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How does Washington Irving use the past in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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wisegirl2013 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 16, 2011 at 5:02 AM via web

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How does Washington Irving use the past in "The Devil and Tom Walker"?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 16, 2011 at 10:14 PM (Answer #1)

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What is interesting about the fiction of Washington Irving is the way that he appropriates the material for his fiction from the European past to Americanise them and thereby create a distinct brand of American fiction. His borrowing from German folk tales, for example, and his appropriation of the myth of Faust and his deal with the devil is something that he makes the subject of "The Devil of Tom Walker." What is different and interesting about this work however is the way that Irving uses this story to comment upon American history and the devil's involvement in some of the darker episodes of it. Consider how the devil presents himself to Tom Walker during their first meeting and how he says he has been involved in various past events of American history:

I am he to whom the red men consecrated this spot, and in honour of whom they now and then roasted a white man, by way of sweet-smelling sacrifice. Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the gerat patron and prompter of slave dealers, and the grand master of the Salem witches.

What Irving does in this story then is to borrow German myths and European legends and then to re-brand them in an American way, relating such archetypes to American history and helping forge an identity of this new nation as it began its life. The past to Irving represented a treasure trove of materials that could be mined and plundered for his own purposes and to help him in his fiction.

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