Colonel Sherburn Speech Satire Essays

    Chapter 21 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ends very suspensefully, as the Bricksville mob swarms up the street toward Colonel Sherburn's house to lynch him for shooting down Boggs. It took them years to get there. Mark Twain wrote the chapter sometime in 1879-1880, about three years after he had started writing the novel, and when he got to the end of it he put the manuscript away until the summer of 1883. During that interval he had plenty of time to decide what would happen next. From the recently recovered manuscript we can tell that his original plan was to have Sherburn's friends get him away from town before the mob could find him. Sometime later he wrote in the margin, "No, let them lynch him." By the time he started Chapter 22, however, he had a new idea: Sherburn would tame the mob into a silent audience and give them a lecture. He puts on an impressive performance. Although he holds a shotgun the whole time he is speaking, his most powerful weapon is his sovereign contempt for the people he is speaking to. "Do I know you? I know you clear through," he tells them at the outset, and winds up by ordering them "to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole."

    Many commentators have suggested that the speech doesn't really belong in the novel. Erupting through Huck's good-natured and ingratiating narration, Sherburn's vitriolic voice dominates the story as well as the mob. It's easy to understand why the episode makes readers uncomfortable; Sherburn's lecture goes on long enough for us to lose sight of the crowd he is speaking to and feel directly threatened by his scathing attack on "you." But the basic scene here is one every Mark Twain reader should recognize. The figure of a person addressing or performing for an audience is perhaps the single most representative scene in his canon. And not only does it occur again and again in his books -- what comes into most American minds by the mere mention of "Mark Twain" is probably the image of a performer, a man in a white suit talking to some sort of audience. As such a figure, Sherburn resembles "Mark Twain" a lot more closely than does Huck, who hates attention and good clothes. And the way Sherburn steps onto his porch roof and faces the crowd evokes the way Twain often began his lectures: "Sherburn never said a word -- just stood there, looking down . . . [and] run his eye slow along the crowd." Of course, in the mental image conjured up by the words "Mark Twain," the crowd is always delighted. On stage Twain liked to open by standing there with a deadpan look until the audience started laughing: "an audience captured that way," he wrote, "belongs to a speaker heart and soul." In Sherburn's performance, on the other hand, the only one who laughs is Sherburn himself, and there is nothing funny about it: "Then pretty soon Sherburn sort of laughed; not the pleasant kind, but the kind that makes you feel like when you are eating bread that's got sand in it." "To see Mark Twain is to laugh," said the Boston Globe review of one of his 1884 lectures, "and to hear him is to laugh still more." Sherburn, though, gets to laugh at the audience.

    "Mark Twain" was born, as Samuel Clemens wrote his brother Orion in the fall of 1865, of the gift that he recognized as his "call": "to excite the laughter of God's creatures." He recognized it somewhat reluctantly; his letter's next sentence reads: "Poor, pitiful business!" When, as Mark Twain, Clemens went back to work on the manuscript of Huck Finn in 1883, he began by dramatizing with obsessive force the business of performance, laughter, and who and what is pitiful. Poky Bricksville turns out to have as many attractions as a theme park. The men in crowd Sherburn chases away don't crawl into a hole, but instead, accompanied by their wives and children, go to the circus that afternoon, then that evening a few attend the King and Duke's production of Shakespeare, then the next evening a great many (but without their wives and children) crowd into "The Royal Nonesuch," the Duke's peepshow. Huck is never a regular member of the audience, and at the same time, unlike most of Twain's protagonists, including "Mark Twain," he has no desire to be on stage. Throughout these scenes of performance, therefore, he is in a perfect position to watch both the people on stage and those in the "house," and because he has almost no sense of humor, Huck is never too busy laughing to notice who else is, and who is being laughed at. There is a clown in the circus, who "carried on so it most killed the people." But the audience under the tent also laughs "till the tears rolled down" at the "drunk" trying to ride a bucking horse -- though as Huck says, "It warn't funny to me; I was all of a tremble to see his danger." Only twelve people show up for the Duke's "Shakespearean Revival!!!" Though their material comes from Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Hamlet, the audience "laughed all the time, and that made the Duke mad." "The Royal Nonesuch" is billed as a "tragedy" too, but when the King comes out "on all fours, naked, ring-streaked-and-striped," the "people most killed themselves laughing" and "haw-hawed till he come back and done it over again," and again. They stop laughing and "rise up mad" and go for "them tragedians" when they find out there's no more show, but to avoid being "the laughing-stock of this whole town" they talk their friends into going the second night. The audience expects to have the last laugh on the third and final night, but the Duke and King are ahead of them: before their audience can go for them again, they are safely out of town, floating down the river, counting their take ($465), and "fairly laugh[ing] their bones loose over the way they'd served them people." That's the last laugh we hear in these Bricksville chapters, and in a way it's an echo of Sherburn's first laugh: it's full of contempt for the crowd.

