(Not-that-)short story review: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg


On Saturday, I went with some friends to San Francisco to participate in the Really Really Free Market. (Cue vegan stereotypes, if you wish.) For several months at least, I had been curious about this event but hadn’t gone, so I was quite excited to investigate. The website was encouraging, lauding the community of people who want to provide useful things for others. While I believe that there are many benefits to a capitalistic or semi-capitalistic system in which people do pay for what they consume, I am also able partial to the idea of a community of people who like to share and not worry so much about material wealth.

We were a bit confused upon arrival, since another event (part of the LGBT pride weekend) was taking place in the same park, and we didn’t know which one was which; I suppose they had merged into one larger event. But we soon discovered that the market was not what it claimed to be: there were plenty of people dispersed throughout the park actually selling things. For money. They weren’t supposed to, but they did.

How dreadfully disappointing! In a community of people who are supposedly untethered to the nearly-ubiquitous lure of monetary gain are still found those looking to make a buck. Certainly, it’s not a terrible thing that people want to make money, but it is unfortunate to find them among a community that exists as a reaction to them. Oh well.

It just so happened, quite coincidentally, that before I left for the train station on Saturday morning, I had begun to read Mark Twain’s fairly short (four chapters) story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (grammatical oddity notwithstanding) and was halfway through it. It required of me only the most minor capacity for analogy to notice the similarities between the corruption of the market and the corruption of the town in the story. Hence, when I returned home, I was anxious to read the other half.

While I was reading this story, I was pleased to find several things to think about, as well as a perceived direct challenge to one of my biggest principles in life. One message in this story is that everyone is corruptible, given a sufficiently high price. By this, I mean that it is possible for me to extract very serious concessions from an arbitrary person if I offer em a sufficiently large amount of money. (This is not the only possible way to interpret this: in this case, I would be offering a large positive incentive for em to do what I want; an alternative would be to offer a large disincentive against doing what I don’t want.) Taken literally, I think this is false: I can imagine a highly moral person who is already very wealthy for whom I could not offer anything, even I were to have great resources available to me. Probably some of these people even exist.

But most of us are corruptible, eventually. And I’m pretty sure that I am too, given a sufficiently high price. And this in spite of the fact that I have every material object I want and plenty of money to live on. Actually, I know I am, since I can think of explicit examples of certain corrupt things I would do for a sufficiently large purse. (But there aren’t very many people to whom I’d volunteer the information of exactly where those corruptions lie.)

The premise of the story is that anyone would sacrifice eir own honor as well as that of eir town, which has the reputation for impeccable honesty, for $40000. (Granted, that’s in 1899 money, so it would be substantially more today; according to this calculator, it would be just over 1 million dollars in 2009 money.) In the story, nineteen people were tested, and all failed. (Essentially; the situation is a bit more complicated in the story.) I’m not sure if I really believe that; I suspect that many people have much higher prices than that.

Lest someone claim that the amount of money offered isn’t the relevant point, I must say that I think it is. One can do a tremendous amount of good for the world with enough money. What would happen if someone with a passion for helping cure tuberculosis in third-world countries suddenly had an extra 10 billions dollars, for example? And what if it were 10 million? In the former case, one could probably solve the problem, or at least come close. In the latter, one could make a difference of course, but not to anything like the same order of magnitude. While only perhaps tangentially relevant to the story, this discussion is still a meaningful one to have.

The situation in Hadleyburg is a bit different from that in most other places. In Hadleyburg, not only are all people taught from a very young age that honesty is of paramount importance, but they are also not given many opportunities to be dishonest. It’s unclear exactly how this is supposed to be performed, but that’s a premise of the story. The problem with this, claims Twain, is that it makes people less likely to handle temptation well should it ever happen to surface. We’d be better off instead being tempted regularly and learning how not to succumb to it. On the other hand, if we don’t know what to do with it, we won’t be as good at recognizing it for what it is, and we’ll probably react worse.

And this leads to Twain’s challenge to me. One of my main principles is that I do not wish to place myself in situations in which I am likely to make bad decisions. I interpret that pretty broadly, and it leads to my not having a driver’s license or using telephones, as well as to having a set bedtime.

Am I setting myself up for a disastrous failure at some point by adhering to this rule? Might I be better off allowing myself to be tempted, even if I do fall into it from time to time? In my case, I think I have enough practice at avoiding temptation anyway; it’s very hard to avoid it completely when the rest of the world sometimes has a vested interest in putting it there. (That’s pretty obviously what advertisements are supposed to be, after all.) But while we’re talking about fiction anyway, would it be worth avoiding potential temptations for a while to be faced with a big one eventually, that I’d be more likely to fall for, if on the other hand, I were to fall for a bunch of smaller temptations? How does one compare the possibilities here?

In this case, I enjoy my lifestyle choices that are inspired by this rule, so I’m not going to change it without exceptionally compelling evidence that I’m wrong.

Twain presses this point (and the challenge to me) further. The tempter in this story has to worry about one person in the town not falling for temptation: that person is the one person not from Hadleyburg, who only moved there later in life. He would have had more practice in avoiding temptation; he might not fall for the trap. The tempter waits until he dies before springing this challenge on the town.

This raises one further question, then. Should we expect that a person who chooses to move to a town renowned for its honesty and trustworthiness to be of the highest moral character? I guess we should expect that to some degree without any further knowledge: such an atmosphere would presumably be appealing to a highly moral person. But as is often the case, there are other possible reasons for living there: perhaps one merely wished for some of that influence to rub off on em. Or, to think in a more sinister manner, perhaps ey expects that such people would be easier targets for a grand scam.

I found this to be a thought-provoking story. And since he also wrote my favorite short story, “The Million-Pound Bank-Note,” I look forward to reading more of Mark Twain.

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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