Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

November 30th, 2012

On November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) was born in Florida, Missouri, but he spent most of his childhood growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, where his family moved when he was four. Located on the Mississippi River, Hannibal provided the setting for the fictional town of St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

As a teenager, Twain worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to the local Hannibal Journal, and he continued working as a printer in his twenties for papers in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. In 1859, he became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, where he would pick up his pen name, Mark Twain, meaning a depth of two fathoms in the water. 

After briefly joining the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, Twain moved west in 1861—first to the Nevada Territory, and then, in 1864, to San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist. In November 1865, his first nationally-recognized piece of writing—“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”—was published in The Saturday Press, a weekly New York paper. After traveling through Europe in the late 1860s, Twain returned to the United States, married Olivia Langdon, and, after living a few years in Buffalo, New York, moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. It was at Hartford that Twain wrote his most successful novels: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881)Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), among others.Twain died on April 21, 1910.

Twain’s writing is filled with wit, satire, and a keen eye on the peculiarities of American life. These qualities are especially present in his short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), which offers a biting commentary on American civic life. In Hadleyburg, Twain offers a microcosm of America as it appeared in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a time Twain dubbed “the Gilded Age.” Hadleyburg, a commercial town renowned for the honesty of its citizens, happens to offend a passing stranger—how, we are not told—who, bent on revenge, devises a plan to expose the hollowness of the town’s reputed virtue.

Twain’s hilarious account sheds serious light on several important phenomena, including the fragility of honesty under the prospect of gain; the tyranny of public opinion and the fickleness of the herd mentality; the gap between reputation and genuine virtue; and the foolish pride in untested virtue.

As you read the story, consider these questions from the WSPWH discussion guide on the story: What is the civic character of the citizens of Hadleyburg, and what is their conception of virtue and goodness? What is responsible for their “corruption”: the commercial republic, with its licensing of acquisitiveness; democratic equality; lack of worldly experience with temptation; insufficient or hypocritical piety; “human nature”; prideful “original sin”; the diabolical man—a Satan figure?—who brings about the town’s fall from innocence? What can we learn from Twain’s exposé? Can laughter at others’ pretentiousness or hypocrisy moderate similar tendencies in ourselves? Or does it only make us feel superior to the laughed-at? Can humor provide a bond of society and encourage the virtues needed to sustain it?

It was many years ago. Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region round about. It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions. It was so proud of it, and so anxious to insure its perpetuation, that it began to teach the principles of honest dealing to its babies in the cradle, and made the like teachings the staple of their culture thenceforward through all the years devoted to their education. Also, throughout the formative years temptations were kept out of the way of the young people, so that their honesty could have every chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their very bone. The neighboring towns were jealous of this honorable supremacy, and affected to sneer at Hadleyburg’s pride in it and call it vanity; but all the same they were obliged to acknowledge that Hadleyburg was in reality an incorruptible town; and if pressed they would also acknowledge that the mere fact that a young man hailed from Hadleyburg was all the recommendation he needed when he went forth from his natal town to seek for responsible employment.

But at last, in the drift of time, Hadleyburg had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger—possibly without knowing it, certainly without caring, for Hadleyburg was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rap for strangers or their opinions. Still, it would have been well to make an exception in this one’s case, for he was a bitter man and revengeful. All through his wanderings during a whole year he kept his injury in mind, and gave all his leisure moments to trying to invent a compensating satisfaction for it. He contrived many plans, and all of them were good, but none of them was quite sweeping enough; the poorest of them would hurt a great many individuals, but what he wanted was a plan which would comprehend the entire town, and not let so much as one person escape unhurt. At last he had a fortunate idea, and when it fell into his brain it lit up his whole head with an evil joy. He began to form a plan at once, saying to himself, “That is the thing to do—I will corrupt the town.”

Six months later he went to Hadleyburg, and arrived in a buggy at the house of the old cashier of the bank about ten at night. He got a sack out of the buggy, shouldered it, and staggered with it through the cottage yard, and knocked at the door. A woman’s voice said “Come in,” and he entered, and set his sack behind the stove in the parlor, saying politely to the old lady who sat reading the Missionary Herald by the lamp:

“Pray keep your seat, madam, I will not disturb you. There—now it is pretty well concealed; one would hardly know it was there. Can I see your husband a moment, madam?”

No, he was gone to Brixton, and might not return before morning.

“Very well, madam, it is no matter. I merely wanted to leave that sack in his care, to be delivered to the rightful owner when he shall be found. I am a stranger; he does not know me; I am merely passing through the town tonight to discharge a matter which has been long in my mind. My errand is now completed, and I go pleased and a little proud, and you will never see me again. There is a paper attached to the sack which will explain everything. Good-night, madam.”

Click here to continue reading “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and be sure to check out the discussion guide and video conversation about the story with the WSPWH editors and New York Times columnist David Brooks. 

Also by Twain:

“Whitewashing the Fence,” from Tom Sawyer

“The War Prayer”


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