The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain

“…the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.”

(written 4/2/11) On Saturday, March 26th, I drew the King of Hearts for my “Deal Me In” Short Story Reading Project for 2011.  Hearts is the suit where the short stories are supposed favorites of mine that I’d like to read again.  I’ve mentioned before that in the indexes of the various short story anthologies that I own, I usually asterisk those stories that I find particularly good.  This was the first story in a book I bought in the Spring of 1995, “A Treasury of North American Fiction – A Collection From Harper’s Magazine”

I had this story asterisked and marked that I read it on 3/31/1995 – almost exactly 16 years ago.  I can’t remember a dang thing about it today.  Maybe I will remember something when I start reading, but for now I am consumed with questions like, “What could a man do to corrupt a whole town?, Why would a man do this.  What kind of town is Hadleyburg?  Did he corrupt it on purpose?  Well, I guess it’s time to find out – I’ll continue this post after I’ve read the story….

(written 4/3/11) Alright, I’ve just finished reading The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.  I think I know now why I had asterisked this story before.  It wasn’t because I thought the writing particularly beautiful or pleasing, but instead was likely due to the fact that it is a nearly perfectly constructed story of non-violent revenge…

We never really learn (unless I missed it) what specific “wrong” the people of Hadleyburg had perpetrated on our title character, only being told.  He does say this about it: “I passed through your town at a certain time, and received a deep offence which I had not earned.  Any other man would have been content to kill one or two of you and call it square, but to me that would have been a trivial revenge, and inadequate; for the dead do not suffer.” How about THAT?

Now, we all know I enjoy a good story of revenge (ahem, The Cask of Amontillado…), and this one does not disappoint.  The stranger, who goes by (perhaps) the alias of Mr. Stephenson, employs a less bloody or violent method, but who is to argue that his results are less effective or more?

I do not wish to include spoilers in this post, but I will say that the corruption of this town is brought about by one of the seven deadly sins, in this case Greed.

The town of Hadleyburg has nineteen leading citizens (or families), all seemingly beyond moral reproach. Suppose, however, that one of the poorest of these families is paid a visit by a stranger, purporting to carry a bag of gold coins worth $40,000.00.  His story is that once, long ago, when in the town of Hadleyburg and down on his luck, a kind citizen had given him $20 and some words of advice which changed his life.  The stranger wants that person, whose identity he doesn’t know, to have the bag of gold coins.  The person who may claim the gold may be, he says in an accompanying letter, identified by the exact phrase of the advice given.  This is where the corruption begins…

I found the story to be somewhat tough reading – especially for Twain – but the masterful construction and execution of the plot to corrupt the town won me over and prompts me to recommend the story to you as well.

Do you have a favorite story of revenge? What do you think of Mark Twain’s writing?  Are you a fan or do you only have a passing interest?  I remember reading once that Twain, in comparing himself to other writers of the day who were recognized as great, said something like: “Their writing is like wine, mine is like water.  Fortunately for me everybody drinks water.”