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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December 1968

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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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