Transcript, America This Week: "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," by Mark Twain
Walter and Matt discuss Twain’s masterpiece fable about a town that too loudly trumpeted its progressive virtue, only to see its hypocrisy ruthlessly exposed
As usual, Racket publishes the short story discussion from “America this Week.” In this episode, Walter Kirn and I discuss “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” by Mark Twain:
Matt Taibbi: The story this week we’re going to do is one of the all-time great works of literature that’s been done in English fiction, certainly in America: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” There’s a lot to say about it, it’s relevance to the present, but also just how unbelievable it is as an artistic achievement. What’s your summation of this story by Mark Twain?
Walter Kirn: So, I’m a Twainiac, as Mark Twain fans call themselves sometimes. I love everything he wrote. He wrote far too much for any one person really to consume and meditate on in even a lifetime. But this has to be among the top five pieces of writing he ever did, for me. It’s a short story, but what I guess it really is, is a fable. It doesn’t attempt to realistically portray everyday life, it only attempts to realistically portray the human psyche and character. And so in this fable, there’s a small town, Hadleyburg, that is famed for its virtue, famed for its prudence, its honesty, its children of simple, rugged virtue. And it has a problem one day. A man who has come through earlier and had some kind of a bad experience in Hadleyburg decided to take revenge on it. We don’t know this at the beginning of the story. We don’t know that this prank that is pulled on the town is in fact revenge, but it turns out to be total revenge. The setup for this story, which is worked out with mathematical precision…
Matt Taibbi: I was going to say.
Walter Kirn: One of the beauties of this story is that it’s like a logical proof. It sets up a very simple situation and then it plays it out in its details to exquisite and precise imaginative precision, to use the word over again. Anyway. What happens is a letter arrives in this town along with a big bag of gold, saying that someone in the town once did a stranger a favor. And this stranger, who has since become rich, would like to thank that person by awarding them this gold bag.
But the way to claim this gold is that you have to come forward and remember this piece of advice. You have to remember verbatim this piece of advice you gave the stranger, which changed his life. And anyone who remembers that and can be presumed to have been the Samaritan who helped this person is entitled to this gold. And this letter and this bag of coins, or ingots, comes to the town and it’s announced that there is this kind of contest. And the result of this contest is that almost everyone in the town, anyone of any esteem, not the little people but the big people in town, become absolutely venal, deceptive and corrupt. It’s a trick and everyone falls for it. And the beauty of the story is that you see the rationalizations of people as they start to believe their own entitlement to something that they deep down know they’re not entitled to.
Because what the psychological process that this contest causes is for everyone who wants the money to think, “Maybe I was the one who helped this stranger. How might I have helped the stranger? How can I at least credibly pretend that I did it?” And we see, especially through the eyes and thoughts of one couple, how the process of convincing ourselves we’re virtuous when we know we’re not actually works.
Matt Taibbi: We’ll get into how it all played out. I want to start with something you talked about: the mathematical precision of the opening and the story in general. I think I once said that Hunter Thompson was the most instantly reliable narrator since Twain. Twain had this ability to grab you and be immediately trustworthy. You are with him all the way from sentence one. This story takes off like a rocket from the first sentence. Being a reader is like being the baton in the Jamaican 4x100 team. You are cruising through this tale that’s incredibly complicated and has all these layers to it, and jokes that are very sophisticated and very funny.
And it’s all done at breakneck speed, in the most beautiful conceivable language. It doesn’t slip anywhere. In fiction, and I know this because I can’t do it, if you have one moment where the suspension of disbelief lessens for even a second, the whole edifice collapses and it doesn’t work anymore. He not only does it, he does it in the most gorgeous conceivable language. Like Nabokov, but he’s much better than Nabokov I think because he uses these words that are accessible to everybody, even though they’re unusual and idiosyncratic.
He starts off with the story and the first part of it that’s so amazing is that there are no characters that stand out. I remember once somebody criticized Dostoevsky by saying the only character that he ever created you would recognize if he walked into a room was Raskolnikov. There aren’t many characters in this story who are fleshed out in such a way that you would recognize them, the way that you would recognize Huck or Tom Sawyer or other famous Twain characters. That’s not what he’s up to in this story. But he does do that with the town.
