NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December 1968
THE CONSTRUCTION OF “THE DEVIL AND TOM WALKER”:
A STUDY OF IRVING’S LATER USE OF FOLKLORE
Charles G. Zug, III
ALTHOUGH it is unquestionably one of Washington
Irving’s finest tales, “The Devil and Tom Walker” has never attracted much critical attention. First published
in 1824 in Part IV of Tales of a Traveller, the tale recounts the
fate of an avaricious New Englander, who sells his soul to the
Devil in return for Captain Kidd’s treasure, and is finally carted
off to Hell after a long and profitable career as a usurer in
colonial Boston. For the most part, critics have been content to
note that the tale is “a sort of comic New England Faust,” or
that it “is redolent of the American soil.” In other words, the
consensus is that the tale has certain Germanic overtones but
is indigenous to the young American republic in which Irving
grew up. No one, however, has really attempted to examine the
possible sources for this work or note the complex manner in
which Irving has interwoven numerous motifs from American
and German folklore.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of interest in
“The Devil and Tom Walker.” Foremost, perhaps, is the fact
that Tales of a Traveller was poorly received when it was first
published and has never attained the popularity of such works
Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) or The Sketch
Book (1819). Also, there is the oft-cited critical attitude that
Irving lacked “the sustaining qualities of a great imagination,”
and was always content to merely embellish and lengthen folktales
which he had discovered during his extensive readings. This attitude is well substantiated in Henry A. Pochmann’s collation
of “Rip Van Winkle” and Otmar’s “Peter Klaus.” Pochmann’s
study reveals that Irving must have had the latter before
him as he wrote, and that lie did not hesitate to borrow sentences or even whole passages. Citing Pochmann’s article, Irving’s biographer,
Stanley T. Williams, labels Irving’s imitation of his
original source as “slavish,” and it is this general estimate of
Irving’s use of folklore that has largely prevailed over the last thirty years. As an example, a recent writer in a prominent folklore
journal has described “The Devil and Tom Walker” as a typical New England folktale, naively stating that “one is inclined
to think Irving almost wrote the tale exactly as he heard it,
with perhaps some smoothing of the style and a conscious development
of mood.” As will be shown, “The Devil and Tom
Walker” is in no sense a folktale that has been merely copied
down from oral tradition. Further, of the numerous traditional motifs contained in it, the majority are German and only six
appear to be native to America.
At the outset, it is significant that no source has ever been
discovered for “The Devil and Tom Walker.”...
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