    In these chapters Huck's eyes allow the novel to look hard at the dynamic of performance. As a professional humorist, Twain might have reason to be glad that American audiences seem to prefer what the Duke calls "low comedy" to Shakespeare. Making people laugh, however, is depicted as a pretty grim business. The scenes remind us how much most people hate to be laughed at. The Duke decides to stage his "Nonesuch" to get revenge against the town that laughed at him, and he knows exactly how to manipulate their desire to avoid being a "laughing-stock" themselves. But it's only offstage that he and the King get to laugh. For the con to work in the first place, they do in fact have to "serve them people." Politically we can see what "The Royal Nonesuch" does to the "King" as incredibly liberating: he's stripped naked and made ridiculous. If we identify Twain's point-of-view with the "people," the scene suggests democratic empowerment. But if we identify Twain with the naked man on stage -- remembering, for example, his letter to William Dean Howells saying that as a "humorist" he felt his readers expected him "to paint himself striped and stand on his head every fifteen minutes" -- the scene dramatizes the performer's vulnerability to his audience. He gets their money and attention and roars of laughter, but at the cost of exposure and debasement. His powerlessness can be heard in the way Huck refers to the King's third encore: "they made him do it another time."

    The laugh that starts this whole sequence of chapters establishes the point I'm trying to make. When Sherburn looks down on the mob and laughs at it, the power relation is made clear. The position from which you can laugh at someone else is the dominant position, while being laughed at makes you an inferior. Twain's scenes don't disguise the cruelty inherent in this relationship either. The crowd at the circus laughs "till the tears run down" at the sight of the "drunk" being thrown around by the horse, but the narrative includes Huck's more humane response, his distress at the man's apparent danger, to underline the fact that it's possible to "make fun" out of people, as Huck again puts it, only if you deny them your sympathy. Huck hardly ever laughs in part because he has so much compassion for others. The "people," though -- like the real audiences that laughed whenever "Mark Twain" told the story of his attempt to ride the "Mexican plug" -- go "just crazy" with glee as the rider gets tossed around in the ring. The show is actually another con; the "drunk" really a trained equestrian; when he strips, as opposed to the King's nakedness, he becomes the "slim and handsome" master of the situation who presumably gets to enjoy the last laugh at the deceived audience -- again, offstage. And the audience itself enjoys the way he fooled them as much as they enjoyed his staged terror. But what the show shows us is one of the baser, more sadistic impulses on which the appetite of an audience feeds.

    All through these performances, in fact, Huck's language evokes the darker side of light entertainment. It's bad to be laughed at, but "the laughter of God's creatures" brings its own dangers. The clown's antics "most killed the people." Haw-hawing the King, "the people most killed themselves." The violence here is only figurative, of course, so that when the King and Duke "laugh their bones loose" there is no need to send for a doctor. But this way of figuring humor keeps the novel's reader metaphorically at the scene the section began with: a lynching. If we leave out the "Shakespearean Revival," each crowd of people -- the mob at Sherburn's, but also the audiences at the circus and the "Nonesuch" -- always seem right on the verge of mob violence. "Knock him down!" for example, is what they yell about the "drunk." The lynching never happens, any more than the "drunk" gets hurt or the third night's audience gets to take their revenge on the con men. (The King and Duke are finally attacked by their audience ten chapters later, the next time they try to stage the "Nonesuch.") Even their laughter, though, sounds ominous: "everybody," Huck notes in the circus tent, was "just a-howling with pleasure." People go "crazy" and their "tears roll down," but it is, at least supposedly, all in fun.

    And where is "Mark Twain" amidst all this laughter and violence? Like standup comics today talking about "knocking em dead" when their material is working and "dying" up on stage when it isn't, Twain regularly uses phrases like "the killingest jokes," and talks about setting off an audience's "artillery-laughter, interspersed with Congreve rockets & bomb shell explosions." Perhaps this kind of language, with its fantasy dramatization of power and powerlessness, is how humorists acknowledge and seek to compensate for what they do when they put themselves in a position to be laughed at by a crowd. But in the case of "Mark Twain," at least, there is a kind of literal truth in these life-and-death metaphors. "Mark Twain" is a purely enacted self, the persona Clemons created through his writing and speaking. As such his existence does depend completely on performance, and so on the audience without whom there is no show. Twain's own texts acknowledge this by repeatedly locating performance in situations where life is literally at stake. At the end of The Gilded Age, the jointly-authored first novel he wrote, Twain has Laura Hawkins tried for and acquitted of murder, but when she decides to become a public lecturer it turns out that she has more to fear from an audience than from a jury. The night of her first lecture the hall is almost empty, and the crowd hostile. Where she had expected "fame, admiration, the applause of the multitude," she is greeted instead with "a moment of silence, and then a brutal laugh." She doesn't die up there on stage, but within a few hours after "reel[ing] away from the platform," alone in her room, she does die. The jury could have sentenced her to death, but it's a failed performance that kills her.

