NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer 1952
THE DEVIL IN THE WRITINGS OF IRVING, HAWTHORNE, AND POE
James J. Lynch
IN THE spring of 1951, when the emotionalism of the
MacArthur controversy was at its highest, a mob of people
in one of our western towns hanged Secretary of State
Acheson in effigy. If this act had taken place about one hundred
seventy years ago, there probably would have been one difference
—the figure of the devil would also have had a part in the ceremony.
We learn from contemporary accounts of the Revolution
that when Benedict Arnold’s treason became known his effigy
was burned and hanged throughout the towns of America, invariably
with an image of the devil thrusting him into hell with a
pitchfork. Even as late as 1828, the school board of Lancaster,
Ohio, declared the railroad a device of the devil. And when
Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” appeared, a contemporary
critic of 1825 wrote: “If Mr. Irving believes in the existence of
Tom Walker’s master we can scarcely conceive how he can so
earnestly jest about him; at all events, we would counsel him to
beware lest his own spells should prove fatal to him.” Irving,
Hawthorne, and Poe, therefore, being fairly close to the times
when the devil had some status, could be expected as romantic
writers to use the devil as one of their characters.
The devil as a character is, of course, a manifestation of
romantic writing concerning the supernatural. It is obvious, however,
that he is not to be associated only with the so-called
romantic period, for he has appeared throughout our literature
from the writings of Cotton Mather to Whittaker Chambers’
article on the history of the devil in Life magazine of February 2,
1948. On the stage, Hawthorne’s story “Feathertop” was adapted
by Percy MacKaye in his play “The Scarecrow” (1914). Walt
Whitman, in his poem “Chanting the Square Deific,” represents
the devil as a part of a quadruple divinity. The idea of Satan as
a benefactor of mankind can be found in Mark Twain’s posthumous
romance The Mysterious Stranger. Bret Harte wrote a
story called “The Devil and the Broker” with a devil that is not
scared by holy signs. Eugene Field comments on the cautious
distrust of the American businessman, in his story “Daniel and
the Devil.” In this story, the devil, who has always enjoyed the
reputation of fulfilling his part of the contract, is surprised by
the distrustful businessman’s insistence on a written guarantee.
There are many others who might be mentioned, among them
James Branch Cabell, “the American diabolist,” H. L. Mencken
for his “Memoirs of the Devil,” and Stephen Vincent Benét for
his “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a story based on a folktale.....
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