The town of Hadleyburg has a personality he sketches out in the first paragraph. I’ll just read a couple of these sentences. It talks about how Hadleyburg was so proud of its virtue:
It was so proud of it and so anxious to ensure 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 their 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.
He renders the virtue of Hadleyburg in a way that’s overdone just enough that you hate them instantly. And it reminds me of a story by Saki called The Storyteller, where a man on a train is telling a story to restless kids.
And it starts off with this tale of a little girl who was incredibly virtuous, and they immediately start rolling their eyes. But he adds a little detail that she was “horribly good,” and that she had won medals for goodness that she wore everywhere and clicked together as she walked. The kids immediately pay attention because now they hated her for being good.
Matt Taibbi: Twain accomplishes the characterization of Hadleyburg in five sentences and it’s absolutely perfect. The rest of the story is a total rageful deconstruction of the facade of goodness in this town.
I don’t know, Walter. There are so many things I love about this story, but for me at the top of the list is just the mastery of the language and the velocity of the story. How many writers are capable of something like this? You and I were talking off camera about this. It feels like it was done in one sitting by somebody completely in the zone. I’m sure that’s not the case, but it feels like it, doesn’t it?
Walter Kirn: It sure does. And how many writers? None since. Maybe, weirdly, the kind of cynicism and programmatic skepticism about human nature that Twain shows here kind of happened again in America in the sixties. In a weird way, this is almost like a proto-Pynchon story. It’s very thoughtful and logically consistent and it moves through a lot of individual psyches with a strange philosophical knife, because it exposes all the machinations of human hypocrisy. It’s like the War and Peace of hypocrisy, this story. Time and time again, we have these characters trying to figure out how they can lie and get this money without sacrificing their self-image. Because the disease of Hadleyburg is that it wants to look good on the outside. And that’s the torture of this place. Twain even suggests that one of the reasons it’s so susceptible to corruption is because maybe it hasn’t allowed itself to be a little corrupt.
Mark Twain had one value, I think, above all, and that was mischief. It’s Huck’s mischievousness that makes him virtuous and able to see through the hypocrisy of his elders. It’s Tom Sawyer’s mischievousness that gets others to paint the fence for him. In his travelogues, it’s Mark Twain’s mischief that makes him able to see when he gets to the Holy Land that if you added up all the pieces of the true cross he’s been shown, you could build a cathedral. Mark Twain has a hypothesis about human nature, which is that we’re not all that good. We’re pretty bad. And that the worst thing about us is that we won’t admit it. Disaster comes from pretending that it’s not true, when it’s so manifestly true that to deny it means we are in the grips of the monster, rather than in control of it.
By the end of this story, you’ve seen pretty much everyone who matters in the town, but especially one couple goes through level after level of rationalization, hypocrisy, doublethink. He kind of invents doublethink in this story, frankly, because the people have to believe that they’re still good, but they want that damn money. And in order to do that, they have to tell stories to themselves about how they might have helped this mythical stranger in the past.
Matt Taibbi: God, there’s that one paragraph where he’s imagining rescuing the guy from drowning. And the paragraph goes on for a while. Then the last line is, “And then he remembered he couldn’t swim.”
Walter Kirn: Here’s my favorite line from the story. And it doesn’t sound like much on its own, but I’ll unpack it for a second. “Edward fell. That is, he sat still.” Meaning he fell morally by not announcing his guilt. Everyone in this story sins by omission. They’re all exposed ultimately, but they have a million chances to expose themselves first. And at every one of those junctures, things would go better for them if they did. If they just stopped wanting the money, if they stopped lying to themselves about what they might have done to help the stranger, if they just excused themselves from the big meeting at which the money is going to be awarded and leave. But they don’t. They sit there and it’s sort of the coverup is worse than the crime thing.