    Or consider the scene at the Roman Coliseum in Innocents Abroad, Twain's first book. This great amphitheater inspires him to write one of the burlesque extravaganzas that made the book so entertaining for 19th-century American readers. As his earlier elaborate account of performing, however, it also reveals his invariable equation of an audience's attention with life. Among the ruins he finds an antique playbill and a review from an original gladiatorial "entertainment," the "Engagement of the renowned MARCUS MARCELLUS VALERIAN!" Like "Mark Twain," "Marcus Valerian" is a "stage name." Anyone who ever went to see "Mark Twain" on stage would have recognized the anachronistic line at the end of the playbill: "Doors open at 7; performance begins at 8." And like Twain, Marcus is a crowd-pleaser: the reviewer cites his audience's "uncontrollable bursts of laughter" and the "howl of enthusiastic applause." The critic does cite one fault, however: "looking at the audience half the time," "glancing at the audience, in the midst of the most exciting moments of the performance, as if seeking admiration." Since the "performance" is with battle-axes and swords, we might expect Valerian to keep his eyes on his armed opponents, or at least on the Emperor Aurelius -- the first could kill him and the second could decide with a thumb if he lives or dies. But for Twain, the ultimate source of authority, even of existence, is the audience.

    Or consider the Connecticut Yankee's first performance at King Arthur's Court. When Hank Morgan arrives at Camelot he is immediately stripped naked, and soon led out into a kind of Arthurian equivalent to the Coliseum -- or a lynching: he is bound to a stake at the center of a "seated multitude," "walled in by four thousand people" who have come to watch him be burned to death. Even as the monk piles the wood up around him, however, Hank keeps looking for deliverance. He doesn't look up to god, but out into the audience. When he sees "the multitude r[i]se slowly up," he looks into "their eyes," and finds his salvation there: "I followed their eyes; as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man!" As the moon moves across the face of the sun, he goes from "dying up there" to being in a position to "knock em dead"; at least, that's what the audience believes. The "new man" he becomes, the all-powerful magician who can blot out the sun or threaten to blast the crowd with thunder and lightning, is created by striking a pose, "one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck." His "stage name," also bestowed on him by the public, is Sir Boss. This too is a royal nonesuch, a kind of con, but the novel treats Hank's performance very sympathetically. His life depends upon his audience's acceptance of the self he enacts.

    The Coliseum and King Arthur's Court -- these are two of the most mythic Old World settings. But the imaginative use Twain makes of them both indicates how much he can teach us about identity in the new, democratic, mass-media-shaped world of which, in some sense, "Mark Twain" can serve as the first citizen. Both Marcus and Sir Boss are recognizably modern heroes, in that their heroism isn't defined by something they do -- killing an enemy, slaying a dragon -- but by the somebodies they seem to be, and their rank or place isn't established by an aristocratic order (though a Roman Emperor and King Arthur are present at these scenes) but by the response of the mass audience. Since Twain's time we've developed an increasingly glittering vocabulary for describing the kind of self achieved this way -- status, image, stardom, celebrityhood, superstardom. But we're not likely to find a better guide to the performative nature of modern identity than Clemens' life and Mark Twain's works.

