I don’t consider myself much of a Mark Twain fan, but I think things like his 1899 novella The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg are him at his best, and very good. It’s the story of an “incorruptible” town full of impossibly upright and honest citizens who somehow offend a stranger passing through their midst. Strange man or possible devil that he is, he is determined to get back at them—all of them—and spends over a year devising a plan to do so.
The plan is genius and fairly diabolical, and will hit Hadleyburg right where it hurts: in its incorruptibility. That is to say, in its vanity. The town that has been lording it over its neighbors for years now gets a chance to lord it over the entire continent (the stranger’s plan brings Hadleyburg fame for its honesty) just before being knocked down a peg or fifty. As soon as the stranger’s machinations are under way, the incorruptible citizens show their weakness, becoming weaker each day. Eventually some of the most upright members of the community resort to outright lies.
There are at least two important lessons here. The first is on vanity and its harmful effects. The second is on temptation. Mary Richards tells her husband, a cashier at the bank and one of the nineteen most respectable citizens of the town, very early on that she’s discovered the weakness in her honesty and her ultimate corruptibility:
“Oh, I know it, I know it—it’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty—honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now—and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I—Edward, it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours. It is a mean town, a hard, stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards. There, now, I’ve made confession, and I feel better; I am a humbug, and I’ve been one all my life, without knowing it. Let no man call me honest again—I will not have it.”
The second lesson is a hard one to learn at any time, but to have one’s vanity so badly pricked at once certainly makes it harder on Hadleyburg. Of course, Twain makes it pretty easy on us, letting us peep in at these horrid folk and laugh at them along with their neighbors, counting on our own honesty to kick in and force us to confront our own vanities and virtues.