They sit there and let themselves appear to be that which they aren’t, and it gets worse and worse for them. And the couple at the center of the story ultimately dies. On the last page they die because their hypocrisy has become so complete that the man gets a sudden guilty conscience and starts confessing to things and having fears about plots against him that aren’t true. In other words, his hypocrisy tips over into paranoia because he thinks the world is as deceptive as he’s being and that other people are as deceptive as he has been.
Matt Taibbi: He has so many witticisms that are compact beyond the ability of a normal writer. They’re laugh-out-loud funny, but they’re done, again, at breakneck speed without stopping that sprinter’s pace. In one scene which I love, all the 19 families in the town have gotten a letter in the middle of the process that leads them to believe that they’re going to get the money. Basically, a stranger recollects that, “Oh, I think it was probably you who did the helping, and here’s what you said.” And so everybody who got this letter wakes up the next morning with a huge, relieved smile on his or her face. All the couples show up the next day and they all look happy suddenly after being troubled for three weeks.
Walter Kirn: Because each couple thinks they’re the only one who got the code word.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly. And he goes through this list of how each one of these people is described, their particular look of satisfaction, how it’s represented in their person. Just a couple examples: “When Halliday found the duplicate ecstasy in the face of Shadbelly Billson, he was sure some neighbor of Billson’s had broken his leg.” Then there’s a similar line: “The subdued ecstasy in Gregory Yates’s face could mean but one thing; he was a mother-in-law short.”
There was another character who I guess had started a builder’s or an architect’s business that was failing. But now he was suddenly getting requests because all these people thought they were going to be flush with money in a second. The line is, “He got 11 invitations that day. That night he wrote his daughter and broke off her match with her student. He said she could marry a mile higher than that.”
So it’s not just that they’re happy, but they’re immediately transitioning to other unkind thoughts in which they can now indulge because of the relief of getting the money. He’s so brilliant in the way that he characterizes these people in a snap.
Walter Kirn: It’s dramatically perfect, too. Because it starts in the consciousness of one particular couple who is vying for this reward, but it ends with the entire cast, the entire town in one room at an event where the prize will be announced. So if you were looking to stage this thing, it’s damn well perfect. It brings everybody into what’s called an obligatory scene where the resolution of every particular story is concluded.
Matt Taibbi: It’s like Othello. They all end up stabbed on the bed in the end.
Walter Kirn: Right.
Matt Taibbi: There’s a scene in the beginning that reminds me a lot of current America. And this is where, I believe it’s the Richards’s, right? And they’re talking about the Reverend Burgess and the husband says, “‘Mary, Burgess is not a bad man.’ His wife was certainly surprised. ‘Nonsense,’ she exclaimed. ‘He is not a bad man, I know. The whole of his unpopularity had its foundation in that one thing, that thing that made so much noise.’” Now, they never tell you what that thing is. They just allude to the fact that there was some destructive rumor that caused people to hate a couple of different figures in the story.
This is very much like social media-driven America where we all silently participate in character assassination. And we’re guilty of it if we don’t speak up. A lot of people are and don’t seem troubled by it, until there are consequences. That is alluded to but not fleshed out in a way I think that’s perfect. If they had delved into exactly what happened, it would’ve detracted from the speed and mystery of the story.
Walter Kirn: I call this story a fable because a fable is usually explicitly allegorical, whereas a short story may be trying to just take a slice of life. Twain was always conscious that he was writing about this somewhat new nation, the United States of America, every time he portrayed a small town. He also was, I think, in this story, particularly aware that he was talking about the political class. Because we’re reminded over and over that these are the influencers in the town. These are the wealthy people. And at the end, not to give it away because it’s really too complex to recount, a politician comes forward. And the last act of corruption surrounds a political figure trying to influence a vote that will get a railway across his land. So in other words, if we’re looking at a pyramid of corruption in Hadleyburg, it goes from the bank clerk to the architect or whatever, and it ends with this rich political figure.
So Mark Twain was consciously writing a fable about corruption in America. And what did he have to say about it, getting away from the beautiful mechanics of the story? I think a couple of things. One, as I said before, our inability to accept our fallen nature is probably our greatest liability, because we are constantly attempting to portray virtue. And the more we do it, the more unrealistic and sort of desperate we become because we are basically engaged in a nonstop coverup of our true nature.
