“The Devil and Tom Walker” was published in 1824 in Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. It is widely recognized as the best story in the book and the third best of all his tales (after “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”) Having established an international literary reputation, Irving had committed himself to a career as a professional man of letters, and the mixed critical reception that Tales of a Traveller received stung him badly. Modern readers of stories in this volume are often struck by the folk or fairy-tale quality of the narratives and by Irving’s evocation of an older American landscape rich in symbolic texture.
Irving’s career and work is best understood in the context of the enormous cultural and ideological changes transforming the new nation at the time. By the 1820s, the United States had concluded its second war with Britain, Lewis and Clark had already explored the West, and the population grew from a little over five million to nine-and-a-half million in the years 1800-1820. Still, 97 percent of Americans lived in rural communities. The country was poised for great change: By 1850 the population reached 21 million and the proportion of urban dwellers increased sharply. During these turbulent years, inventions that spurred industrial growth, like the steamboat, the cotton gin, the telegraph, and eventually the railroad, dramatically shaped Americans’ sense of themselves.
Irving was not an unqualified believer in the popular notions of progress and expansion. He consciously chose British literary models and spent most of his life living outside of the United States because he believed that the only hope for American culture was to attach itself to the traditions of Britain. Tales of a Traveller was written and published in England, where Irving enjoyed a large audience and had cultivated a reputation for charm and civility. His literary depictions of the New World tend to find value in times past when American culture was more closely tied to the values of the Old World. One of the reasons that Irving had such a large readership was that his writing harkened back to an older time, before materialism and commercialism became leading forces in the newly emerging American society. Nevertheless, as many readers of “The Devil and Tom Walker” are well aware, Irving’s fictional America is hardly a new Eden, unspoiled and uncorrupt. Rather, the fictional landscape of the “The Devil and Tom Walker” seems haunted by events of the past and infused by Irving’s occasionally biting satire.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” is written in the genre that Irving practically invented—the fictional sketch. One of his innovations was the fictional narrator, in this case Geoffrey Crayon, who views events and reports local legends with good-natured skepticism. The device of the narrator serves several purposes for Irving. First, it allows him to distance himself from his readers. Many critics suggest that he started to rely on this mechanism when he sensed that his reading public was dwindling. Second, the intervention of Crayon permits Irving to tell fantastic stories without having to attest to their truth. According to Donald Ringe in his essay “Irving’s Use of the Gothic Mode,” this device allowed Irving, a man who subscribed to the dominant realistic philosophies of the day, to present “ghosts and goblins as actual beings” without having to explain them as natural phenomena. As readers, by extension, we do not have to believe that Tom Walker actually consorted with the devil, only that the legend says he did.
Irving’s use of these gothic themes within the framework of the fictional sketch raises another issue, however. Irving’s satirical purposes makes less important the question whether the devil, the pirate Kidd, or the treasure are real. In an allegory like “The Devil and Tom Walker” the fantastic elements are “real” in the sense that they represent something else. The comedy of satire works because of the different ways readers can interpret the story. For example, Irving and his ideal readers— those in on the joke—get to poke fun at the fictional audience for this story, those who actually believe that Tom Walker met the devil in the woods, made a deal with him, and later was carried off to his fate in a carriage driven by black horses. The narrator is a kind of intermediary between audiences, sometimes gullible (“Such, according to this most authentic old story, was all that was to be found of Tom’s wife”) and sometimes judgmental (“Like most short cuts, it was an ill-chosen route”).
By setting the story in New England, Irving is invoking the young country’s colonial past. The description of the dark forest with its dark history of an Indian massacre hardly portrays a people proudly connected to their own noble heritage. Instead, Irving seems to suggest that this is a community content to bury and forget old atrocities, and, more broadly, that the nation eager to bury its own history is doomed to be haunted by it. The woods in this tale also invoke the Puritan’s sense that the wilderness is the habitat of all sorts of evil. Readers will recognize the similarity to the dark wood of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” for example. Tom’s shortcut is, of course, a quicker route through the woods, but it also represents what Irving sees as the American tendency toward quick fixes and quick profits.
Irving’s allegory in “The Devil and Tom Walker” is very broadly drawn. In fact, many readers agree with Mary Weatherspoon Bowden in her book Washington Irving when she says that”occasionally [his] allegory gets in the way of the story.” The example that Bowden points out is that neither the pirate Kidd nor the treasure, not having any allegorical work to do, ever reappear after the first paragraph. After the pirate and the treasure are dispensed with, however, what remains is a stinging indictment of what Irving believes to be the state of economics and politics in the United States.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.