The Father of American Literature: Irving’s Legacy on Display in “The Devil and Tom Walker”

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Tom Walker and his wife lose their souls in their travels about Boston in “The Devil and Tom Walker” from Tales of a Traveller. Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

 

BY TRACY HOFFMAN

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Washington Irving is considered the Father of American Literature for many reasons. He proved America had a decent writer, “a man of letters,” who produced a large body of beautifully-written work. His books influenced so many great writers to come, and much like Benjamin Franklin who thrived in the printing business, Irving was able to support himself solely by writing.

What occurred to me last night was how much “The Devil and Tom Walker” demonstrates Irving’s legacy: his influence on so many other writers, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Last night, a little before 11 p.m., I re-read “The Devil and Tom Walker” a few times. In all honesty, I was looking for any hint of Mary Shelley, since scholars were chatting about his connection with her yesterday on Twitter, and since I know Irving was working on this story when he was moving in Mary Shelley circles.

However, what struck me last night and has stayed with me this morning, instead, is a laundry list of texts which could easily be paired with this short story because you see Washington Irving’s influence in them.

Irving Independent School District, in Irving, Texas, has added “The Devil and Tom Walker” to its reading list, so I’ve been blogging about this sketch which appears in Tales of a Traveller. Perhaps some of my musings of other texts I teach or might want to teach will be useful to other instructors also looking for connections with other texts.

First off, Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens reminds me of Tom Walker in the latter part of the story when Old Scratch carries him away on the dark horse. I already teach Irving’s Christmas stories and explain how the holiday sketches influenced Dickens, but I hadn’t thought about “Tom Walker” as it relates to Ebenezer. Dickens reforms Scrooge, but Irving gives Walker a sad ending. Though Walker attempts church-going to negate his “deal with the Devil,” in the end, he loses his soul.

And how can we not see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in “The Devil and Tom Walker”? The setting of time and place are the same, and like Brown, Walker carries a staff when he wanders into the forest.

Of course, Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, set in Massachusetts, might also pair well. Irving’s tone about hypocrisy should readily resonate with readers of Hawthorne, as we also consider Rowlandson’s attitude toward natives. And Zitkala Ša’s Impressions from an Indian Childhood, I think, also works with Rowlandson.

When Irving describes the Devil’s color as sooty, rather than designating a particular race, I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and her presentation of stereotypes, too.

“The Devil and Tom Walker” contains three levels of narration. Washington Irving wrote the book under the pen name of Geoffrey Crayon, a fictitious American narrator who has traveled in Europe. Finally, another fictitious narrator, a Cape Cod whaler, relays the story of “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Therefore, it seems to me, that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick might be a comparable text, especially if you discuss the role of narrator. Students could readily see a sailor’s perspective, especially at the beginning of Walker’s story about inlets, pirates, treasure, and maneuvering the waters near Boston.

The discussions of “the Indian fort” reminds me of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. And any chat about Irving and Cooper is fun for me and my classes. Irving spoke at Cooper’s funeral, and I can imagine Cooper, who was critical of Irving’s writing, rolling over in his grave. The irony of Cooper suggesting Irving was too soft on social ills stands out to me in the Walker story. And I will definitely blog another time to talk about Irving’s jabs at usury, slavery, and the mistreatment of Native-Americans, all evident in “The Devil and Tom Walker.”

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page.

Published in: on February 27, 2019 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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