Washington Irving was born to a wealthy family in New York on April 3, 1783. He spent almost twenty years of his life in Europe. Influenced by a movement that romanticized the preindustrial past, Irving won an international reputation as a distinctively American writer. Both Europeans and Americans considered him to be the nation's first successful professional man of letters. “The Devil and Tom Walker” first appeared in the book Tales of a Traveler, which he wrote in Paris in 1824.
Events in History at the Time the Short Story Takes Place
New England had been settled by Puritans in the early seventeenth century. The Puritans were a group of Protestants belonging to the Church of England who believed that the Reformation (in which the Protestant churches separated from the Roman Catholic Church) had not fully eliminated Catholic influence. Persecuted in England, Puritans emigrated to America to establish their own communal villages and worship in freedom. They were extremely religious and austere in everyday living. Puritans generally believed in the supremacy of God and the lowliness of man and that, as God's chosen people, it was their duty to govern national affairs according to his will. As a result, many aspects of everyday life in colonial New England were directly influenced by Puritan beliefs.
The fundamental doctrines of the Puritan religion were based on strict interpretations of the Bible. According to their faith, the Bible told what was right and wrong; all information necessary for a pious life could be found in the Bible. Puritans constantly strove to live a perfectly devout life. They believed that such perfection was difficult to attain, however, because of man's innately sinful nature. Puritans sought to avoid the pitfalls of sin in their lives through an emphasis on constant self-examination. They tried to eliminate such defects as pride, hardness of heart, and lust while emphasizing productivity and good works. As one author writes, the Puritans believed that “all ... acts of charity are to be undertaken not as substitutes for piety but as means by which a Christian can use the grace God has given him” (Erikson, p. 132). In some ways, Puritans were very humble because they thought of themselves as base creatures who were unworthy of God. At the same time, they saw themselves as chosen by God to convert and/or punish others who were sinful and haughty.
Because of their extreme convictions, Puritans were intolerant of other faiths, and they excluded from their community individuals who promoted different beliefs. The Puritans believed in one truth and thought that other religions were wrong. Tolerating other religions meant tolerating error, which was unacceptable in Puritan thinking. This philosophy is evident in a scene from Irving's short story wherein Tom Walker talks of persecuting Quakers, an action that he believes will enhance his own spiritual development.
Puritans believed strongly in the Devil (also called Satan or Old Scratch) and witches, who were his principal helpers. Puritans condemned certain people as witches and were convinced that American Indians worshipped the Devil. Irving touches on this belief as well in “The Devil and Tom Walker,” although he adds a twist to the concept. Satan appears to Tom Walker in an Indian burial ground and reveals that he, along with the Puritans, presided over witch burnings. The author thus associates the Devil not with the so-called witches, but with the Puritans who condemned them.
Puritans and Change
By the early 1700s, the religious zeal that characterized New England during the previous century had lost its vigor. The ideas of the Enlightenment, including scientific and rationalistic thought, had become more prevalent, weakening the religious convictions of many. The rapid economic and territorial expansion of the colonies also had an impact, for many Puritans became more interested in making money than in living a strictly religious life.
The northern colonies were gripped by a materialistic fever that was part of the developing capitalist economy in the early eighteenth century. Puritans, who despised idleness, often supported this view by stating that men had an obligation to exert themselves to avoid poverty. As people pursued wealth, however, religious convictions often became secondary concerns. While regard for the afterlife had previously dominated everyday thought, earthly comforts now took precedence.
Business and Society
Merchants and manufacturers dominated the ranks of the northern rich at this time, while the emerging wealthy class in the South consisted of plantation and slave owners. Sharp social and economic divisions emerged between the poor farmers and settlers and the new business class. Those who did not fare well financially fell by the wayside. There was no safety net, such as welfare or unemployment payments, for those who could not take care of themselves.
In New England, farming conditions were less than ideal. The land available for agriculture was not very fertile, and the conventional unscientific farming methods of the time rapidly wore out the nutrients in the soil, making the farms even less productive. In addition, by the end of 1713 the population of the colonies had surged. Many people emigrated from such countries as Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, and this influx forced settlers away from the eastern coast and into the interior of the country. Others simply abandoned their poor farms and moved inward as the soil wore out. Irving's description of Tom's house, located outside of Boston, reveals the poverty of the rural countryside:
A miserable horse, whose ribs were as articulate as the bars of a gridiron, stalked about a field, where a thin carpet of moss, scarcely covering the ragged beds of puddingstone, tantalized and balked his hunger; and sometimes he would lean his head over the fence, look piteously at the passer-by, and seem to petition deliverance from this land of famine.(Irving, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 251)
Meanwhile, business became increasingly concentrated in large commercial centers like Boston. Merchants and manufacturers resided in these growing towns, working to accumulate wealth as rapidly as possible. While many had a keen sense of business, others were often unethical in their dogged pursuit of riches. Piracy, smuggling, and privateering were all common practices. Smuggling, in particular, became a common means of circumventing restrictive British trade laws as merchants traded with the southern colonies, the West Indies, and Europe. One example of this process involved molasses. The North depended heavily on this food product from the Indies (the Caribbean islands—then colonies of various European powers). As commerce grew, demand for molasses had exceeded the supply available from the English islands in the Caribbean, and so the American colonies increased trade with the French islands in the West Indies. In response, the British Indies secured passage of the Molasses Act through the British Parliament in 1733. This legislation prohibited the American colonies from buying molasses from anywhere but the British Indies. The colonists ignored the prohibition and illegally smuggled goods from the French West Indies.
