Home > The Devil and Tom Walker
Tom Walker is married to an absolute nightmare of a woman (he’s no saint himself). They’re both stingy as hell, sharing nothing with one another, and have the sort of physically and verbally violent rows that frighten the fauna out of the nearby flora.
One evening, Tom is walking in the local wooded morass, when he comes upon an unusual person. At first he thinks the person is a Negro, but then he realises it looks like someone who works in ashes and soot all the time.
Upon asking the person’s name, he is told:
“Oh, I go by various names. I am the wild huntsman in some countries; the black miner in others. In this neighborhood I am known by the name of the black woodsman. I am he to whom the red men consecrated this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice. Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave-dealers and the grand-master of the Salem witches.”
“The upshot of all which is, that, if I mistake not,” said Tom, sturdily, “you are he commonly called Old Scratch.”
“The same, at your service!” replied the black man, with a half-civil nod.
The narrator stops to say that if Tom seems to be taking meeting the Devil a bit better than you’d expect, it’s because, after living with his wife, the Devil isn’t all that frightening. Burn!
An offer is made for the whereabouts of a local treasure, in exchange for the usual in these situations as well as something that isn’t specified. Tom needs to think on it and returns home where he actually shares this information with his harridan of a wife. She’s all for it (what has she got to lose, right?) but he’s unsure, so she marches off to cut her own deal.
This doesn’t go so well. The Devil kills her (leaving a couple of her organs in her apron up a tree for Tom to find) but only after she managed to rip some of his hair out. Hell hath no fury, indeed.
After this point, Tom wishes to pursue a friendship of sorts with good old Satan, feeling he has done him a great kindness, and tries to find him, who plays hard to get like someone reading The Rules . He waits until Tom will agree to anything to be his BFF, only then showing himself. A deal is struck and Tom lives his life to the fullest, gleefully using the treasure the Devil gave him to make more money (one of the terms of the contract was that Walker had to become a usurer; he happily obliged.)
As he grows older, Tom begins thinking that, perhaps, selling his everlasting soul to the Devil wasn’t the best idea. So he becomes a religious zealot. Praying louder and more obviously than the most devoted, life-long Christians.
Tom was as rigid in religious as in money matters; he was a stern supervisor and censurer of his neighbors, and seemed to think every sin entered up to their account became a credit on his own side of the page. He even talked of the expediency of reviving the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists.
This is very interesting, because when Tom first met the Devil in the woods, he’d remarked about an overtly pious individual in town:
“Deacon Peabody be damned,” said the stranger, “as I flatter myself he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors…”
When the Devil says, ‘Mind your own damn business or I’m going to get you,’ perhaps it’s time to mind your own damn business.
Washington Irving’s ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ is a straightforward retelling of the Faust legend. This one is more in line with what I expected (as compared to Doctor Faustus ), in that the devil strolls into the protagonist’s life, makes no effort to dissuade him from the bargain and the protagonist doesn’t care one jot for his everlasting soul until his death approaches. The protagonist isn’t likable at any rate, actually. The Devil is the only character who isn’t reprehensible in this story. You know exactly what you’re getting with that guy.
As you’d expect from the person who gave us ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, Irving is a master of creating atmosphere–the descriptions of the swamp were particularly well done. There was some humour, including schadenfreude, my personal favourite.
I don’t know about Irving’s feelings about Jewish people, but he really had it in for money-lending, which, at the time, was primarily associated with Jews so between that and the constant referring to the Devil as the ‘black man’ my brow was furrowed frequently whilst reading this.
Still, it’s definitely worth the read for fans of the Faust legend or just of creepy stories.
Amazon doesn’t seem to have a free version for Kindle, but you can get it from Gutenberg in this collection, which can be read on e-book readers.