"The Devil and Tom Walker" was first published in 1824 as part of Washington Irving's collection of short stories Tales of a Traveller. The story was included in Part IV of the book, also known as the "Money-Diggers" series of stories. Gentleman Geoffrey Crayon, a fictional character created by the author, narrates the tale. He never refers to himself by name, however, but he states that the story has been a legend of the New England area for roughly a hundred years. Though the story has been widely read and enjoyed since its first appearance, the book Tales of a Traveller was poorly received by critics who complained that its writing was weak and unoriginal. The short story was a relatively new form of fiction at the time, and many of its conventions were still being defined by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some critics have given this as a reason for the artistic failure of many of the collection's stories.
Despite this negative reception, the story about an unpleasant man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for wealth is one of the works for which Irving is best remembered. Commonly referred to as a "comic New England Faust," the story bears many similarities to the German folktale of Faust, a man who trades his soul to the devil for a number of things, including love and money. Irving had travelled widely in Germany by the time he wrote ''The Devil and Tom Walker,'' and it can be assumed that he was familiar with German Romantic writer Johann Goethe's version of the tale which was published in Goethe's novel Faust. More so than European versions of the tale, Irving instills the tale with the moral ideals common to New England in the early nineteenth century. In an area settled by Quakers and Puritans, religious piety was of utmost importance to citizens, and the lesson of Tom Walker's ruin illustrated the sorrow that would befall unscrupulous sinners. Some have said that the ''Devil and Tom Walker'' was a well-known folktale in the New England area at the time, and Irving's retelling of it is a straightforward rendition of how he may have heard it from the region's Dutch inhabitants.