Great Awakenings in Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker”

Meeting House of the First Presbyterian Society Erected 1756. Photo taken in Boston by Tracy Hoffman.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Several articles, podcasts, and online discussions as of late have me thinking about “The Devil and Tom Walker” in new ways.

Some very good people I know and know of seem to think academics are discrediting America and her past. I can only speak for myself, though my perspective is certainly shared by many, that what we’re working toward is a richer history: more facts, not less, certainly not deleting information.

New Historicism1, of course, is no longer new, and we continue to grapple with what history and the facts mean. That’s true for Americanists and most Americans, for that matter, who try to keep up with what’s going on in the world in light of the past.

What some label negatively as “rewriting history” is really an attempt to present more context, more texts, more data to involve groups underrepresented in our traditional history telling. I’m trying to look at this Irving text not only as opportunity to talk about America’s traditional representations of history and literature but also to think about untold stories.

What overlooked historical context can we provide for this story? What other texts might be paired with “Tom Walker”?

Irving comments upon the Great Awakening when he sets up the sketch “About the year 1727, just at the time when earthquakes were prevalent in New England, and shook many tall sinners down upon their knees, there lived near this place a meagre miserly fellow of the name of Tom Walker.”

By simply googling the year 1727, some interesting items jump out to me. For one, Irving is alluding to both the literal earthquake striking New England while also joking about spiritual revival. During this same year, the “NY General assembly permits Jews to omit phrase ‘upon the faith of a Christian’ from abjuration oath” ( This makes me wonder if people of other faiths were allowed the same courtesy.

Do we ever talk about Jews, Muslims, or even Catholics when we talk about the Protestant revivals in America? I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography where he talks about the importance of meeting houses, for anyone to use, even “a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us” (

Irving also loosely references the Salem Witch Trials: “The good people of Boston shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, but had been so much accustomed to witches and goblins and tricks of the devil in all kinds of shapes from the first settlement of the colony, that they were not so much horror struck as might have been expected.”

According to “good ‘ole Wikipedia,” the year 1727 is important to the study of witch trials: “An old woman known as Janet (Jenny) Home of Loth Sutherland becomes the last alleged witch in the British Isles to be executed when she is burned at the stake in Dornoch, Scotland”

To me, these two are obvious: the Great Awakening and the Salem Witch Trials. But what might I be missing? If I could look through different lenses, theoretical approaches if you will, what might I notice? What psychology is at play in the story? What’s the socioeconomic situation of the setting? What cultures and races deserve attention? What might the story say about gender?

We know Harvard University was around in Boston during this time, as it was founded in the 1600s. Students would be aware of Harvard’s current reputation. Talking about the role of the university as a seminary for white male students might be of interest to them. I’m reminded of Phillis Wheatley’s poem addressed to the students of Cambridge, what Harvard used to be called.

Of course, we also have many of the events leading up to the American Revolution taking place in Boston: the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, etc. Those trying to teach “The Devil and Tom Walker” in a high school setting might present the story alongside key events that took place later in Boston.

I recently listened to the Ben Franklin’s World podcast about the Boston Massacre. Learning that the Boston area was in decline, leading up to the American Revolution, was intriguing to me. Places like Philadelphia and New York were booming in comparison. Socioeconomic considerations should be obvious paths to investigate since the story deals with the miserly Mr. and Mrs. Tom Walker.

I’ll be keeping my eye out for new ways to teach the story, particularly with regard to financial concerns in Boston and Salem during the 1720s. I’m also thinking about context and complimentary texts for each story in The Sketch Book, since we’re celebrating its 200th anniversary. I’m hoping to use the book as an anchor for one of my American Lit classes in the fall, but I really need to think through what texts would work well with it.

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

  1. For a definition of New Historicism, see:
Published in: on March 7, 2019 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

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