Mark Twain (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) is well known as a humorist and satirist. But like many satirists, he had serious things in view. Writing in the latter part of the 19th century, as the so-called “robber barons”—the giants of the steel and oil industries, e.g., Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller—were growing their monopolies, and as the railroads and national wire services were literally forging one nation out of our many communities, the character of our emergent national life was much on Twain’s mind. It was Twain who coined the phrase, “The Gilded Age,” to describe this period of American history (from the 1860s through the 1890s)—though Twain himself was a big (but not always successful) speculator in financial markets. Twain was also concerned with the growing power of public opinion and the conformity and hypocrisy that it might cause. All these themes are present in “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), regarded by many as Twain’s most successful fiction after his two celebrated novels, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Watch editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host David Brooks (The New York Times) about the story. For a discussion guide and more, visit whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-meaning-of-america/enterprise-and-commerce.