and he vows to get his revenge by corrupting the town.
The stranger drops off a sack in Hadleyburg, at the house of Edward and Mary Richards. It contains slightly over 160 pounds of gold coins and is to be given to a man in the town who purportedly gave the stranger $20 and some life-changing advice in his time of need years earlier. To identify the man, a letter with the sack suggests that anyone who claims to know what the advice was should write the remark down and submit it to Reverend Burgess, who will open the sack at a public meeting and find the actual remark inside. News of the mysterious sack of gold, whose value is estimated at $40,000, spreads throughout the town and even gains attention across the country.
The residents beam with pride as stories of the sack and Hadleyburg's honesty spread throughout the nation, but the mood soon changes. Initially reluctant to give into the temptation of the gold, soon even the most upstanding citizens are trying to guess the remark.
Edward and Mary, one of the town's 19 model couples, receive a letter from a stranger revealing the remark: "You are far from being a bad man: go, and reform." Mary is ecstatic that they will be able to claim the gold. Unbeknownst to one another, all 19 couples have received identical letters. They submit their claims to Burgess and begin to recklessly purchase things on credit in anticipation of their future wealth.
The town hall meeting to decide the rightful owner of the sack arrives, and it is packed with residents, outsiders, and reporters. Burgess reads the first two claims, and a dispute quickly arises between two townspeople who have submitted nearly the same remark. To settle which is right, Burgess cuts open the sack and finds the note that reveals the full remark: "You are far from being a bad man—go, and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—try and make it the former." Neither man's claim includes the entire remark.
The next claim reads the same, and the town hall bursts into laughter at the obvious dishonesty behind the incorrect claims. Burgess continues to read the rest of the claims, all with the same (partial) remark, and one by one the prominent couples of the town are publicly shamed. Edward and Mary await their name with anguish, but surprisingly it is never read.
With all the claims presented, another note in the sack is opened. It reveals that the stranger fabricated the entire scenario in order to avenge himself for the offense he suffered while traveling through Hadleyburg. He says that it was foolish for the citizens of to always avoid temptation, because it is easy to corrupt those who have never had their resolve tested. Burgess discovers that the sack contains not gold but gilded lead pieces. A townsperson proposes to auction the lead off and give the money to Edward and Mary, the only prominent couple in town that did not have their name read off. Edward and Mary are in despair, unsure whether to come clean and stop the auction or to accept the money. The stranger who set up the whole scheme in the first place is revealed to have been in the town hall the whole time. He wins the auction, then makes a deal to sell the sack to one of the townspeople for $40,000 and give $10,000 of that money to Edward and Mary. He gives them $1,500 cash at the meeting and promises to deliver the remaining $8,500 the next morning, once his buyer has paid him.
The following day the stranger delivers checks totaling $38,500 to Edward and Mary - the remainder of the $40,000 selling price. Mary recognizes him as the man who dropped off the sack. As they fret over whether they should burn the checks, they find a note from the stranger explaining that he thought all 19 model couples would fall to temptation; since Edward and Mary have remained honest, he is giving them all the money. A second message arrives from Burgess, explaining that he intentionally kept the Richardses' claim from being read as a way to return an old favor Edward had done for him. The buyer has the fake gold coins stamped with a message mocking his political rival and distributes them throughout the town, allowing him to win an election for a seat in the state legislature.
Edward and Mary become distraught over their situation, growing paranoid and starting to think Burgess has revealed their dishonesty to other people in the town. Their anxiety causes them both to fall ill, and Edward confesses their guilt shortly before he and Mary die. The checks are never cashed. With its reputation irreparably damaged, Hadleyburg decides to rename itself and remove one word from its official motto (originally "Lead Us Not Into Temptation"). The story ends with the comment, "It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again."
The story was adapted into a 39-minute television film as part of the PBS American Short Stories series, directed by Ralph Rosenblum and featuring performances by Robert Preston, Fred Gwynne, and Frances Sternhagen. It first aired on March 17, 1980. The ending is both altered and shortened for the film. A DVD version was released by Monterey Media on November 16, 2004.
Another adaptation of the story, featuring the Persky Ridge Players and filmed at a theater in Glasgow, Montana, had a VHS release on October 2, 2000.
Twain had given a lecture in a church at Oberlin College in 1885, and it was unpopular with the academic audience. The Hadleyburg story may allude to this event. Scholar Russel B. Nye wrote that the story "was Twain's way of taking revenge on the small town" after being jeered at and rejected by the academic audience. Writes Nye, "the story is coexistent with the publication of Twain's tale of exposed hypocrisy, the townspeople remembering his visit and noting the parallel situations. There are some interesting and provocative parallels between Twain's Oberlin experiences and the Hadleyburg of fiction". The town of Oberlin had been founded as a religious and educational settlement in 1833, and is and was known as an educational and religious center. The humiliation of the people of Hadleyburg took place in the village church, the scene of Twain's own experiences in Oberlin.
Nye says that Twain read three stories that were received coolly by most of his Oberlin audience: "King Solomon" (an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn, ch. 14); "The Tragic Tale of a Fishwife," an excerpt from A Tramp Abroad; and "A Trying Situation." The fishwife tale is from Appendix D in A Tramp Abroad, subtitled "The Awful German Language." It's a witty meditation on how different German is from English in its use of gendered pronouns. Nouns that normally describe male or female beings in English often are neutered in German ("it"), and vice versa: "Gretchen. -- Wilhelm, where is the turnip? "Wilhelm. -- She has gone to the kitchen. "Gretchen. -- Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? "Wilhelm. -- It has gone to the opera." After explaining how German handles gender, Twain then tells his Fishwife tale as if it's an English translation from the German, producing very comic effects: "Alas, the generous she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots."
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Perhaps many in the Oberlin audience didn't find this funny because it mentioned "Sex" and gender too openly, and daringly treated these categories as linguistically or culturally relative.
It is not clear why Oberlin's audience would not have responded more positively to the Huck Finn excerpt. Nye mentions that Oberlin was very proud of its fame as an Abolitionist stronghold before the war. Perhaps they felt that Twain's portrait of Jim in the excerpt he read—where Huck and Jim argue about the meaning of the story of King Solomon's children and wives in the Bible—was disrespectful. What's odd, though, is that while the discussion Huck and Jim have is comic, to any reasonable reader or listener Jim actually comes across in this scene as a very discerning and moral interpreter. Jim is disdainful of King Solomon's "solution" to a dilemma that comes to him for judgment; he decides to cut a child claimed by two mothers in half, therefore threatening to kill the child! The result is that the two women resolve their dispute. Jim's angry interpretation of Solomon’s “wisdom,” however, takes a different direction and is worth quoting in full: "De real pint is down furder," Jim says, "it's down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat's got on'y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o' chillen? No, he ain't; he can't 'ford it. He know how to value 'em. But you take a man dat's got 'bout five million chillen runnin' roun' de house, en it's diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey's plenty mo'. A chile er two, mo' er less, warn't no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!"
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