The increasing number of settlers pushing onto the frontier made land speculation a prominent means of earning a living. The speculators were often unethical and invested only to make a quick profit. Some unscrupulous speculators sold lands they did not own, while others resold “unsettled” towns that were already occupied. As Irving noted.
... there had been a rage for speculating; the people had run mad with schemes for new settlements; for building cities in the wilderness; land-jobbers went about with maps of grants, and townships, and Eldorados [legendary cities of gold], lying nobody knew where, but which everybody was ready to purchase. In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing.(“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 258)
After molasses was bought or smuggled from the Indies, northerners manufactured it into rum and sold the rum to ships bound for Africa. Northern slave traders used the rum to purchase slaves, who were subsequently sold to buyers in the southern colonies and the Indies. Slaves first entered North America in the early 1600s, along with indentured servants. New England used indentured servants more than slaves, but it was desperate for any kind of free labor; in 1710 Massachusetts passed an act that offered a bounty to anyone bringing male servants from ages eight to twenty-five into the colony. New England used both blacks and Indians as slaves, although Indian slaves outnumbered black slaves in 1706. As the sugar-producing islands demanded more labor, the African slave trade increased.
New Englanders, however, did not favor the slave trade. By 1712 the region had passed laws forbidding trade in Indian slaves, and heavy duties had been passed to prevent additional black slaves from entering Massachusetts. Northern slave traders often had to operate in secret and were regarded with disdain. Their lowly status is reflected in Irving's short story when Tom Walker stubbornly refuses to become involved in the trade.
Slaves were originally treated similarly to indentured servants, with the notable exception that they were bound for life. In the late 1600s, for example, slaves accused of capital offenses were entitled to a jury and police protection. As time passed, however, the severity of slave codes increased. By 1723 the penalty for a slave found guilty of a capital offense was death. The early 1700s also sealed the fate of slave families, for children of slaves automatically became slaves themselves. Black skin color was increasingly associated with slavery, and by 1717 Maryland had instituted laws that stipulated that blacks could not testify against whites and that slaves could not own property.
During the colonial period, money was difficult to obtain. The British did not allow the colonies to mint their own coins and did not import money into the colonies. Although paper money had been introduced, it was extremely unstable and caused rampant inflation that hurt large portions of the population, whose wages did not keep pace with the cost of living. Irving commented that “It was a time of paper credit. The country had been deluged with government bills” (“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 258). By the mid-1700s an economic collapse seemed likely. Debtors demanded that more paper currency be printed and circulated in hopes of curing the situation. As a response, the infamous “Land Bank” issued paper money that had no backing or definite value. Some people turned to usurers, also known as moneylenders, to finance risky ventures or to pay mounting debts. Usurers lent money to borrowers, who had to pay a fee or pay the amount back with interest. Often, the interest was very high. For someone like Tom Walker, who had gold and silver, moneylending was a very profitable business. Tom's customers consisted of “the needy and adventurous; the gambling speculator; the day-dreaming land-jobber; the thriftless tradesman; the merchant with cracked credit; in short, everyone driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices, hurried to Tom Walker” (“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 258).
The Short Story in Focus
“The Devil and Tom Walker” details the life of a prying, miserly man named Tom Walker. Tom's wife, an equally miserly and bad-tempered person, constantly fights with him about money and possessions. One day, while walking through the swamp, Tom meets the Devil. Old Scratch, red-eyed and covered with soot, is busily chopping down trees inscribed with the names of people who owe him their soul. Unafraid, Tom converses with the Devil, who reveals his knowledge of Captain Kidd's buried treasure. He offers Tom the treasure in exchange for his soul. Undecided, Tom returns home to consider the bargain. Despite their animosity toward each other, he tells his wife about the incident, and she becomes excited about the prospect of increasing their wealth. She insists that Tom accept the bargain, but Tom refuses in order to spite her.