Secondly, the people who are most prone to corruption are those who have something already. The little people in Hadleyburg all sit in the back. And they laugh and cheer as the burghers, as the leading citizens are exposed. They even start making up songs in the back of this big meeting room, parody songs to get the goats of the leading citizens who are being exposed. Mark Twain famously said, “There is only one, I think, native criminal class in America, and that is Congress.” He definitely believed that the bigger you get in America, the worse you get.
And as a guy who loved talking to after-dinner societies and really did hang out with power, he had a reason to know that. Mark Twain was not some little populist living out in the middle of nowhere. He ended up an extremely popular, lionized figure who was always getting medals and meeting with senators and helped write the memoirs of Ulysses Grant. And so he knew the American ruling class intimately. And yet he never spared them because I think the more he knew, the worse he thought of them.
It comes from a kind of envy, because the other thing that secretly drives these people in this town is the desire to beat their neighbors. As the story goes on, we find more and more that they are all in competition with each other. They imagine making each other look bad. The only thing they like more than pretending to have virtue themselves is imagining the sins of their neighbors.
Matt Taibbi: This might be a good moment to talk about the real world context, which usually I don’t care at all about with a story, because it doesn’t matter. Whatever you read in the story is what you read.
Walter Kirn: Right.
Matt Taibbi: This is a really interesting thing though. Mark Twain gave a speech in Oberlin, Ohio, and had an incredibly bad experience and apparently never got over it. I think it happened 14 years before this story was written, but the background was that Oberlin had a reputation for being an incredibly enlightened, especially racially enlightened town. When he went to read Huck Finn there, there was all this tsk-tsking about things that he said, and there was another writer that he had come with who was more sentimental and milder and got a much better reception.
Twain read from The Tale of the FishWife. It’s a satire about “The Awful German Language,” and they didn’t respond to that well. There was a letter to the editor, which I think it’s worth reading because it reminds me of tweets that you might read that might get you upset:
Now that the people of the city have been so thoroughly humbugged, why not frankly own up and so possibly save other communities the mortification of being swindled… I like to laugh, but I’m provoked to think that so many laughed when there was nothing to laugh at.
This is somebody complaining that Twain even came, and describing it as being swindled that he showed up and read from Huck Finn.
Walter Kirn: Sounds like Taylor Lorenz or something.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly! This was a town, again, that was celebrated. It was actually celebrated even in Huck Finn, obliquely. There was a college town that was mentioned that was probably Oberlin. It was celebrated for its enlightened views on race, but it was very famous for its political virtue and its forward thinking. Its town motto was, “One person can change the world,” which sounds a lot like what people think today.
Walter Kirn: In Oberlin. Isn’t Oberlin the city where they had some lawsuit about a store in town that the self-righteous Oberlin types decided to boycott or do something against?
Walter Kirn: Oberlin, Ohio have to this day believed themselves to be pillars of right-thinking, enlightened American thought. Twain probably went there thinking that he was going to be welcome in this broad-minded town and was shocked to find that in fact, though racially sensitive or at least theoretically so, they didn’t like real life very much, and they didn’t like the foibles of individuals being explored and they didn’t like this uncompromising, somewhat cynical and pessimistic view of human nature, and they especially didn’t like the liveliness that Mark Twain brought because as we discussed last week, if Oberlin is kind of Puritanism in Ohio, liveliness is kryptonite.
It’s funny that he took revenge on this enlightened town. Sinclair Lewis or other people who make fun of the American small town usually pick some stuffy place out on the plains, Gopher Prairie, as in Main Street. But he based this on what was one of those little Athens of Ohio-type towns. There is an Athens, Ohio, but every college town likes to think of itself as the pure flower of Grecian virtue and so on. In other words, he didn’t pick the usual butt of these stories, which are stuffy middle brow places. He picked this place with a very fine and noble set of principles.
Matt Taibbi: Oberlin to this day, I think Lena Dunham went there, right?
Walter Kirn: Dunham went there, yeah.
