Monday, October 31, 2016

Appreciations: Washington Irving’s ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’

“At this propitious time of public distress did Tom Walker set up as a usurer in Boston. His door was soon thronged by customers. The needy and the adventurous; the gambling speculator; the dreaming land jobber; the thriftless tradesman; the merchant with cracked credit; in short, every one driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices, hurried to Tom Walker.

“Thus Tom was the universal friend of the needy, and he acted like a ‘friend in need’; that is to say, he always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. He accumulated bonds and mortgages; gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer; and sent them, at length, dry as a sponge from his door.”— Washington Irving, “The Devil and Tom Walker,” in Tales of a Traveller (1822)

The most durable horror fiction and movies revolve around our deepest instincts or fears: lust (Dracula), scientists playing God (Frankenstein), or individuals pursued by crowds (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But somewhat less treated, even in recent years, is greed. The most bone-chilling example of the latter that comes to mind is Edith Wharton’s physically and spiritually wintry New England tale, “The Triumph of Night” (discussed in this prior post of mine), in which a Gilded Age grandee plots to take his nephew’s life as a means of seizing his fortune.

Another fine example, I discovered just this past weekend, is Washington Irving’s short story, “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Of course, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has become a permanent addition to Halloween lore, and “The Adventure of the German Student” was included in the Library of America’s estimable two-volume anthology, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny.

But I had never come across “The Devil and Tom Walker” until this past weekend, when I picked up a free book, an American literature textbook for Catholic high school students in the 1950s. I have the distinct impression that, since the postwar era, a selection like this has become less of the norm. New voices have to be accounted for (including from multicultural backgrounds), and Irving’s style—long, flowing sentences, with unfamiliar words such as “termagent”—can turn off students with short attention spans.

More’s the pity, I say. Stick with “The Devil and Tom Walker” and you’ll be riveted by a tale strikingly relevant to our time—and a precursor of a modern Halloween form: mock horror.The latter derives from Irving’s urbane sensibility, a worldview that absorbed other cultures and was not easy to shock.

This past weekend was filled with mock-horror movies: some farcical (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein), some snarky (Jennifer’s Body), and some just plain juvenile (The Lost Boys). In contrast, Irving’s voice is droll and satiric. (When Tom finds evidence that his wife pulled the thick black hair of Satan before the Devil had dispatched her, the miser senses what had happened: “Tom knew his wife’s prowess by experience.”)

At its heart, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is a retelling of the Faust legend: a human being bargains with Old Scratch for short-term advantage, downplaying any lingering inner doubt that in the end, a debt must be paid.

I was surprised to find out that “The Devil and Tom Walker,” in comparison with “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has not been adapted beyond the written page much. One of these, a 2008 short, had actually transposed the setting to the South. New England, with his inhospitable soil and Puritan mores to rebel against, would have been a much more natural background for Satan’s temptation of a miser.

On second thought, though, the switch in locale only reinforces the universality of Irving’s story of avarice (Irving himself had picked up the theme from a German folk tale). In fact, its time period can be changed easily, too, from 1727 Massachusetts to New York in the 21st century. Instead of a usurer (the trade that Satan persuades him to take up), Walker could be depicted as an executive in one of the big banks who, in the financial turbulence of the last decade, manages to fleece customers out of their homes. And, rather than pious Puritans not above colluding in the slave trade or in swindling Native Americans in land deals, Irving could have picked evangelicals who practice their own kind of intolerance and corruption.

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