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Washington Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker: A Two-Minute Summary and a Deep Analysis

Irving’s most famous horror story – one which makes no excuses for its supernaturalism – comes, as most of his masterpieces do, from a German tradition. In this case it is the story of Doctor Faust. Desperately greedy for knowledge, this pseudo-historical alchemist was said to have sold his soul to the Dark One in exchange for wisdom, knowledge, and magical abilities. According to the traditions printed in German black-letter during the 16th century, the libidinous scholar enjoyed a middle age filled with debauchery, but it all came to an end one night when screams and scuffles drew a crowd to his laboratory. Upon entering, the curious onlookers found his corpse shredded viciously, blood splattered on the walls and soaking into the floor.

It is speculated that the historical Johann Faustus may have been killed in a chemical explosion, but the legends quickly sprang up that he had sold himself to the Enemy. Chrisopher Marlowe, J. W. von Goethe, Hector Berlioz, Thomas Mann, and Mikhail Bulgakov are among those who adapted his story – with varying emphasizes, morals, and implications. Irving’s tale would famously inspire the period writings – or “romances” as he called them – of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Young Goodman Brown” most of all, but to lesser extents “The Birthmark,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Burial of Roger Malvin,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “The House of the Seven Gables,” and others. The story also lent something – along with “Rip Van Winkle,” the “Old Christmas” series, and “Sleepy Hollow” – to Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” (Tom Walker – a miserly moneylender living parsimoniously in an empty mansion before being dragged off in his robe and night cap by supernatural forces – is a clear prototype of Scrooge). The story is flooded with historical allusions and genuine bits of local folklore.

This tale takes place in the Hockomock Swamp (aka, the Devil’s Swamp), whose name in Algonquin means “Place Where the Spirits Dwell.” The Wampanoag Indians believed that the marshes were a breeding ground of occult forces, and that the Spirit of Death – composed of the collected souls of the dead – held court there. Used as a tribal fortress and cemetery, the wetlands maintained their unlucky name after the Wampanoag – under the leadership of Metacomet (aka, King Philip) were massacred there. Even today, as part of the so-called “Bridgewater Triangle,” the swamp is infamous for its uncannily high rate of murders, Satanist activity, and freak disappearances (not to mention sightings of ghosts, UFOs, ape-men, and thunderbirds). Hounded by its role in the Indian genocide, the area has remained a local legend – and Irving employs this in his sinister indictment of America’s colonial crimes.

Unusual for Irving, it is set in New England – a region so frequently made the butt of his jokes. While he lampooned the Dutch New Yorkers as indolent, dreamy, arrogant, and self-important, New Englanders were often portrayed as downright villainous: lacking in a sense of humor, pathetically greedy, devilishly untrustworthy, and hopelessly hypocritical, they served as the perfect foil to the easy-going Dutchmen. Ichabod Crane, Dame Van Winkle’s stroke-inducing peddler, and Knickerbocker’s scheming Puritans are among Irving’s most notorious Yankee villains. To Irving, it was acceptable to be a lazy, conceited egotist – as long as one held onto the twin virtues of contentment and a sense of humor. But nothing was as unforgivable in his fiction as being ambitious AND humorless – a mortal sin.

To have these two attributes is to be paranoid, asocial, and disengaged from humanity (if not downright misanthropic). This is why the aloof, plotting Ichabod is such a good counterpoint to the raucous, lovable Brom Bones. No one – other than the dreaded politicians – epitomized this mortal sin to Irving so perfectly as a loan shark. Having watched his brother Peter lose his business, happiness, and self-esteem during his humiliating bankruptcy (an event he spent four years trying to prevent), he had little patience with moneylenders and usurers. The character of Tom Walker, like his descendent Ebenezer Scrooge, is the polar opposite of the open-handed, openhearted Baltus Van Tassel (though they are probably equally rich), and serves as a fittingly Faustian descendent of Marlowe’s scheming “Doctor Faustus” while presaging Hawthorne’s paranoid Goodman Brown.

The difference between these various manifestations, however, is the character’s abject shallowness: unlike Marlowe’s knowledge-hungry German or Hawthorne’s morally-ambiguous Puritan, Walker is blatantly cheap. He cares nothing for fellowship, community, or friendship, and has the temerity to sell his soul for money but spend his precious lifetime in miserly poverty, refusing to spend his wealth. Irving compares him to the three most miserable, amoral characters he can imagine: pirates, slave-traders, and Indian-killers. While Irving’s political activism would disappoint a modern social justice warrior, he wasn’t shy about his thoughts on slavery or Indian affairs: he considered both populations to be shamefully mistreated.

While he carried with him the casual racism of the 19th century, he equated all four professions – human trafficker, genocidal land thief, buccaneer, and loan shark – for their utter lack of empathy or mercy. Like his German predecessor, Tom Walker trades his soul for a fleeting grasp at self-importance – the alchemist hopes to heal his spiritual loneliness with knowledge while the ego-bruised moneylender enjoys the fact that he can spread fear by brandishing mortgages at pleading families. Regardless of the fact that both men meet the same fiery fate, Irving seems to hint that one of the two has made a worse bargain – he might as well have traded his life for a bucket of ashes…

II.