Matt Taibbi: It’s a capital of a certain kind of progressive thinking that probably has mixed feelings about Twain to this day, I would imagine. This story is basically taking the premise of a town that considers itself enlightened, the heralds of right-thinking in the future, which by the way was just America in general in the late 1800s. They were just awash in this idea that they were discovering not just new horizons and new worlds in the West, but also morally, scientifically and in all other ways. They were going to be leaders of everything in the world in that score.
Walter Kirn: It’s a lot like now, Matt. This humorless, uninflected, utopian, self-righteousness has come back around in remarkably similar form to the Victorian version.
Matt Taibbi: You can imagine what a town like that would be today in America. It might even be Oberlin, but I would imagine it would be more likely someplace in California that would represent this kind of thing. But he takes this politically advanced, self-righteous, right-thinking place, and the whole thing is just this excoriating, you are full of shit story, but it’s not even an essay, it’s a gorgeous story where there’s not a letter out of place anywhere.
Everybody knows the famous Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses essay that he wrote about five years before this. Most people don’t know that there was a second version, probably not as good. But there was a little section of it where he analyzed something that Cooper wrote, and there was a little thing at the bottom that was something like words 320, necessary words 220. Twain had this infallible ear and mathematical sense of how much was needed. In this story, it’s words 300, words needed 300.
Walter Kirn: Was Mark Twain a liberal or a conservative?
Matt Taibbi: Impossible to say, isn’t it? I think that’s one of the things that’s greatest about him. I think on racial issues, he was enlightened for his time, right?
Walter Kirn: He did fight on the side of the Confederacy.
Matt Taibbi: Did he really? I didn’t even know that.
Walter Kirn: He joined a militia. He’s very funny about it, and he acts as though he got dragooned into it and didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he did, technically. He was enlightened on racial issues, it seems, compared to most people in Missouri at least where he had grown up.
Walter Kirn: But at the same time, he might be considered a conservative in that he seemed to venerate a few things. One was British culture in particular. He loved London, he loved Britain, and he loved the certain heroic legends of Europe, Joan of Ark and so on.
Even though Twain was in some ways instrumental in America throwing off the romance of Europe, throwing off its inferiority complex to Europe, he did have an extremely deep affection for notions of heroism and so on. He was embittered that America, I think, was becoming a mercantile and imperial power rather than sticking to its own business. You might have called him an isolationist now. He really was. His most bitter essays were about our imperial adventures in the Philippines, for example. Insofar as isolationism is identified as a conservative streak, he might have been that.
The point of my rhetorical question is that it is hard to place him on this spectrum, and the fact that it is should show us that there’s something wrong with the spectrum, not Mark Twain, because he was as well-read, as fearless, and as gifted an American mind as there has ever been. That he didn’t come down in a way that we can identify shows probably that were there to be a new Mark Twain or someone of his caliber, they wouldn’t either. He could have been charged with MAGA and he could have been charged with being a communist, he could have been charged with all sorts of things, and there would’ve been evidence for all those charges in a small way. But he transcended them. I don’t think there’s any way better to unstick yourself from the framework that they’ve put us in now than to acquaint yourself with Mark Twain, and not just his fables like this, but with his essays and even his broadsides, because he became increasingly sharp in his criticism of the American government and the American society. Even many of those essays were not published in his lifetime, held back for later publication. There was a resurgence of Twain interest in the ‘60s when all these things that his estate had kept down came back out in these collections that made him seem like a searing social critic right up there with the anti-war types.
Matt Taibbi: For somebody who wrote so much and wrote so much nonfiction and wrote so much periodical nonfiction, the way that it was hard to pin down what his politics were, and it still is, is remarkable. But I also think that’s a quality that’s common to great writers, especially when they’re doing their fiction, that you can’t exactly tell where they’re coming from always. He probably wouldn’t do well today. They would demand that he take a side on things.
Walter Kirn: Two things. Number one, Mark Twain had an unchanging message about the United States’ role in the world. It was that we had a pretty corrupt society, and how dare we go around the world trying to discipline and police others when we had done such a bad job of policing ourselves. He was unremitting in his criticism of the venal, money grubbing, and completely hypocritical American political establishment. He was appalled that we felt we had some moral position to lord it over others, whether they be the Chinese or the Filipinos or wherever.