    The first act of Connecticut Yankee resembles a lot of fairy tales: the poor outcast comes to the castle, passes a trial, becomes a favorite of the king and wins the hand of the princess. Desire in Twain's world is narcissistic rather than erotic, so the "princess" is a kind of afterthought in Connecticut Yankee. But after triumphantly surviving his ordeal at the stake, Hank does become "the king's right hand," and his nakedness is clothed with "silks and velvets and cloth of gold." But the story Twain is preoccupied with only begins here, the point at which the fairy tale would end. Because Hank's identity is enacted, not fixed, he lives anxiously ever after. He must keep putting on new shows -- or, as he puts it, performing more miracles -- to retain his popularity, to sustain the image of the somebody he has become. Unlike Sherburn, who masters a mob by telling them what he really thinks of them, Hank commands his audience only by fulfilling their expectations. Because his identity depends completely on their response, the somebody he becomes is somebody else. The public self he enacts in the eyes of the Arthurians grows further and further away from his own beliefs. In his own mind, for example, he is "the champion of hard unsentimental common sense and reason," and to himself he expresses nothing but contempt for Merlin and "the magic of folderol." But he can never tell the 6th-century public what he really thinks. To Camelot he is "Sir Boss," a magician who is mightier than but not otherwise different from Merlin. Hank Morgan hopes to enlighten the Dark Ages, lead the people away from their superstitions and prejudices. "Sir Boss," on the other hand, shines as a star by manipulating the same superstitions and prejudices Hank despises. Nor can Twain imagine a means to escape this paradox. When at the end Hank proclaims his true convictions, the public "rises up mad" and "goes for" him en masse. Where Sherburn had a shotgun to keep himself from being lynched, Hank has land mines, gattling guns and electrified fences, but when he kills his audience at the novel's apocalyptic ending, he also destroys himself. Because his identity depends so completely on their response, for him knocking em dead is the same as dying up here.

    The story of Hank's impersonation as Sir Boss dramatizes the fix Clemens was in as "Mark Twain." Sherburn can fearlessly tell that crowd his true convictions, especially about them, but of course that drives them away in droves. "Mark Twain's" existence depends (to use the Duke's term) on "fetching" an audience to him. Although he unleashed Sherburn's contempt when he first went back to finish Huck Finn, as a whole performance the novel is calculated to entertain rather than challenge or offend his reading public. As "Mark Twain" he can manage only the feeblest imitation of Sherburn's confrontation with society. At the outset he does actually point a gun at this readers, but when the "NOTICE" at the start warns them that "persons attempting to find a plot in [the novel] will be shot," he revises Sherburn's gesture into a kind of invitation that both demeans his achievement and exalts his readers, who are encouraged to come in and enjoy the book any way they want. The various announcements prepared by his own publishing company similarly promise buyers that Huck Finn is pure entertainment, "A MINE OF HUMOR." After what one reviewer called "the most extensive advertising campaign any novel ever had," Huck Finn became Twain's best-selling work of fiction. Like the King downriver from Bricksville, Twain could count up the money, but only after putting his audience in a position to do all the laughing. Huck Finn made him richer and more famous, but there are indications that he still felt there was something poor and pitiful about the business. In 1884-1885 he arranged a reading tour to promote the novel. Reviews and Twain's own reports leave no doubt that audiences across this country and in Canada "most killed themselves laughing" at the passages he read them -- mainly from Huck and Jim's conversations about investing in stock and King Solomon, and from the Tom Sawyer chapters at the end. In his reports Twain seems extremely pleased with that response. According to George Washington Cable, however, after one performance on the tour Twain turned to him and said "I am demeaning myself. I am allowing myself to be a buffoon. It's ghastly."

*       *       *

    This may be what motivates the man who corrupts Hadleyburg. We can't say for sure why this "passing stranger" feels so "bitter" and "revengeful" that he determines "to damage every man in the place, and every woman." In his unsigned letter to the town he says only that he had "received a deep offense which I had not earned." The narrative protects his privacy too; all it says is that once Hadleyburg "had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger." But the stranger himself calls his plot "a compensating satisfaction" for his "injury," and his revenge takes the form of a carefully scripted scheme to knock their public image dead. It climaxes in a bizarre standup comedy routine, only this time it is the audience that is forced to stand up, to play the part of buffoon. As an act of compensation the performance is brilliantly arranged to leave the people in the audience with no one but themselves to laugh at.

    Twain wrote "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" in the late 1890s. Almost the last work of fiction he finished and published, this sardonic retelling of the fall can be located in a number of interpretive contexts. In the way its plot dominates its characters, it is representative of the Naturalist literature of the period. Colonel Sellers, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, even Hank Morgan -- these memorable individuals all seem larger than the stories that contain them; in "Hadleyburg," however, individuals are (like Crane's Union soldiers in The Red Badge or the inhabitants of Dreiser's cities) interchangeable, essentially anonymous, and equally "overpowered by circumstances." In the way its theme depicts a communal loss of faith, the tale anticipates the preoccupations of Modernist literature. Its theatrical finish is a kind of deconstruction; when the nineteen "Symbols" by which Hadleyburg defined its meaning, to others and to itself, are left standing after having been emptied of all they were intended to stand for, we find ourselves in the territory that Eliot would call "The Waste Land." The tale's last word on this process -- "a-a-a-a-men" -- is an irony as resonant as "Shantih shantih shantih" at the end of Eliot's poem. But we can also read the tale biographically, as just about Twain's last word on, or last laugh at, public performance. The scene in the town hall that brings both the stranger's and the story-teller's "plots" to a climax is one of the longest and most elaborate of all the scenes of performance in Twain's writing. Like most of "Mark Twain's" live performances, it begins "at eight." Before it ends he has taken a funnyman's revenge.

