"The Devil and Tom Walker" first appeared in author Washington Irving's 1824 collection of short stories, Tales of a Traveller, in the "Money-Diggers" section. Though it is still widely known, it is not quite as famous as some of his other works, including "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." The framework of this short story follows the famous German legend about a man named Faust, who made a pact with the devil and exchanged his soul for limitless knowledge and worldly pleasures. Just like numerous other works of literature, films, plays, and art that draw upon the traditional Faustian bargain, Irving used this concept to frame "The Devil and Tom Walker" and relay the important implications of such a theme to his readers.
In addition to the Faustian legend, Irving also incorporates the famous legend of Captain Kidd the Pirate into "The Devil and Tom Walker," as Kidd makes a deal with the devil to protect the treasure he buries, and much later Tom makes another deal in order to receive that treasure. This patchwork of different influences included in this story appeals to readers who know these other legends. In the literary world, particularly during the 1800s, many different works and authors were connected.
As the U.S. was still a new and growing country at the time of this short story's publication, a new American identity was only just beginning to develop as different cultural groups came together as one in the young nation. In Massachusetts in particular, where "The Devil and Tom Walker" takes place, Puritanical ideals still had a large influence, so just like many others of his time period Irving included an exploration of Puritanical good versus evil in this story. This is also a story about the adventures of a common man, which was typical of this time period as well, since the common man played such an important role in the development of an American identity. Though this story was written in 1824, the events take place nearly one hundred years earlier, around the year 1727.
This short story exemplifies potent themes of greed, good and evil, and choices and decisions that can change a man in ways he may not expect. These messages were all extremely important to relay in fledgling America, since, as the nation grew more commercial, common men were often faced with temptations similar to those Tom faces. Many works of literature that follow "The Devil and Tom Walker" draw upon its themes, including Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," published in 1937.
The "parts" (Parts 1, 2, and 3) referenced in this ClassicNote come from PageByPage Books' online text of "The Devil and Tom Walker." Part 1 is pages 1-3, part 2 is pages 4-6, and part 3 is pages 7-9.