Thursday, March 09, 2017

"The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824)

Read story by Washington Irving online.

Washington Irving's tale is a 19th-century American update on the Faust story. It's a good story structure, a classic, and Irving makes the most of it. It starts with buried pirate treasure in the deepest Massachusetts forest, and then introduces Tom Walker and his wife, both bitter misers. They fight constantly, and one is always trying to cheat the other out of shares in their meager wealth. In the woods, Tom Walker happens to encounter Old Scratch himself, who offers knowledge of the buried treasure in exchange for the usual: one (1) immortal soul. Tom Walker says he'll have to think about that. It's such a momentous offer that he lets his wife in on it, who scolds him for not accepting it right away and then immediately leaves for the woods to cut her own deal. She's never heard from again, except later, when Tom Walker sees her apron hanging from a high branch in a tree, guarded by a large vulture. When he climbs up to recover it he finds only a heart and liver bundled into it. This is probably my favorite part of the story—dark and spooky, reminiscent of scenes from The Blair Witch Project or the more recent The Witch. Her absence is final. Nothing is heard from her again. Time passes, and Tom Walker gets to thinking about that buried treasure again. He returns to the woods, looking for the devil, who finally after some time reappears. They bargain and hash it out, in somewhat vague terms. Eventually they agree that Tom Walker will do very well as a banker—or "usurer," their preferred term. Tom Walker moves to Boston and indeed does very well. His duties: "extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy." Tom Walker attacks with relish and before long he is as rich as he ever could dream. Now comes the time for second thoughts and attempts to get out of the contract. Foolish mortal. All his plotting and scheming come to nothing, of course, except spoiling the time left to him. In the end the devil takes his due, in fairly dramatic fashion. Washington Irving is one of those early American writers I haven't actually read much, and this story was new to me. It comes from the collection Tales of a Traveller. His most famous stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," come from a collection of a few years earlier. My main concern with some of these early American writers I've neglected (James Fennimore Cooper is another) is that the language will be deadly dull and/or tricky to unpack, but that's not the case here at all. "The Devil and Tom Walker" is quite well done, though it starts slow on a lengthy description of the woods. Once we get to Tom Walker and his wife, it clips right along.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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