Mark Twain’s American Humor

February 18th, 2014

On this day in history, 1885, Mark Twain published his famous novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Learn more about Twain’s distinctively American sense of humor with a lesson plan for his short story, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), regarded by many as his most successful fiction after his two celebrated novels, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. After working through the lesson plan, watch WSPWH editors Amy and Leon Kass discuss the story with New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Twain’s hilarious account of Hadleyburg sheds serious light on several important phenomena, including the fragility of honesty under the prospect of gain; the tyranny of public opinion and the fickleness of the herd mentality; the gap between reputation and genuine virtue; and the foolish pride in untested virtue. What is the civic character of the citizens of Hadleyburg, and what is their conception of virtue and goodness? What is responsible for their “corruption”: the commercial republic, with its licensing of acquisitiveness; democratic equality; lack of worldly experience with temptation; insufficient or hypocritical piety; “human nature”; prideful “original sin”; the diabolical man—a Satan figure?—who brings about the town’s fall from innocence? What can we learn from Twain’s exposé? Can laughter at others’ pretentiousness or hypocrisy moderate similar tendencies in ourselves? Or does it only make us feel superior to the laughed-at? Can humor provide a bond of society and encourage the virtues needed to sustain it?

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: , , ,