Saturday, February 9, 2019

THE DEVIL AND TOM WALKER by Washington Irving

Rating: a dismissive wave from the Devil as he rushes off to a fiddle contest

Highlight of note: Irving comes down very firmly on the side of abolitionism even though that would have alienated at least half the country in 1824.

Would you read more by this author? This is the third thing I've read by him and they all shared a lack of engagement, so probably not.

Despite being in a more modern style than the previous works in the collection I'm working my way through, it is still very evident that The Devil and Tom Walker was written in the past due to several cringe-worthy aspects of the story. The first one we come across is the character of Tom's wife, who is established to be a completely horrid person who tortures poor Tom so that he has no fear when he meets Satan, which had me wanting to rant against the harpy wife archetype. There's also an attack on money lenders that could be seen as antisemitic. And then there's the most obvious problem: the description of the Devil as a black man. But after some consideration I've decided that the absolute worst offender is the fact that the Devil claims, "I am he to whom the red men devoted this spot, and in honor of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice." To be sure, he's also a patron of slavers, which is a nice abolitionist sentiment that would have been controversial at the time of writing, but I find it hard to forgive the assertion that the Massachusett peoples enjoyed worshiping Satan by setting fire to colonists.

Clearly, this isn't something that could be written today without widespread condemnation, but I feel we should remind ourselves of the era in which Irving lived and trying to give him credit both for being against slavery and for his allowing the Devil to express the sentiment that the colonizers were just as savage as the people they exterminated. These were progressive statements in 1824, and while I expect modern people to do go further than merely believing that enslaving people and committing genocide are bad things if they want to be considered decent human beings, I think we must also acknowledge that these were actually controversial beliefs during Irving's lifetime.

The Devil and Tom Walker is neither the first nor the last story to tell of a man who sells his soul to the devil. I've read several of them and seen many more on film. These tales are typically preachy and moralizing, but frequently either funny or frightening. This checked off preachy and moralizing just fine but didn't manage to hit either of the other two marks. Perhaps readers from a time before horror films found the mere act of meeting Satan scary; they're certainly more likely to have been impressed by the ending than I was.

I felt the opening of the story had a lot of potential. The first thing we are told is that there is pirate treasure to be found. Surely a story with both pirates and the Devil could have done a better job at holding my interest than this did, but there was little adventure or conflict. Tom meets the Devil. The Devil kills Tom's wife, something Tom is grateful for. Tom proceeds to sell his soul to the Devil now that his wife isn't around to benefit from it, refuses to become a slave trader because he's not that evil, and sets up shop as a loan shark instead. A life of greed and avarice is then described in a few paragraphs before Tom forgets to carry his Bible constantly and gets carted off by a demon horse, never to be seen again. At no point did I care about Tom, so I wasn't hoping he'd find redemption. Nor did I scorn him enough to be pulling for his damnation. It all just sort of happened, and I was told it had happened but didn't feel very entertained by the telling.

I dimly recall reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and having a similar reaction of underwhelm. I quite liked the Tim Burton film based on it though, so maybe if he directed a version of  The Devil and Tom Walker I would find it more compelling.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have a thought on what I wrote? Please let me know!