Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899)

I was surprised on checking in again with Mark Twain's great long story to find out he was in his 60s when he wrote it. It has all the acid of an old man, that's for sure, but it proceeds with the clarity of a child's tale. That does make it a little programmatic on one level, yet the implicit faith in the corruption of the human soul is so complete as to render that a feeble objection. Twain simply sets up the ten-pins of the pious hypocrites and throws stones down the alley at them. Of course they fall—all of them. That's the fun of this. Another detail I like is that we never learn the original offense that motivates "the stranger" to his elaborate revenge. This story has some parallel in Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," which similarly presents a daydream of revenge. I call them daydreams because they go so perfectly, as if honed and burnished by a feverish mind over weeks and years of imagining them. In Twain's story, there are some hiccups. One family of hypocrites is spared through the secret actions of the Reverend Burgess, who bears his own stain as sinner. Yet even this resolves ultimately to the satisfaction of the revenger, more evidence for the daydream. I am always impressed by how boldly and neatly the man in the title accomplishes the corruption. One or two swift actions takes care of it. (Compare Osama bin Laden and 9/11.) It depends on a base but simple understanding of human psychology, along with the devilishly clever plot. I see by Wikipedia that some have attempted to connect the story with a real-life incident involving Twain and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. It might be so—didn't Stephen King do something similar, perhaps with obnoxious fans generally, in Misery? It would not surprise me at all to find there was a town in Ohio that resembled Hadleyburg. But it's also a little reductionist, and even beside the point. The reason this story is still read today—and should be!—has more to do with its take on human nature than any real town in the past. Yes, it's something of a harsh story, and makes me a little sad for the sense of Twain's growing bitterness toward the end of his life. At the same time it reminds me of the joke about not being depressed means you're not paying attention. I have sympathy—and at the very least the story shows again what an extraordinary writer Twain was.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

No comments:

Post a Comment