    The trouble that begins at eight in Hadleyburg is something between Sherburn's excoriating lecture and the King's entertaining Nonesuch. The stranger's plan involves a lot of preparation, including gilding a bag of "gold" coins and writing twenty-two letters, nineteen to the principal citizens and three to the town. Its basic point, however, is to bring the people to a show designed to force the audience itself into the limelight. The stranger doesn't so much corrupt Hadleyburg as expose it, strip it of its image, reveal its "claimants" as "frauds" and its identity as an "imposture." Scenes of exposure pervade Twain's work too. Consider Tom Sawyer's first public performance, for example, which happens in Sunday School. Sunday School is "a place that Tom hate[s]," but he nonetheless seeks to be one of the "elect" there. As we would expect, in a Twain text it is not the grace of God that saves you but the attention of an audience: even in Sunday School the "elect" are the "great and conspicuous" people who get to sit at the front of the house. Although he hates the place "with his whole heart," nonetheless Tom's "entire being [longs] for the glory and eclat" that the audience's eyes bestows on those celebrities. To gain that attention he trades all the wealth he amassed during the whitewashing scene for enough tickets to claim a prize Bible. Of course, he has no more right to that prize than Hadleyburg's claimants have to the sack of gold. Tom's "wily fraud" is exposed when his punchline knocks dead his pretentions to biblical scholarship. Asked to name the first two disciples, he answers "David and Goliath." Twain's narrator lets his readers smile at his young hero's humiliation, but "draw[s] the curtain of charity" over the scene before we hear the people in Sunday School laugh at him, and as the novel goes on the narrator treats Tom's hunger for status with increasing indulgence. By the end Tom becomes legitimately great and conspicuous. But Twain's next book about "Tom" ends with a scene of exposure. This time Tom's last name is Canty, and he is the pauper who has been playing the part of "the high and mighty, the Lord Edward, Prince of Wales." He too is exposed in church, though this time it's Westminster Abbey and the prize he's about to claim is the crown of England. This time the question Tom is asked concerns how he has been using "the Great Seal of England." This time his punchline reads: "To crack nuts with." And this time, at this exposure of a presumption, this revelation that Tom "was not the King of England and familiar with the august appurtenances of royalty,"the narrator lets the readers hear the audience's reaction: "the avalanche of laughter that greeted this nearly swept [Tom] off his feet." Tom Canty isn't stripped completely naked, but while the crowd is laughing at him "the sumptious robe of state [is] removed from Tom's shoulders." The third time a "Tom" is exposed occurs in a courtroom. This time Tom's name, actually his stage name, is Tom Driscoll, and the part he has been playing is white Southern aristocrat and slave owner. At the dramatic climax of The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, he is revealed to be a "negro and slave." Once again the exposure is staged as a public performance, although this time no one laughs. In Mark Twain's world, where striking a pose can make you great, being exposed is the ultimate threat.

    At the end of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Wilson is the performer at center stage; in fact, he becomes a hero by exposing Tom Driscoll as a villain. Tom feels smugly superior to "Pudd'nhead" as the courtroom theatrics begin, is made more and more uncomfortable -- "the life seemed oozing out of him" -- as Wilson develops his case, is finally knocked dead, or at least unconscious, when Wilson directs the attention of the audience squarely at him and tells them who is "really" is -- "Valet de Chambre, negro and slave, -- falsely called Thomas a Beckett Driscoll": "Tom turned his ashen face imploringly toward the speaker, made some impotent movements with his white lips, then slipped limp and lifeless to the floor." At the dramatic climax of "Hadleyburg," there is no performer at center stage. The bag of "gold" is revealed to be an impostor, mere lead, but that isn't the heart of the show. With Mark Twain's help, the stranger invents a way to force the audience to the center of its own attention. Their collective attempt to "be somebody" leads directly to the exposure of what they really are: all frauds and impostors. And through it all the author of the performance remains offstage and invisible, in a position to enjoy the show the audience unwittingly puts on.