Furious, his wife decides to seek out Satan and obtain the treasure for herself. She leaves the house with an apron full of silver and disappears. Tom, who is worried about the silver, goes to the swamp to look for her. All he finds is the apron, which contains not the silver but her liver and heart. Again the Devil appears and offers Tom the pirate treasure in exchange for his soul. This time, despite the signs of his wife's doom, Tom agrees. The Devil asks Tom to use the money to outfit a slave ship, but Tom refuses. While Tom “was bad enough in all conscience ... the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader” (“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 257).
However, Tom consents to become a moneylender, a business agreeable to the Devil. Tom takes the treasure and moves to Boston, where he opens a counting house and quickly becomes very rich. As he grows older, however, he regrets his sinful pact with the Devil. He attends church zealously and carries a Bible at all times, hoping to cheat the Devil out of the bargain and keep his soul. One day Tom mercilessly forecloses on a mortgage. In the process, he unwittingly summons the Devil by oath, whereupon the Devil appears on horseback and whisks Tom off forever. When officials enter the counting house to search Tom's coffers, they discover that his bonds and mortgages have turned to cinders and his gold and silver to chips and shavings.
The Walkers and Greed
One of the main themes in “The Devil and Tom Walker” is greed. While Irving's characters are exaggerated for comic effect, he exposes elements of miserliness, greed, hypocrisy, and spiritual decay that existed in early eighteenth-century New England. Tom Walker and his wife, trapped in a poverty-stricken, loveless marriage, fight constantly and are despicable, greedy people. Irving writes:
... they were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other. Whatever the woman could lay hands on, she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg. Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards, and many and fierce were the conflicts that took place about what ought to have been common property.(“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 251)
Tom and his wife are both financially desperate and spiritually barren, unable to love or care for anyone. Bound by their greed, neither one is afraid of the Devil. Tom is unconcerned when he first encounters Old Scratch and refuses the Devil's monetary offer simply to contradict his wife. She, who is as materialistic and bad-natured as Tom, journeys to the swamp in hopes of keeping the treasure for herself. She never returns. Tom searches the swamp for her only because he wants to find the silver that she has taken. When he learns of her fate, he shows no signs of sorrow for the loss of his wife. Instead, he is thankful that the Devil took her away. He even feels slightly sorry for the Devil, who he figures must have had a difficult fight.
Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodsman, who, he considered, had done him a kindness.(“The Devil and Tom Walker,” p. 257)
With his wife gone, Tom agrees to the bargain. Throughout the story, he remains oblivious to signs of his impending doom. He disregards the fact that the Devil is chopping down trees that represent sinners, and the evidence of his wife's death does not affect his decision. Perhaps Washington Irving saw a similar blindness in society around him and used Tom's foolhardy behavior to drive the point home to his readers.
Toward the end of Tom's life, the character regrets his pact yet has not learned the lesson of treating others well. Tom goes to church merely to save himself. In his final moments, he refuses to “do good” to a poor customer. Greed instead drives Tom to demand his money, whereupon the Devil arrives for his promised sinner and Tom's riches disappear.
While the inspiration for “The Devil and Tom Walker” stems from lore and legends with which Irving was intimately familiar, the exact source of the story is uncertain. Some scholars believe that Irving simply retold a traditional tale exactly as he heard it. Others, however, state that Irving drew from a variety of sources, skillfully weaving diverse plot elements together to create his story.
Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish Romantic writer, had befriended Washington Irving. Both men were interested in local legends and antiquities, and Scott encouraged Irving to visit Germany to learn some of the local lore. Before writing Tales of a Traveler, Irving traveled in Germany for over a year and recorded German stories and legends in a notebook. He had declared his purpose before arriving in the country: “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany and get from her her wonderful budget of stories” (Irving in Zug, p. 245). It is therefore likely that sources for “The Devil and Tom Walker” stem from his experiences during this period as well as from his own background as an American. Certainly, Irving's depiction of the Devil stems directly from Germanic tradition, which describes Satan as a large, strong black man and refers to him as the “Black Huntsman.” Irving simply “Americanizes” his devil by dressing him in Indian clothing and associating him with Puritan rumors of American Indian practices.
The characters of Tom Walker and his wife are more difficult to trace. Irving may have turned to some of his own previous characters in his creation of the Walkers. Tom parallels the money-grubbing Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and possibly represents Irving's idea of the money-oriented “Yankee,” for Ichabod and Tom's mannerisms fit the New Yorker's stereotype of a New England character. Tom's wife, meanwhile, is similar to the wife described in “Rip Van Winkle.”
Irving also incorporated the tale of Captain Kidd, considered one of the first North American legends, into his own story. In Irving's era, there was widespread belief that Kidd, a seventeenth-century pirate, had buried his treasure along the Hudson River or in southern New England.
