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The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mark Twain's The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mark Twain

Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) spent his youth in Hannibal, Missouri, a small port town on the Mississippi. His father died when he was eleven, and he worked in the newspaper business from twelve onwards, first as a typesetter at The Hannibal Journal. After self-educating himself while working as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, Twain spent a decade working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. He toured the territories of the American West for several years while building his reputation as a journalist. In 1865, the publication of his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" brought him national recognition. Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870, with whom he had three children, and the family lived mostly in Hartford, Connecticut. By the time of his death, Twain was prized internationally as a prolific chronicler of American culture with an ability to expose its ills and hypocrisies in lighthearted, satirical fictions and autobiographical texts.
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Historical Context of The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

There is a theory that Twain based the town of Hadleyburg on Oberlin, Ohio, where he gave a reading in 1885. The audience at Oberlin College didn’t take kindly to the stories he read, including an excerpt from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This is perhaps because the scene he read involves an interaction between Huck Finn and Jim, a caricaturized portrayal of a black man during slavery. Because Oberlin was a prominent abolitionist town, it’s possible that the audience members rejected Twain’s stereotypical representation of an uneducated black man. It’s also possible that the citizens of Oberlin—a very religious and supposedly morally upstanding place—simply bristled against Twain’s humor. Either way, the author’s audience in Oberlin was unimpressed by him, so some scholars suggest that Twain invented the town of Hadleyburg as a representation of what he may have seen as Oberlin’s narrow-minded and self-righteous attitude.

Other Books Related to The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

Many readers see “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” as a parallel to the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. Similar to how the wily serpent slithers into the Garden of Eden and tempts Eve into eating fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge (thereby sinning and corrupting humankind), Twain’s Howard Stephenson (“the stranger”) appears in Hadleyburg and leads the townspeople into a temptation that ultimately changes the way they see themselves and the way they live. “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is also similar to some of Mark Twain’s other short stories, especially “The Million Pound Bank Note.” In this piece, two wealthy brothers give an impoverished man a million pound bank note. One of the brothers bets that the poor man will be able to survive for an entire month simply by flaunting his newfound wealth, whereas the other brother bets that he won’t benefit at all from the money because he won’t be able to exchange it anywhere. In the same way that “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” examines how wealth (or even just the idea of wealth) alters the ways in which people behave, “The Million Pound Bank Note” charts how money can profoundly change a person’s life. In both cases, Twain explores how capitalism and society interact, showing that wealth often shifts not only the way people act, but also how others perceive them. 
Key Facts about The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
  • Full Title: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”
  • When Published: 1899
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Fiction, Satire
  • Setting: The fictional town of Hadleyburg
  • Climax: Having all received the same instructions from the malicious Howard Stephenson, each of Hadleyburg’s nineteen well-respected citizens tries to win a sack of gold by writing the same exact phrase down and submitting it to Reverend Burgess, who is supposed to reward the person whose note matches a sentence written and sealed inside the envelope. When the townspeople discover that all of the community’s respected citizens have written down the same phrase—a phrase they each claim to have come up with by themselves—chaos breaks out, and it becomes clear that the Nineteeners are dishonest and morally corruptible.
  • Antagonist: Howard Stephenson (or “the stranger”), as well as the town’s vanity and hypocrisy
  • Point of View: Third-Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

On PBS. “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” was adapted for television in 1980. The short film aired on PBS with an altered and abridged ending.

Alias Smith and Jones. An episode of the 1970s western television series Alias Smith and Jones is entitled “The Men That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” a reference to Twain’s story, though the actual plot of the episode departs significantly from that of the original text.