    Hadleyburg had expected to put on a different show. To them the stranger's plan seems an "eloquent recognition of what we are," and they are excited for this chance to be recognized, because "the world will always henceforth know what we are." The town hall is packed with "the best-dressed house the town had ever produced," the nineteen claimants are all silently rehearsing "the moving little impromptu speeches of thankfulness for the audience's applause and congratulations" each expects to deliver, and the rest of the audience is ready to play their part: "The house had gotten itself all ready to burst into the proper tornado of applause." But the stranger's plot is designed specifically to thwart this audience's expectations. The house gets ready to applaud, "but instead of doing it, it seemed stricken with a paralysis." If the King and the Duke know that the secret of popular performance is giving an audience what they want (or, when you can't do that, getting out of town), the principle behind the show that the stranger choreographs is exasperation: "And now at this point the house caught its breath all of a sudden in a new access of astonishment"; "There was a wondering silence now for a while. Everybody was puzzled"; "The house was stupified"; "The house was profoundly puzzled; it did not know what to do with this curious emergency." Although repeatedly confounded, the crowd keeps trying to fall back on their assumptions. Through the first half of the "show" they keep looking for a chance to applaud somebody, one of themselves who represents that ideal self they cherish as their public image. Curiously, like the crowd in the courtroom in Twain's earlier novel, they've just decided their hero is a lawyer named "Wilson," and are calling on him for a "Speech!" when the stranger's ultimate punchline knocks their celebration dead:

  "Order, gentlemen! Order! [cries Burgess, the master of ceremonies] Let me finish reading, please." When quiet was restored, the reading [of one of the stranger's letters] was resumed -- as follows:
  " Go, and reform -- or, mark my words -- some day, for your sins, you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg -- TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.'"
  A ghastly silence followed.

    Readers of Huck Finn know that going to hell can be heroic, but to the good people of Hadleyburg this is the ultimate insult. All they can do to fill the silence is laugh: "a good long laugh" that breaks out "again; and afterward yet again." Instead of applauding a great man who symbolizes their own greatness, they wind up laughing away their own pretentions and assumptions, which cavort and display themselves as nakedly and ludicrously as the King in the Nonesuch. It is presumably to their credit that they can laugh at themselves, and as eighteen of the nineteen claimants are exposed in the second act, the performance begins to sound like an evening with Mark Twain: "The house was in a roaring humor now, and ready to get all the fun out of the occasion that might be in it." But you don't have to listen very closely to hear a lot of anguish in their laughter:

  The pandemonium of delight which turned itself loose now was of a sort to make the judicious weep. Those whose withers were unwrung laughed till the tears ran down; the reporters, in throes of laughter, set down disordered pothooks which would never in the world be decipherable; and a sleeping dog jumped up, scared out of its wits, and barked itself crazy at the turmoil. All manner of cries were scattered through the din.

It isn't surprising that halfway through they have to lock the doors; probably only an audience captured that way would stay to watch itself made ridiculous.

    We know the trouble begins at eight. The narrative doesn't tell us when it ends. It's obviously a long night for the citizens of Hadleyburg, and in fact when the stranger, saying that it is "late," slips away from the hall he leaves "the audience" still there, "making a vast noise." Throughout they've been depicted as a sensation-seeking mob, rushing back and forth between outrage and hilarity. By the end they seem to have learned something about "what they are." The last time the "community's noble reputation" is mentioned, there is an "[Enthusiastic outburst of sarcastic applause]." I confess I'm not sure how to tell when applause is "sarcastic," but Twain was much more familiar with audience reactions than I am, and in any case the force of the adjective is to measure the distance between the people of Hadleyburg and their former image or status. They now recognize that distance by playing their former part ironically, exposing their former selves by impersonating them sarcastically. They have fallen from their earlier naivete, but that self-aware response signifies that the fall should probably be considered a fortunate one. As a humorist, "Mark Twain" throughout his career relied on his own (enacted) innocence as an occasion for comedy: he's the man who unknowingly tried to ride the Mexican plug, or learn the German language, or master the science of steamboat piloting; his audience are the people who get to laugh at the resulting misadventures. Exposing his own naivete is a sure-fire way to entertain others, but Twain also can make it serve his project as a realist writer. In a sense most of Twain's work is a scene of exposure, showing his readers what is really there on the other side of the unexamined assumptions they acquire from books and other cultural authorities -- about Old Masters, or Cooper's novels, or King Arthur's Court. As a humorous realist his technique is to use burlesque, parody, exaggeration and satire to rock the pedestals hard enough to shake off any social idols that aren't set up on a sound foundation. The performace that the stranger arranges for Hadleyburg to both attend and star in is unusual in the directness with which it forces an audience's most cherished beliefs about themselves to the center of their own attention and exposes them to ridicule, in the way it depicts the people themselves, rather than the objects of conventional admiration, as "feeble and foolish." But since all along Twain's concern had been with the people in his own audience -- it isn't really, for instance, Cooper's novels that he's so angry with, but rather the contemporary readers who admired Cooper's novels -- we might be tempted to read "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" as an act of faith in ridicule, and to see the man who corrupts Hadleyburg as the man who saves it.

