The town of Hadleyburg is insular and uninterested in accommodating foreigners, an attitude that makes enemies out of strangers. Because the townspeople believe Hadleyburg is “sufficient unto itself,” they are blissfully unaware of how outsiders like Howard Stephenson view them. They even celebrate the various cultural aspects they think make them different from other American towns. According to these citizens, they live in a veritable utopia, and they don’t “give a rap” about the world beyond the confines of their city. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that this unwelcoming attitude invites scorn from people outside their community. Whereas a more hospitable town might make Howard Stephenson feel at ease—thus avoiding any animosity and, therefore, vengeance—Hadleyburg’s insular and standoffish attitude turns the outsider against the entire community. As such, Twain spotlights the risk of close-mindedly focusing only on one’s own culture or group. Rather than apathetically ignoring outsiders and anything that goes on beyond the confines of one’s own community, Twain suggests that people ought to cultivate an understanding of how they and their fellow citizens appear to and interact with the outside world.
The incident that turns Howard Stephenson against Hadleyburg happens before the story begins, and the details of the squabble remain off-stage (so to speak) for the entire piece. Nonetheless, Twain makes it clear that Hadleyburg’s insular mindset is much to blame for the animosity that blooms between Stephenson and the town. He writes, “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.” Focused solely on itself, Hadleyburg doesn’t “care” about others at all, and this is the selfish mindset that offends Howard Stephenson. Twain asserts that “it would have been well [for the Hadleyburg residents] to make an exception in [Stephenson’s] case, for he [is] a bitter man and revengeful.” Of course, Hadleyburg isn’t to blame for Stephenson’s innate “bitter[ness],” but it’s obvious that the town’s exclusivist worldview—its unyielding obsession with itself—awakens the man’s aggressive nature. If the townspeople were more open-minded and welcoming, it’s unlikely Stephenson would feel the need to exercise his “revengeful” tendencies.
Hadleyburg’s insularity corresponds to its susceptibility to temptation and corruption. To understand this relationship, it’s worth considering that “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” employs an extremely old literary trope. The arrival of a wily and menacing outsider recalls the appearance of the serpent in the Biblical book of Genesis, when the serpent slithers into the Garden of Eden and tempts Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, from which God has forbidden her and Adam to eat. This figure of the tempting outsider reappears in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the poet recreates the fall of man, this time having Satan himself take the form of the serpent. In this latter version, Satan convinces Eve to eat the forbidden fruit by overwhelming her with her flattery, “extolling” her “above all other Creatures.” Similarly, Howard Stephenson appeals to the citizens’ high opinions of themselves. By exploiting the citizens’ vanity, he leads them into “temptation,” thereby succeeding in publicly humiliating them. Similar to how Adam and Eve are tempted by a stranger to eat from the Tree of Knowledge—thereby falling from innocence and becoming aware of their own capacity for sin—the townspeople of Hadleyburg are tricked by an outsider to reckon with the truth, which is that they aren’t above avarice and temptation. Furthermore, both Adam and Eve and the residents of Hadleyburg are extremely isolated from the outside world. In turn, they find themselves vulnerable to strangers who wish to do them harm, since they have no experience interacting with people who come from beyond the margins of their immediate community.
From the start, it’s suggested that the only thing the citizens of Hadleyburg care about when it comes to their relationships with other communities is their public image. Rather than fostering actual connections between Hadleyburg and other towns, the citizens think exclusively about themselves. When word gets out that an unknown man has entrusted Hadleyburg with a sack of gold, the townspeople are overjoyed, quickly circulating the news far and wide. “Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated—astonished—happy—vain,” Twain writes. “Its nineteen principal citizens and their wives went about shaking hands with each other, and beaming, and smiling, and congratulating, and saying this thing adds a new word to the dictionary—Hadleyburg, synonym for incorruptible—destined to live in dictionaries forever!” This shows that the town’s conception of the outside world merely serves to bolster its own self-glorifying views, meaning that its relationship with strangers and outsiders has nothing to do with fostering connections. This desire to be thought of favorably by strangers shouldn’t be confused for anything other than a self-obsessed desire for affirmation. After all, Hadleyburg “care[s] not a rap for strangers or their opinions.” Of course, this insular disposition is exactly the kind of worldview that turns strangers into foes in the first place. Perhaps if Hadleyburg wasn’t so focused on itself, it wouldn’t have made Howard Stephenson suffer “a deep offense” that he “had not earned.” Unfortunately, though, the town was unable or unwilling to welcome Stephenson, and so the citizens have to suffer the repercussions of their insularity—a penance that teaches them to open their arms to outsiders rather than close-mindedly focusing on themselves.
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Outsiders and Insularity Quotes in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
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.
The house was in a roaring humor now, and ready to get all the fun out of the occasion that might be in it. Several Nineteeners, looking pale and distressed, got up and began to work their way toward the aisles, but a score of shouts went up;
“The doors, the doors—close the doors; no Incorruptible shall leave this place! Sit down, everyone!”
I wanted to damage every man in the place, and every woman—and not in their bodies or in their estate, but in their vanity—the place where feeble and foolish people are most vulnerable. So I disguised myself and came back and studied you. You were easy game. You had an old and lofty reputation for honesty, and naturally you were proud of it—it was your treasure of treasures, the very apple of your eye. As soon as I found out that you carefully and vigilantly kept yourselves and your children out of temptation, I knew how to proceed. Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.