Irving begins his story with the pirate legend of Captain Kidd, the Scottish privateer who was said to have hidden a cache of his ill-gotten treasure deep in the forested swamps of the sinister Hockomock Swamp, outside of colonial Boston. After burying the chests, he made a bargain with the Devil to protect the gold from searchers. Kidd didn’t live to enjoy his wealth – he was hanged in 1701 – but the Devil kept his side of the bargain, and has been guarding the hoard ever since…

Twenty-six years later, the story picks up with a bitter old miser named Tom Walker who lives in a miserable, lonely shack on the marshy outskirts of Boston with his equally greedy wife. One date he wanders through the dark swamplands and finds himself standing on the deserted ruins of the Indian fortress – a shadowy, earthen mound leftover from King Philip’s War. King Philip – one of Irving’s personal heroes, whom he viewed as an honorable and tragic individualist – was an Indian chief who was defeated in 1678 by the Puritan colonials in a conflict noted for its treachery as one of the darkest moments of American history. While wandering in the gloomy twilight of the fort, Walker encounters the Devil himself: a shaggy-haired, soot-blackened woodsman chopping down trees (sinisterly marked by the names of prominent Bostonians, including a deacon rumored to be involved in the slave trade and a rich sea captain said to have been a pirate. Walker quickly realizes who his companion is and jumps at the coal-colored man’s offer to trade Kidd’s hidden treasure for an unspecified valuable, implied to be his soul.

Tom returns to his home where his only hesitation at accepting the offer is his displeasure at the idea of sharing the windfall with his wicked wife. Eventually he mentions the encounter to her, and she heads to the Indian fort by herself to make her own deal, and later returns with the intelligence that Satan is willing strike a bargain so long as she returns with an offering. In the middle of the night, she absconds with their meagre household goods of silver and the like, and is never seen again (all Walker can find is her heart and liver tied up in her apron and hanging from a tree).

With his wife out of the way, Walker decides to accept the deal, but learns that he can only spend the money in the Devil’s name, so he briefly ponders becoming a slave trader, but this is too evil for even Tom, so he decides on becoming a predatory lender. He is given the hidden gold and becomes an extravagantly rich with the rise of financial speculation in Boston’s growing merchant class. But Tom’s miserliness has not been cured by his wealth: he has a coach, but the horses are fed so little that they are emaciated, and his big house is cold, drafty, and unfurnished. Each year he grows richer, but he continues to suffer in self-imposed penury.

As Walker ages, he begins to feel the weight of his mortality and begins to dread the end-result of his bargain with Satan. Terrified of an eternity in hell, he begins attending church religiously, singing passionately in the choir, and never going anywhere without a pair of Bibles that he takes everywhere. The treasure has only made him more miserable: not only is he living in poverty, but now his waggish cynicism has been smothered by soul-crushing guilt and angst.

None of this, however, has stopped his business dealing or his thirst for wealth. One day he is bothered by a desperate real estate speculator who owes him money and is pleading him for mercy: “My family will be ruined and brought upon [welfare],” he moans, and besides which, “You have made so much money out of me.” Walker is absolutely unmoved and barks out, “The Devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Immediately, the oath is followed by three thundering knocks on the door. Startled, he opens the door to find a large black man holding a black horse by the bridle. “Tom, you’re come for!” he barks, and Walker realizes, too late, that not only is this his saddled, one-way ticket to hell, but that he has forgotten his two Bibles at his money-counting desk.

The Devil hurls him on top of the horse, which thunders out of town, into the Swamp, and towards the Indian fortress before is vanishes entirely with a dazzle of lightning. Afterwards, all his wealth is found to be worthless: the hoarded coins are nothing but wood shavings, the mortgages are just charred cinders, his horses are dry skeletons, and his house burns down in the night. All that is left of him is the legend that his melancholy ghost prowls the dark glen of the Indian fort.

III.

Though Irving has rarely been labelled a progressive – and never an activist – his most famous straight-forward horror story uses the Puritan myth of the Black Man in the Woods (interspersed with German legends of Faust) takes a notably political tack. As noted in the introduction, the primary villains of this piece are human traffickers, pirates, loan sharks, and genocidal land grabbers: those who took advantage of and dehumanized innocent people. I remember thinking about this story during the aftermath of the massive housing crisis during the Great Recession of 2008: people like Walker encouraged desperate borrowers to take out risky loans, well knowing that they wouldn’t be able to repay them, but eager to profit off of the interest. Because of this irresponsibility, tens of thousands of families went through tremendously dark times, often ending in foreclosure, bankruptcy, and even suicide. In Irving’s day, recessions were horrifically common (it seems as if they sprang up each decade – sometimes twice), and predatory lenders feasted while struggling small businessmen suffered famine.

