Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Most American folktales, from stories about Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill through the Uncle Remus stories, depend for their effect on a successful merging of matter and manner: The subjects must sound like what they were. Like these earlier stories, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” manages to capture the very flavor of its Yankee subject. The anonymous narrator of the story is clearly a New Englander, and his voice carries a pride of region as well as its accent. Daniel Webster himself is capable of both sharpness and humor: “I never left a jug or a case half finished in my life.” When, at the end of the story, he calls the devil a “long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver,” Benét is capturing the language of the tall tale out of the oral tradition in American literature.

Benét chooses, however, not to try to recite Webster’s speeches verbatim, but, instead, recounts them in his own modulated, poetic prose, and the effect is telling. (Most readers are not conscious, until it is pointed out, that the closing arguments in the trial are given, not by Webster but by his fictional biographer, the narrator of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”) Benét’s prose is capable not only of the broad Yankee humor and folk exaggeration of the story but also of the poignant and patriotic sentiments of Webster’s last speech:And he began with the simple things that everybody’s known and felt—the freshness of a fine morning when you’re young and the taste of food when you’re hungry, and the new day that’s every day when you’re a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands.

Much of the story’s power comes from this prose.