May 20, 2016
The Art of the Novella Challenge 43: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Author: Mark Twain
First published: 1899
Page count: 84
First line: It was many years ago.
The man that corrupted Hadleyburg is, to all intents and purposes, Clint Eastwood. But we’ll come to that later. Keeping our eyes at the information at the top of the page, let’s note that we’re stepping back a single year from Edith Wharton’s high-minded romance The Touchstone to this good plain satire. Let’s note, too, this flaming red flag of a first line: “It was many years ago.” It clearly wasn’t. This has nothing to do with you. It clearly has. As Swift had it, “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
Is it a satire, though? Fun is certainly poked at, and harsh censure brought down upon, the stuffy, self-satisfied town of the title, but, on balance, the censure rather cancels out the fun. By including in the narrative a thorough, round and general exposure of the vanity and venality of the nineteen “principal citizens” of the town, and broadcasting his moral in a town hall scene worthy of a Frank Capra movie, Twain leaves little for the reader to do. Satire is best when the targets are given the rope and left to hang themselves.
If not a satire, then, it is certainly a fable — in formal terms, a tale, with a moral.
The bones of the story is that Hadleyburg is a town with a reputation for being honest and upright — a just reputation, it seems, to the extent 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.”
Someone doesn’t think so, however, and this mysterious stranger sets a trap for the town by inventing a dead benefactor who lands on it a sack of gold coins to be bequeathed to the unknown person who once gave him, the stranger, a $20 bill, back when they were down on their luck. All that this entirely plausible but non-existent do-gooder has to do to claim the treasure is confirm the phrase with which they handed over the money – the transcription of which is enclosed in a sealed envelope. The trickster then secretly lets the nineteen richest and most prominent men in the town in on the open sesame, only to round them all up in the story’s grand finale, where the envelope is opened in front of the whole town, giving them both less and more than they bargained for.
Can a novella have a moral?
Can anything, in this century, or the one that comes between us and Hadleyburg, have, fruitfully, a moral?
The moral of the story is… that we don’t like our stories to have morals.
Gluing a two-pence piece to the pavement and laughing at anyone who stoops to pick it up would have about the same force.
If it’s easy to enjoy Twain’s bitter little dig at small-town America (think It’s a Wonderful Life pulled viciously inside-out) then it’s easy to pick holes in it, too. No attempt is made to show that Hadleyburg is actually a good and honourable place, beyond the fact that everyone thinks it is, so when we are immediately shown how shallow and self-centred everyone actually is, we tend to shrug. Perhaps we’re naturally more cynical today than people were in Twain’s time, though I’d find that rather hard to believe.
There is an oddity to the story, however, something that lifts it out of the fable format and shows that Twain saw deeper than that shallow trick implies. And it’s this: that although eighteen of those nineteen upright citizens are as basically nasty as they’re painted, the nineteenth, Edward Richards, is shown to have a measure of honour, or at least the capacity for shame. He applies for the treasure, like the others, but agonises over it. He and his wife, unlike the other prominent citizens and their wives (who are equally culpable), are poor, or claim to be, though how this squares with the ordinary townsfolk — presumably equally poor or poorer — is never made clear. All those townsfolk jeering at the humiliated worthies at the end of the story — Twain doesn’t seem to care that they’d have done the same thing themselves.
In the tale’s one twist, the town’s vicar, who is officiating the game of guess-the-remark, wins the fortune, and holds back the envelope with Richards’s entry, thus enabling himself to get off scot-free in the eyes of the town — and of the stranger, who then pops up to reward Richards with the full amount for actually being honest. Richards and his wife, horrified at their undiscovered sin, and fearful of being found out (rather like Stephen Glennard in The Touchstone), fade away and die from the shame of being thought honest, despite the fact that they’ve thrown their winner’s cheque on the fire.
This rather inverts the stranger’s accusation that “the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.” The Richardses test their own virtue in the fire of their own judgement, and it comes through the test. By which I mean that they are strong enough to know their own weakness. And for this they die.
So there is some head-scratching to be done, certainly, over the moral of the tale — and the fact that Twain, as the book jacket tells me, wrote it “on hotel stationary while in Europe on the run from American creditors, soon after the death of a daughter” might explain some of its take-no-prisoners approach to the American dream of middle-class probity. But still the treatment of the Richardses is strange. Theirs is a tragic end — the way I’m reading the story at least — but they are not treated tragically.
Nor can they be. Neither the fable nor the tale can admit tragedy to its purview, because their characters are always types, never individuals. In a true satire there is no such thing as collateral damage. If you get hit, you’re guilty. You wouldn’t be there otherwise. To take the figures of the Richardses seriously means wiping out or invalidating the attack on the rest of the town.
And so to the other anomaly to the story. There is not just a town in the title, but a man, the man who corrupts Hadleyburg. Interesting that the story is named after him, when, if it is a satire, he can’t be its true subject. He turns up ten pages from the end, though he’s been skulking around prior to that: a stranger “who looked like an amateur detective gotten up as an impossible English earl.” Perhaps what’s most interesting about him is that he doesn’t stick around to see his shenanigans wreck havoc on the town’s one basically decent couple (to the extent that they are able to see and admit their own indecency). Who is he? And, also, what is the wrong that once upon a time was done to him by someone in the town?
Well, he’s a close cousin of Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, that weird and uncanny supernatural Western with its returning demon who seems to descend on the Western town on Lago from somewhere beyond good and evil. I’d have to watch the film again to see if the comparison bears out, but let’s just say this: when a satire or a fable introduces a revenge figure to carry out retribution on its chosen target, it doesn’t usually want or expect you to look too closely at that figure. And that’s where you should look.