Events in History at the Time the Short Story Was Written
Earning a Living
Washington Irving came from a well-to-do family and was encouraged to practice business and law. Irving was not interested in pursuing these careers, however, and he spent much of his life avoiding traditional work. Irving worked briefly as a lawyer because he felt that he should do something, but much of his time in this job was spent daydreaming and waiting for the workday to end. He also worked halfheartedly at his family's import business, filling his ample spare time with writing.
Washington Irving's father was a deacon and a strong force in his son's early life. The author would later behave in ways that were quite opposite of his father's teachings, however. While the elder Irving told his children that all pleasures were wicked, Washington Irving made a conscious effort to enjoy himself throughout his life. He was also not religious. Washington Irving seldom attended church until he was fifty years old, and he did not take comfort in religion during any of the rough periods of his life.
Although Irving did not enjoy working, he felt guilty about not having a regular job. He considered himself a failure despite the fact that he was becoming well known as a writer. His brother had a hardware business in England. When Irving arrived in 1815, the enterprise, in which he was a silent partner, was doing fairly well. Soon after, however, the entire family business went broke. Irving quickly published The Sketch Book, which was enormously popular. Irving became famous and was able to support himself and his family on earnings from the book. The fact that he could support his family with his writing gave Irving hope for the future, and he resolved to permanently forgo all business in order to dedicate himself to the craft.
When Irving wrote “The Devil and Tom Walker” in 1824, America was experiencing rapid economic and territorial growth, much as it had in the 1720s, when the story is set. The changing economic conditions of the 1820s led to a flurry of business activity. Irving's personal distaste for all this activity is reflected in the story. In his portrayal of both Tom and the Devil as shrewd businessmen, the author makes fun of the business community.
From the mid-1700s through the beginning of the 1800s, the country went through a period of religious reactions to the spiritual apathy of the early eighteenth century. Termed the “Great Awakenings” these movements increased the public's enthusiasm in Christian faith and worship and resulted in profound changes in religious viewpoints. Influenced by increased industrialism, a growing economy, and the expansion of the frontier, the Second Great Awakening dramatically changed church structure. It led to the establishment of distinct denominations in religion and the concept that no one faith was entirely correct. There was no longer an absolute way of life and therefore no longer an absolute religious truth. This unsettled atmosphere perhaps allowed Irving to examine and satirize religion in popular writing in a way that had not previously been acceptable. As individual ruggedness came to characterize the era, religion became a personal and voluntary expression of spirituality. Sin was no longer thought of as a flaw innate to man but rather, like the western frontier, as something that could be overcome and defeated.
During the 1800s writers, artists, and philosophers responded to the forces of nationalism that swept through Europe and the United States and questioned the notions of the Enlightenment that dominated intellectual thought. While the Enlightenment stressed rational thought, visible evidence, and universal standards of excellence, another movement, known as Romanticism, stressed the mysterious and unique nature of individual or national experience.
The Industrial Revolution fueled Romantic sentiments as well. Advances in industry and mechanization, first seen in Britain in the late 1700s, spread quickly to Europe and the United States. The Industrial Revolution triggered a period of great social and economic upheaval in the mid-1800s. People moved from the country to the city and worked in factories at tedious and sometimes dangerous jobs. Machines began to replace some workers, who were left to fend for themselves. Cities grew polluted and housing in some areas became crowded and unsanitary. Many people felt that they were losing control over their lives.
The Romantics turned to the past for comfort against feelings of isolation and despair. They believed that mankind had lost something precious in the process of modernization and that this “essence” could be found among farmers who still earned their living in traditional ways. In the eyes of the Romantics, these farmers were not yet tainted by the sins of the cities. The Grimm brothers of Germany, for example, published Kinder und Housmarchen, a collection of folk tales that had supposedly been gathered directly from German peasants. Many people considered these tales to contain some lost essence of true German spirit. Inspired by the Grimm brothers, hosts of other writers began to scour their own countries for legends, tales, and anecdotes, which they considered relics of a purer but dying way of life. In “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Irving similarly turned from the hard science of the nineteenth century to the more magical past, incorporating legends and superstitions about the Devil as an essential ingredient of the plot.
Tales of a Traveler, the collection containing “The Devil and Tom Walker,” was published in 1824. Although Irving believed that the book demonstrated some of his best work, as a whole it received poor reviews. Several prominent journals stated that the stories were offensive and even obscene. The United States Literary Gazette criticized the story of “The Young Robber”: “[a] scene most revolting to humanity is twice unnecessarily forced on the reader's imagination” (Johnston, p. 261). Others dismissed the book as dull and untrue. Irving was deeply disappointed that it received such negative press. Although he tried to put the criticisms out of his mind, he fell into a depression and eventually turned away from humorous writing.