I actually found the Oberlin story that I was alluding to earlier. “Oberlin College to pay $36 million to bakery owners who claimed they were falsely accused of racism.” This payoff just happened in 2022, which people at the college boycotted because they said that the bakery had done something racist [Eds. note: the bakery accused a black student of shoplifting, which was later admitted]. The little bakery on Main Street or whatever proved it hadn’t, and now the college is paying $36 million. Kind of a weird reprise of The Man That Corrupted Hadleysburg, the good people got hoisted on their own petard.
The last thing I want to say about Twain, and I hope we come back to him in the future, is that, though he was, as I say, relentlessly critical of our corrupt and hypocritical establishment, he seemed to have such a deep affection for the country as a subject, and for its scoundrels and maybe for its more ordinary people, certainly for its youth, that it wasn’t just cynicism. It was a cry for us to live up to something sweet or innocent that we had buried. I think that’s the reason why Twain, even though he might look like the ultimate sourpuss, is continually appealing, because we know that his outrage is the result of a very disappointed affection. America is home. Even though he loved England and he spent a lot of time abroad and he went other places, his criticism was loyal in some fashion.
Matt Taibbi: In agreeing with that, I think that comes out in the way he imagines his relationship with the reader, who is also an American in his mind, I think. It’s this incredibly intimate trust that they’re going to know what he means. It’s a really genuine sharing in the humor of the jokes that he uses. He really delights in it, and I think he’s imagining his readers delighting in it. It doesn’t come off as a sourpuss writing, although later in life some of his stuff was incredibly dark. But in this story, this was him at his absolute most enthusiastic in terms of his love of what he did and how much he was imagining the people who would read it would share in that. I find it very upbeat, even if there’s a lot of darkness in what he’s saying.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. Mark Twain, like you say, he achieves instant credibility when he starts his stories, and he wins us over. One of the ways he does that, as you just suggested, is he says, “I have faith in you. You too see through the bullshit. You too aren’t impressed by the big shots.”
He enters into an immediate conspiracy with the readers against phoniness. American politicians work that angle as well. It’s kind of what Trump did, and in some ways it’s what RFK is doing, and then I think it’s what Bernie Sanders did. He immediately puts you on his level and says, “What are we going to do about these liars? What are we going to do about these greedy sons of bitches?” That note was struck by Twain most perfectly, and I think those politicians I at least find appealing to drop my veil, are those who strike it again. I don’t expect politicians to be great people. I do expect them to be in a compact with the truth and with reality and with our actual citizenry, and the normal experience of people. What was so great about Twain is he’s obviously a genius, but he treated you as a peer if you were his reader.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly. When you read Nabokov, he’s not imagining that you’re on his level. Which is sometimes charming, because he’s transparent about it, but at other times, not so much. Twain is the same kind of literary genius, absolute total command of an awesome vocabulary. But he played it off like he was a messenger for the common man, and it worked. It was beautiful.
Walter Kirn: It’s like, “This is what you’d say if you had the time to do this writing thing.” Or, “If you were in the rooms that I was in, this is what you’d observe.” Or if you’d met these people. Or maybe this is what you did think when you did meet them. That ability to be both an immortal literary mind and win the sense of fraternity and friendship from the reader was great. I think it elevated American culture. Mark Twain made America feel worthy of itself, like it didn’t have to be pseudo-British anymore. Our kind of common sense, our way of seeing through pretense and so on, he showed to be a valuable and fully worthy approach to life. He gave America, in a weird way, its cultural self-respect.
Matt Taibbi: Twain created so many things about the way Americans talked and thought. Anyway, we owe so much to them. But this story, if you haven’t read it for a while, we definitely recommend going back and looking at it. I was blown away reading it again this week at this advanced age, seeing how perfect it is. It’s been a pleasure, Walter, talking to you about it. I hope everybody else enjoys this story as much as we did, and look forward to seeing you all again next week.
Walter Kirn: We’ll see you then. Bye.