Irving rhetorically compares loan sharks and speculative bankers to slave traders, buccaneers, and Indian killers, and while your typical victims of slavery, murder, and genocide probably wouldn’t see much of a comparison, it is interesting that at least two of those crimes – respectable means of earning a living at the time – would make the blacklist of one of America’s most politically cautious writers. During his lifetime Irving never attended abolitionist rallies, decried the Trail of Tears, or marched on Washington with Frederick Douglass, he did seem to sense – much to his chagrin, as an easygoing moderate – the cosmic hypocrisy of several American “institutions.” He deeply resented slave-holders, regularly lionized the plight of American Indians like Metacomet (whose marshland fort Walker visits), and drew comparisons between the ill treatment of African Americans, American Indians, and the Yankee colonists who so decried “taxation without representation.” It seemed to Irving – apolitical as he tried to be – that a person who proudly waved a flag and championed the struggles of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Trenton but turned a blind eye to the horrors of chattel slavery and Indian relocation must have made a deal with the Devil.

In a curiously un-nationalistic display of self-awareness, Irving portrays the Devil as indelible to the American way of life. Without being explicit or melodramatic he implies that the very structure of American culture, government, and economy has been built on a foundation of abuses and crimes. He dresses like an American (in political cartoons of the time, “America” was typically clothed in Indian garb), claims responsibility for the success of the American way of life (the colonies’ most successful burghers are his clients), and proudly touts his responsibility for the colonial economy (the booming slave trade, smuggling business, and selling of Indian territory fall under his provenance). Irving’s story would later – and very famously – be retooled by American writer Stephen Vincent Benet in “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” In this patriotic reimagining of Irving’s plot, an American citizen employs the eponymous American lawyer to defend him against damnation.

While Benet’s story is far more optimistic about the goodness of the American way of life, it also recognizes the more diabolical events in the national story: Satan proudly points to slavery and Indian removal as accomplishments of his. Although Benet has Webster victorious in his defense, both stories grimly acknowledge the hypocrisies, inhumanity, and deceptiveness that have played a part in crafting the American nation. Gender even enters into Irving’s story in the form of Goodie Walker, who sneaks into the swamp in hopes of bribing the Devil for power. Although notoriously greedy, she doesn’t seem to be bargaining for wealth, because she takes the family silver with her (unless she wanted to exchange it for cash, she couldn’t expect to make a profit). So what was her aim? We must imagine that – especially as a woman living in Calvinist Massachusetts – she had hoped to grab a piece of the power away from the men.

Characterized as argumentative, feisty, bullying, and proud, the only obstacle to her career as a formidable public figure is her gender – and Satan’s response to her appeal is predictably misogynistic. Found disembodied, with only her indomitable heart and liver tied up in her apron, she has been spirited away to hell, but not before being symbolically lobotomized and emotionally castrated. Without her heart (her will and personality) or her liver (her passions and temper), she is symbolically defanged, and her body has been dragged to hell for the Devil’s use. Although few critics read Irving’s characterization of Goodie Walker as sympathetic – and indeed, she is cast out of the same fearsome mold as Dame Van Winkle – her sad fate at the Devil’s hands closely resembles that of the African slaves and Indian wanderers whom Satan robbed of their liberty, property, and spirit. If God is in the business of making things whole – of reunion, restoration, and recovery – then Satan is in the business of making things broken – shattering wills, cleaving families, and crushing hopes.

***

Irving wrote this, of course, largely from his personal experience of having watched his brother Peter suffer from predatory lenders – his British-based firm eventually going belly up and being dissolved into a bankruptcy – and while his personal connection causes him to lament the fate of Walker’s victims, small business owners, he surprisingly – for both his time, his privileged background, and his political abstinence – sees fit to recognize the parallel abuses of his own class against marginalized groups. And the boogey man is not Satan himself, but Satan-in-Us: Old Scratch doesn’t possess his clients and force them to sell slaves, burn ships, or massacre tribes; he uses preexisting attitudes of entitlement and misanthropy to encourage his work on Earth. Manipulating slavers’ desire for wealth and status, he helps them profit from human trafficking; encouraging Indian killers’ lack of empathy or justice, he goads them into stealing lands and selling them at high profits; using loan sharks’ inborn disinterest in mercy or sympathy, he promotes their predatory lending.

And Irving doesn’t end his story by pointing – as Benet does in his – to the wonderful and meritable elements of American culture (although much exists). He ends by having his moneylender dragged off to the swamp where corruption, misery, and hopelessness are born – unrescued by his feeble attempts to mime righteousness, and doomed by his own greed (having piled mortgages on top of his folio Bible). Irving’s story ends without hope or condition – just as he wanted it. Like “Sleepy Hollow,” it is a warning – against hypocrites, against phonies, against greed. And the lesson is as ancient as Faust but as relevant as Dodd-Franks: be careful of how you build your life; notice whom your actions affect; care about who suffers from your victories; pay attention to the effects of your choices; and know whom it is that you are getting into bed with in order to prosper. After all, you may turn over one night to find that it has been the Devil.

You can read the original story HERE!

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Irving's best supernatural fiction HERE!