    Unfortunately, that's a temptation that the ending of the tale makes it easy to resist. At the very end we're told that Hadleyburg has changed its motto, from "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" to "Lead Us Into Temptation." As an act of re-vision that looks very drastic: it not only implies a much more realistic appreciation of their human nature, it goes so far in the direction of realism as to rewrite one of the most doctrinally sacred passages in the book known as The Book, to see the need to reject even the Bible in the light of their own first-person experience. As an irony, the thought that Twain and the stranger save the people by teaching them to stop praying the Lord's Prayer is very attractive, but based on the rest of the tale there is good reason to see this change, striking as it is, as merely cosmetic -- a new look for the town rather than a re-vision. For they change the town's name as well as its motto, and that change, with its evocation of impostors, frauds, claimants and false selves, suggests that little has in fact changed in the people's assumptions and behavior. In fact, all through the show in town hall the audience clings to its prejudices with the tenacity of people who refuse to abandon their self-gratulatory image of themselves. Each time a part of the stranger's plot explodes that image they manage to resurrect at least one "symbol of [their] special virtue." The same people who scoff at Wilson's claim in the first act of the show "submerge him in tides of approving applause" a few pages later, after "the tricks and delusions of [his] oratory" have "fuddle[d]" and "debauched[ed] the emotions of [the] audience." They actually mount Wilson "on a big friend's shoulder" and are just about to "fetch him in triumph to the platform" when his claim is proved false a second time. As the rest of the prominent citizens are exposed the people enjoy the strip show, but the notion that they are learning something about themselves and reality is exploded by their naive adulation of Edward Richards, whose "invulnerable probity" allows them to preserve the illusion of themselves they started with. Because they can find a hero to believe in, it's equally possible for them to identify a scapegoat onto whom they can project the uncomfortable truth revealed in the mirror the stranger held up to themselves. Their scapegoat is named Pinkerton, who is fitted for that part by a man named Harkness within days after the stranger's show exposed them both as corrupt. The two are running against each other for a seat in the Legislature, and as a campaign gimic Harkness puts Pinkerton's name and image on the gilded lead pieces that had seduced the whole town. "Thus," writes the narrator, "the entire remaining refuse of the renowned joke was emptied upon a single head . . . It revived the recent vast laugh." But in the revival the audience is given a specific laughing-stock. Harkness's ploy not only deflects the "joke" away from himself; it gives the audience someone besides themselves to laugh at, and so restores their sense of superiority. As a comment on the benighted workings of the popular mind, the tale's brief account of the election erases any hope that the man who laughed at Hadleyburg also enlightened it. The audience's prejudices remain in place, and are as easy to manipulate as ever. Within days of being exposed, Harkness wins in "a walk-over."

    So the stranger's plot turns out to be a poor substitute for "kill[ing] you all." He is allowed the satisfaction of watching an audience perform for him and hearing it laugh at itself, but by the end he has been fooled too, and his hope "to eternally and everlastingly squelch your vanity and give Hadleyburg a new renown" is frustrated by the people who change Hadleyburg's name while clinging to their sense of themselves. It is only as theater that his plan works. In the way they manage to find an evening's amusement in their own fall, the people of Hadleyburg are like the people of Bricksville, who are as ready to watch a murder or a lynching as a circus. As an audience Hadleyburg remains invulnerable even after it has been stripped and exposed and laughed at. This is Twain's grudging tribute to the godlike powers of the people. As we see again and again in his work, an audience can make or unmake an individual claimant for status, but no one can remake it. Ultimately the stranger neither corrupts nor saves Hadleyburg; he merely entertains it.

