Friday, July 23, 2010

The Devil and Tom Walker

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra

When Tales of a Traveller was published in 1824, critics derided the collection as a rehash of Washington Irving’s previous works. Even the painter Gilbert Stuart Newton, Irving’s friend and fellow lodger in England, confided in a letter that the book suffered from a common malady afflicting popular writers: “they give the world a work, however well executed, but resembling in its nature what they have already done.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the section entitled “The Money-Diggers” was “told amazingly well.”

The section admired by Newton includes “The Devil and Tom Walker,” which remains the most well known piece in the book. Based on the story of Faust, Irving’s darkly comic tale inspired a number of works, including Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster and, most recently, a 2008 musical that debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse. In both Irving’s and Benét’s stories, the devil goes by the name of “Old Scratch” (probably from the Old Norse scrat, or goblin), an epithet also used in works by writers such as Dickens, Trollope, and Kipling and transformed into Scratchy Wilson, the outlaw drunkard in Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.”

Although the story is set “about the year 1727,” the historical details describing the financial collapse actually refer to the circumstances of the Land Bank scheme of 1739–40, which occurred toward the end of the administration of colonial governor Jonathan Belcher. Given Irving’s painful, personal bankruptcy after the War of 1812, it’s surely not a coincidence that Tom Walker’s chosen profession in evildoing is financial wizardry, accumulating bonds and mortgages and forcing foreclosures and bankruptcies during the “hard times” following a speculative real estate bubble gone bust:
the people had run mad with schemes for new settlements; for building cities in the wilderness . . . lying nobody knew where, but which every body was willing to purchase. In a word the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country, had raged to an alarming degree, and every body was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing.
In spite of its many comic and satiric elements, the bleak background and moralizing tone (“Let all griping money brokers lay this story to heart”) make for what biographer Andrew Burstein (The Original Knickerbocker, 2007) calls “perhaps Irving’s most pessimistic tale.”

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A few miles from Boston, in Massachusetts, there is a deep inlet winding several miles into the interior of the country from Charles Bay, and terminating in a thickly wooded swamp, or morass. On one side of this inlet is a beautiful dark grove; on the opposite side the land rises abruptly from the water’s edge, into a high ridge on which grow a few scattered oaks of great age and immense size. Under one of these gigantic trees, according to old stories, there was a great amount of treasure buried by Kidd the pirate. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!