Launchpad: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain

Book cover of The Man that Corrupted HadleyburgDirections: This Launchpad, adapted from, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Mark Twain’s short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” After reading the story, you can click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host David Brooks (New York Times) about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.

About the Author | Summary | Read the Story

Thinking about the Story

Given Twain’s known penchant for irony, comedy, and satire, some readers have seen this story as a replay of the Garden of Eden story—recounting the Fall of Hadleyburg, the innocent or virtuous “city on a hill”—and see the source of its corruption—the “Man” of its title—as the incarnation of Satan. In fact, in his hilarious autobiography, Twain himself encourages such a reading. “I have always felt friendly toward Satan,” he confesses. He reports how, as a seven year old, he thought to write a biography of Satan, a project Mr. Barclay, his Sunday School teacher, nipped in the bud. But Twain often returned to this subject in stories such as “Letters to Satan,” “Sold to Satan,” “A Humane World for Satan,” “That Day in Eden,” and “The Mysterious Stranger.” Others, however, see this as a story about an already corrupt human nature, in which people merely reveal their lack of integrity just as soon as temptation is at hand or when countervailing forces are absent. Consider, in this regard, that the plot begins only after Barclay Goodson (“God’s son”) dies and that the sack of gold is placed in the hands of Edward Richards (“son of riches”). To figure out which view, if either, is most plausible, we need carefully to consider the evidence.


Hadleyburg and Hadleyburgians

  • List the various ways in which the Hadleyburgians are described. What are their chief virtues and vices?
  • Consider Edward and Mary Richards, the primary couple in the story.

a. Do they differ from the other townspeople? If so, how?

b. What happens to them at the end of the story, and why?

  • Consider the Rev. Mr. Burgess (the name means “town citizen”), the victim of the town’s hatred for an alleged crime of which he was in fact innocent.

a. What is he like?

b. What does his fate tell us about the town?

  •  Two other characters are never blamed or made fun of: Jack Halliday and the mysterious Barclay Goodson.

a. Describe them. What distinguishes them?

b. Why do you think Twain (or the narrator) spares them his ridicule?

  • What do we learn about the town itself, Hadleyburg, as a result of the plot? Could this be “Any Town, USA”?
  • What is responsible for the town’s “corruption”?

WATCH: What is the town of Hadleyburg and its residents like?


“The Man”

  • What is the character and purpose of his project of revenge? Do you sympathize with  it?
  • What kind of offense might have been committed against the stranger such that the only possible retribution was to ruin the reputation of the whole town?
  • Who is “the man,” and what does he represent? Satan? Human nature? America? Something else? Defend your answer.

WATCH: Who is “the man,” and what does he represent?

Thinking with the Story

The story invites questions about a number of interesting themes important for thinking about the meaning of America: the virtues (real and apparent) of civic life; civic pride; the desire for gain and the commercial spirit; the strengths and weaknesses of religious belief; the power of public opinion, especially in democratic societies and democratic times; the treatment of strangers (and nonconformists); honesty, dishonesty, and hypocrisy; and the role of humor in the education of citizens. Here are a few worth your attention.


Virtue and Civic Pride

  • How important is honest dealing for healthy civic life? What other virtues are most needed?
  •  Is honesty good in itself, or is it simply good policy?
  • Is it foolish for a city to pride itself on its virtue?
  • Should hypocrisy always be exposed? Would unhypocritical dishonesty be preferable to hypocritical—or artificial or pretentious—honesty?
  • Is middle-class, small-town (or suburban) life in America deserving of the ridicule and contempt that Twain—and many writers and intellectuals since— have heaped upon it?

WATCH: Is the town of Hadleyburg representative of America?


The Commercial Spirit and Religion

  • Can one square the commercial spirit and its encouragement of the love of gain with religious teachings that encourage duties to others and love of Heaven?
  • How can a commercial society best inculcate moral and spiritual teachings and habits in the young?
  • Is Hadleyburg’s new motto, “Lead Us Into Temptation,” really preferable to the old one, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and the Lord’s Prayer)? Why or why not?

WATCH: What is the status of religion in the town of Hadleyburg?

WATCH: Why do the residents of Hadleyburg change the town’s motto?


Individualism and Public Opinion

As Twain’s story makes evident, the rule of public opinion can easily lead to prideful pretentiousness and the tyranny of the majority.

  • What is the role of public opinion in contemporary American life? What can be said both for and against its influence?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Richards are greatly concerned about their reputation in the eyes of their fellow citizens. Should they be? Would you like to live among people who did not care about their reputations? What if their reputations were all they cared about? How does one strike the proper balance?

WATCH: What is the role of public opinion in Hadleyburg?


Humor and Citizenship

Twain’s remedy for the foibles of America—or of America in the Gilded Age—seems to be laughter. He turns his biting wit against the commercial spirit, religion, and the narrowness and pretentiousness of small-town America—and we all laugh with him. But we should also consider the significance of (his) humor for civic life and its possible improvement.

  • What’s funny in the story?
  • Who laughs in the story, and why? Who doesn’t, and why?
  • Can laughter at others’ pretentiousness or hypocrisy help to moderate similar tendencies in ourselves? Or does it only make us feel superior to the laughed-at? What is the difference between laughing at someone as opposed to laughing with him—or at ourselves? Which are the citizens of Hadleyburg engaged in? What are we as readers engaged in?


The original book cover. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.