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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer 1952

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Vol. VIII, No. 2, Summer 1952

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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