A Young America
At the time Irving wrote “The Devil and Tom Walker” in 1824, the United States was a new and growing country. As the land was populated by various groups of European immigrants, a uniquely American culture slowly formed as the traditions of many different groups merged and new traditions, brought on by circumstances, emerged. In literature, writers such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, and Ralph Waldo Emerson published works that embodied the concepts of freedom, religious piety, and independence that characterized the country. By 1800, New York City was the largest city in the United States, but most of the West remained wild and unexplored. In 1826 the American Temperance Society was founded, giving a voice to those who were intolerant of alcohol consumption of any sort. In 1828, Andrew Jackson, a man known for his efforts to displace many Native American tribes, causing their widespread starvation and death, was elected president. New arrivals to the country, however, were uplifted by America’s perceived spirit of Romanticism and humanitarianism. Irving embraced this feeling of Romanticism in his fiction, writing long descriptive passages about landscapes and relating the stories of hardworking immigrants who carved out a good living for their families. In the North, these ideas came to include the belief that slavery was immoral, and tension between the North and South over this and other issues began to rise. Much of the literature of this period, like the novels by James Fenimore Cooper, were romantic tales of the adventures of common men, often concluding with strong morals outlining Puritan ideals of good and evil. “The Devil and Tom Walker,” in which Tom Walker, a corrupt individual who gets his comeuppance at the hands of the devil, typifies literature of this era.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Washington Irving, Published by Gale, 1997.