How does Washington Irving adapt his story to make it purely American?"The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Reshaping the German folk tale about Faust, a magician and alchemist who sells his soul to the Devil and in exchange received great powers and wealth, Washington Irving has the setting of his story New England in the late 1720s, a time when Puritanism, a belief that a person's life should be devoted to God, was being replaced by commercialism and the desire for personal gain.  Much like the German tale, Irving's story also relates a series of unlikely events, involves stereotyped characters--in this case, Native Americans--, and teaches an important lesson about life.  And, because Irving's story is grounded in a specific time and place, it also reveals a great deal about life in New England in the early 1700s.

One example of Irving's grounding the tale in New England and his utilization of stereotypes is in his dramatization of the colonists' attitudes of colonial Americans.  When Tom sits down in the swamp area, he staff strikes against something hard; he unearths and discovers a "cloven skull, with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it.  With disgust, Tom Walker gives the skull a kick, showing no concern for the murder victim. 

An example of the cupidity of those who desires personal gain is in the "termagant" (stereotype), Tom's wife who urges him to comply with the black man's terma and "secure what would make them wealthy for life."  After her demise, Tom still agrees to become a usurer for the devil, and becomes a wealthy man.       

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The Devil and Tom Walker

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