It’s Washington Irving Wednesday! Continuing with “The Devil and Tom Walker”



Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Last Wednesday, I discussed biographical context which might be of interest when teaching “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Today, I want to look at Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious narrator of the story, and where the story falls contextually in the book, Tales of a Traveller (1824).

“The Devil and Tom Walker” appears in “Part IV: The Money Diggers,” the final section of Tales of a Traveller, and Irving credits this section to the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, the Dutch narrator from A History of New York (1809), as well as the narrator of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in The Sketch Book (1819-1820).

Talking about Diedrich Knickerbocker’s connection to the New York Knicks might grab students’ attention. The term knickerbocker as a synonym for New Yorker started with Washington Irving’s narrator. Going over the entry from the Oxford English Dictionary with students might be worthwhile. They would quickly see the Irving connection as he’s credited for its first use. I’ve done this with my classes on occasion, especially if they will be doing research later in the semester. It lets them see how a definition can be useful in a literary analysis and why a quick Webster’s definition pales in comparison.

Diedrich Knickerbocker repeats the story “A Devil and Tom Walker,” but the story is technically told by “an iron faced Cape Cod whaler” when he and his buddies are out fishing on a boat with Diedrich. At the end of the sketch “Kidd the Pirate,” the whaler sets up the story thus: “By the way, I recollect a story about a fellow who once dug up Kidd’s buried money, which was written by a neighbour of mine, and which I learnt by heart. As the fish don’t bite just now, I’ll tell it to you, by way of passing away the time.”

We have a fishing story, told by a whaler, written by his neighbor, repeated by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. As with many Irving stories, he gives us layers of narrators. Teaching students about framed narratives would certainly lend itself to “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Like digging for pirates’ treasure, we have to dig deep to figure out where the story originates, and even then, the truth is still fuzzy since each narrator adapts the story to his liking.

At the sketch’s conclusion, Knickerbocker explains his storytelling technique: “Such, as nearly I can recollect, was the purport of the tale told by the Cape Cod whaler. There were divers trivial particulars which I have omitted, and which whiled away the morning very pleasantly, until the time of tide favourable for fishing being passed, it was proposed to land, and refresh ourselves under the trees, until the noontide heat should have abated.”

To sum up, it looks like we have some enticing details for sports fans who may be sitting in our classrooms: fishing and the New York Nicks. And then we have pirate stories.

Next Wednesday, I’d like to talk about the story which follows this sketch. While the fishermen are at rest, Knickerbocker reminisces about his childhood haunts, and the group continues to swap stories. The one following “The Devil and Tom Walker” is called “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams,” and this sketch is told by John Josse Vandermoere. The section is called “The Money Diggers,” so dealing with greed and the love of money as one’s downfall is a major thread in the Tom Walker story and also in “Golden Dreams.”

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation. Comments are welcomed. Also feel free to message me at I respond to WIS correspondence on Wednesdays and also update the WIS page then


Published in: on January 23, 2019 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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