The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
The cover 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 actually encouraged it to be read as a replay of the Garden of Eden story in a satiric sense.
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's plan centers around a sack of gold (worth around $40,000) he drops off in Hadleyburg at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Richards, to be given to a man in the town who purportedly gave him some life-changing advice (and 20 dollars in a time of need) long ago. 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 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.
Mr. and Mrs. Richards, 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". Mrs. Richards is ecstatic that they will be able to claim the gold. Unbeknownst to one another, all 19 couples have received exactly the same letter. 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 members of the town, "Shadbelly" Billson and Lawyer Wilson. Both of their letters contain 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 second half of remark.
The next claim reads the same, and the town hall bursts into laughter at the obvious dishonesty behind the identical, incorrect claims. Burgess continues to read the rest of the claims, all with the same remark, and one by one the prominent couples of the town are publicly shamed. Mr. and Mrs. Richards 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 the stranger's plot and his desire for revenge. He says that it was foolish for the citizens of Hadleyburg to always avoid temptation, because it is easy to corrupt those who have never had their resolve tested. It is discovered the sack contains not gold but lead pieces. A townsperson proposes to auction the lead off and give the money to the Richardses, the only prominent couple in town that did not have their name read off. Mr. and Mrs. Richards 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 contrives to reward the Richardses for their supposed honesty by buying the sack at auction for its price in gold.
The following day the stranger delivers checks totaling $40,000 to the Richardses. They fret about whether they should burn them. A message arrives from Burgess, explaining that he intentionally kept the Richardses' claim from being read as a way to return an old favor done to him by Mr. Richards.
Mr. and Mrs. Richards become distraught over their situation. They grow paranoid and start to think Burgess has revealed their dishonesty to other people in the town. Their anxiety causes them both to fall ill and Mr. Richards confesses their guilt shortly before he and his wife die. Hadleyburg, with its reputation irreparably damaged, decides to rename itself. The story ends with the line "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, featuring performances by Robert Preston, Fred Gwynne, and Frances Sternhagen. It first aired on March 17, 1980. A DVD version of the film was released 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.
Following Twain's unpopular lecture at Oberlin College in 1885, the town of Hadleyburg became symbolic of Oberlin, Ohio. Historian Russell B. Nye writes 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, or approximately three generations before the writing of the story, and since that time had had a wide reputation, which is still held, as an educational and religious center. Again, it is important to note that the humiliation of the good people of Hadleyburg took place, ironically enough, in the village church, the scene of Twain's own experiences some years before.
Nye notes that Twain read 3 stories that were received very coolly by the majority 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."
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?
Why Oberlin's audience would not have responded more positively to the Huck Finn excerpt is even more of a mystery. Nye rightly 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 interpretation of Solomon’s “wisdom,” however, takes a different direction and is worth quoting in full. Jim's angry interpretation 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!"
Many commentators have rightly taken this comment of Jim's in chapter 14 to be not just a judgment against Solomon but also against slavery itself, especially its treatment of families and children, including Jim's own children. Twain critics such as Shelley Fisher Fishkin  understand that at such moments Twain's portrait of Jim in Huck Finn is definitely NOT racist caricature. See, for instance, the Genius.com page on Huck Finn, chapter 14, especially the annotation on the passage just quoted. If many in Oberlin's audience were bored or offended by this scene from Huck Finn, this means that they missed the tragic wit and humor of one of the best scenes in Twain's greatest novel when he presented it to audiences on his 1885 reading tour with George W. Cable, as Nye describes. Perhaps liberal Oberlineans disapproved of Twain’s use of the n-word and Jim’s heavy dialect—still an issue today. (Though note that it’s Huck, not Twain, who uses the n-word, and Huck does so in frustration, when he can’t effectively respond against Jim’s points. This pattern in fact frequently recurs and is central to Twain’s realistic characterization of Huck’s casual racism.) Perhaps the Oberlin audience was scandalized by the tale’s rather irreverent treatment of the Bible and the received interpretation of how wise King Solomon was. Regardless of its possible causes, however, we know for a fact that the Oberlin audience as a whole gave Twain a decidedly chilly reception in comparison to Cable. That Oberlin was obtuse to the value and wit of Huckleberry Finn might have given Twain is sharpest incentive to exact revenge.
Except for the internal evidence noted above, there seems to exist no more definite evidences of a connection between Oberlin and Hadleyburg. The fact that at the time of the publication of the story a connection was believed to exist, and that the belief still persists, serves as some evidence in itself. Then, too, if the story had been written with Oberlin in mind, could one expect to find any closer parallels than those already noted? To the people of Oberlin, for whom it was intended, the similarities were enough, as results show. Also, rabid anti-slavery agitation of some forty years before had made the town a highly publicized community in the Middle West and East, and this fact, plus the town's fame as a religious and educational center, would have made the intended connection even more apparent.
- Facsimile of the 1st edition/ 1900
- "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved February 23, 2012.
- Nye, R. B. "Mark Twain in Oberlin". Ohio History Journal. Ohio Archaeological and Historical Archive. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
- Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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