    That looks like the role the author of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is resigned to playing as well. The story is exceptional in the aggression with which it forces an audience to the center of the stage, but entirely typical in the way it shields its readers from the scorn it unleashes upon that audience. "It was many years ago" -- with this opening sentence Mark Twain locates the tale at a comfortable distance from his audience. There are a few potentially vital pieces of information that the narrative withholds from its readers: both the name and the motive of the title character, for example, remain mysterious. But as a rule, like most comedy, the technique of the story is to let readers inside the joke from the start. In the second paragraph, for example, we're told what the people of Hadleyburg don't learn until the read the P.S. of the stranger's twenty-second letter, near the very end of the performance. Not even the most careless or acquisitive reader could be tempted, as all the major characters are, by that heavy sack the stranger brings to town. Except for the stranger, the characters act without any knowledge of what is going on -- until after they have betrayed themselves in public. And even the stranger is taken in by appearances at last, when he concludes he was unable to corrupt Richards, although once again the readers are privy to the truth. People can be amused at the sight of someone slipping on the ice, but not if they're on the ice and afraid of falling themselves. The place Twain provides for readers to watch the various characters fall is safely above the story. Sherburn looks down on his audience, and tells them to their faces how much he despises them. The stranger is this story is subtler, or less courageous: he arranges for his audience to look at itself, and reveal by its own actions how pitiful are its pretensions, while remaining offstage. Mark Twain is unwilling to go even that far toward alienating himself from the affections of his audience. By the end of the story readers have seen all the characters make fools of themselves, but while the town's assumptions are exploded, there is nothing in the story that requires readers to feel humiliated, or even chastened, themselves. The stranger gets even with an audience. The author gets even more popular.

    This late story could dramatize Twain's grievance, but couldn't exorcise it. The stranger's revenge seems to its victims to be "the work of some abandoned joker." The published story, however, is the work of a beloved humorist who could not live with the idea of being abandoned, and so stages the performance for, rather than at the expense of, his audience. At the same time, in the story he tells of Edward Richards, the one "symbol" that ostensibly keeps its meaning, he reveals how tight was the circle in which as "Mark Twain" he had to go around. Edward and Mary Richards' fate suggests that, if it's bad to be exposed for what you are, it's worse to be celebrated and admired for what you're not. The Richardses are the only people of Hadleyburg who wind up being killed by the stranger's plan. Afraid of letting the audience see their true selves, they hear their false image cheered and applauded, and find themselves rich and famous. When they fall ill after the show, the doctor in effect cites popular success as the cause: "their great windfall, the congratulations, and the late hours." But (again) they reader knows it's not the late hours that the Richardses can't live with; they die of the starring roles they are supposed to play in the town's attempt to re-enact its greatness. They die of making it as somebody else.

    As even Richards' story suggests, audiences are the ultimate creators in Twain's world, endowed with the power to save and destroy. It is only be retreating into invisibility that the stranger achieves a measure of control over Hadleyburg as his audience, and measured against that audience's ability to sustain its illusions, that control is finally quite limited. No one in the tale, except perhaps the reader, gets a last laugh. Colonel Sherburn is the exception to this pattern, but he is as anamolous a figure in Twain's work as Huck is. Huck is extraordinary because he can be alone. In fact, he prefers to being alone to any kind of public notice; he keeps running away from that. He plans to light out for the territory "ahead of the rest," which is a very different place from "in front of the crowd," the place where most of Twain's protagonists can usually be found. In front of the crowd is where we last see Sherburn. What is extraordinary about his performance is that he can afford, psychically, not just to chase that audience away -- to assert his self without making any claim on its attention or admiration -- but also to let them know exactly what he thinks of them. The show Sherburn puts on is probably the closest Clemens ever let Mark Twain get to enacting a truth that is as crucial to recognize as it is unattractive. When Sherburn laughs at Bricksville, we can hear how much contempt Twain had for the audience that doted on him. We can hear, in short, how much he could hate being loved.

Colonel Sherburn and Boggs

Character Analysis

Sherburn and Boggs are only in the story for a short time, and neither has anything to do with the overall plot of the novel. What gives, Mr. Twain? Well, we think they illustrate two common types of men in the antebellum South.

First, there's Boggs. He's the town drunk, and though he's belligerent, everyone in the town believes him to be 100% harmless. As one of the townspeople says, "He don't mean nothing; he's always a-carryin' on like that when he's drunk. He's the best naturedest old fool in Arkansaw—never hurt nobody, drunk nor sober" (21.40). Evidently he rumbles into town every once in a while and picks somebody to threaten. On this particular trip he's chosen Colonel Sherburn—oops.

Sherburn doesn't entertain Boggs' drunken lectures, and ends up shooting Boggs dead. The bystanders form a mob and migrate over to Sherburn's house, in attempt to lynch him. But Sherburn calmly faces them, and delivers the most articulate speech of the novel. Here's how it starts:

The idea of you lynching anybody! It's amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man! Because you're brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a man? Why, a man's safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it's daytime and you're not behind him. (22.6)

It goes on from there—you should really read the whole thing. Basically, he's undermining the whole myth of Southern bravery. So why did Twain decide to include this speech in the novel? Was this a speech Twain himself felt like making? Is Sherburn supposed to represent a true Southern gentleman of honor, while most of the population has devolved into embarrassing riffraff?

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