Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Devil and Tom Walker”

“The Devil and Tom Walker” is next up in the table of contents of American Gothic Short Stories, but rather than include it in my most recent “A.G. Exemplary?” post, I have made it the next installment of a newer feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” (a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

Included in Part IV (“The Money Diggers”) of Irving’s 1824 volume Tales of a Traveller, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is listed–much like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”–as having been “Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Also like “The Legend,” the tale has multiply frames: it’s presented as a yarn told by a Cape Cod whaler (who learned it from a neighbor) to Knickerbocker while they were out fishing off the Eastern shore of Manhattan one morning. Despite such narratorial displacement, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is marked by the typical humor of Knickerbocker himself. Irving’s Dutch scribe familiarly blurs the historical and the fictional, the factual and fantastic, with references to “the most authentic old story” and “the authentic old legend,” and comments such as “It is one of those facts which have become confounded by a variety of historians.”

Tom Walker’s journey home through a “thickly wooded swamp” outside Boston recalls Ichabod Crane’s travel through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel quilting frolic. Just as Ichabod is unnerved by natural sounds such as bullfrog croaks and the rubbing of tree boughs, Tom is “startled now and then by the sudden screaming of the bittern, or the quacking of a wild duck, rising on the wing from some solitary pool.” Sleepy Hollow is steeped in superstition by local villagers, and the wooded area Tom traverses likewise proves rich in lore: “the common people had a bad opinion of [the lonely melancholy place] from the stories handed down from the time of the Indian wars; when it was asserted that the savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the evil spirit.” Sure enough, Tom soon encounters the axe-carrying “Black Woodsman” (a.k.a. “Old Scratch”), but his reaction to the sinister figure is the opposite of the cravenly Ichabod’s to the Headless Horseman. Evoking the comic misogyny of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker records that “Tom was a hard minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil.”

As is his wont, the devil tries to strike a deal with Tom, who will be shown the location of the pirate Captain Kidd’s buried treasure in exchange for his forfeited soul. Tom balks at the offer, but his miserly wife, upon learning of the diabolical dialogue when Tom gets home, is determined to strike the deal with the Black Woodsman herself. Laden with household valuables, she ventures out into the swamp, and is “never heard of more.” Her absence might be due to a devilish dispatch: some locals “assert that the tempter had decoyed her into a dismal quagmire on top of which her hat was found lying.” A mysterious disappearance, a hat left behind as evidence of foul play–Mrs. Walker’s fate appears to match Ichabod’s at the end of “The Legend.”

Searching for his wife (or more accurately, for the “household booty” she stole off with), Tom makes a grisly discovery of a “heart and liver” tied up in the woman’s check apron. Tom is hardly distraught, though, over the implied slaughter of Mrs. Walker; he feels “something like gratitude toward the black woodsman, who he considered had done him a kindness.” Looking more favorably upon the devil, Tom agrees to the original bargain. He is instantly rewarded and leads a wealthy life, but when death approaches begins to regret his decision and dread damnation. Desperate, he sets “his wits to work to cheat [the devil] out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church goer.” Tom is also said to have “had his horse new shod, saddled and bridled, and buried with his feet uppermost; because he supposed that at the last day the world would be turned upside down; in which case he should find his horse standing ready for mounting; and he was determined at the worst to give his old friend a run for it.” This envisioned equine escapade suggests the racing with the ghostly Hessian in “The Legend”–a parallel that grows even clearer after Tom unwittingly dooms himself. Responding to a borrower’s grouse (“You have made so much money off me”), Tom (who turned usurer as part of the infernal pact) impatiently blurts, “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Tom’s denial serves as an immediate summons, as the devil shows up at the door holding a black horse by the rein: “The black man whisked [Tom] like a child into a saddle, gave the horse a lash, and away he galloped with Tom on his back, in the midst of a thunderstorm.” This abduction and mad gallop off into the swamp is reminiscent of old Brouwer’s story of meeting the mischievous Horseman in “The Legend.” And just as Ichabod Crane becomes a ghostly legend after allegedly having been spirited away from Sleepy Hollow, Tom Walker achieves spook status at tale’s end: “the neighboring swamp and old Indian fort are often haunted in stormy nights by a figure on horseback, in a morning gown and white cap, which is doubtless the troubled spirit of the usurer.”

Besides reflecting back upon “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” this Knickerbocker tale anticipates a long literary tradition of deals/duels with the devil (cf. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”; Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train”). In its detailing of an infernal encounter in a sylvan Massachusetts setting, “The Devil and Tom Walker” also points toward Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Irving’s Black Woodsman (who identifies himself as “the grand master of the Salem witches”) sounds a note of religious hypocrisy that Hawthorne would later echo. Responding to Tom’s insistence that the grounds belonged to Deacon Peabody, Old Scratch seethes: “Deacon Peabody be d—–d, as I fancy he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors.” The devil directs Tom’s attention to a great tree, “fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core”: “On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody, an eminent man, who had waxed wealthy by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians. [Tom] now looked around and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the [Black Woodsman’s] axe.” Exposing secret sin in a cutting woodland scene, “The Devil and Tom Walker” establishes itself as a quintessential American Gothic short story.

 

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