The Devil and Daniel Webster
|Author||Steven Vincent Benét|
|Publisher||Farrar & Rinehart|
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét. This retelling of the classic German Faust tale is based on the short story "The Devil and Tom Walker", written by Washington Irving. Benet's version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and is defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the famous lawyer and orator.
The story first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936 and was later published in book form by Farrar & Rinehart in 1937. That same year, it won the 1937 O. Henry Award. The author also adapted it in 1938 into a folk opera with music by Douglas Stuart Moore, a fellow alumnus of Yale University, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Benét also worked on the screenplay adaptation for the 1941 RKO Pictures film.
A farmer from the small town of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, Jabez Stone, is plagued with unending bad luck, causing him to finally swear that "it's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil!" Stone is visited the next day by a stranger, who later identifies himself as "Mr. Scratch" and makes such an offer (in exchange for seven years of prosperity), to which Stone agrees.
After the seven years, Stone manages to bargain for an additional three years from Mr. Scratch. However, after the additional three years passes, Mr. Scratch refuses to grant Stone any further extension of time. Wanting out of the deal, Stone convinces famous lawyer and orator Daniel Webster to accept his case.
At midnight of the appointed date, Mr. Scratch arrives and is greeted by Webster, who presents himself as Stone's attorney. Mr. Scratch tells Webster, "I shall call upon you, as a law-abiding citizen, to assist me in taking possession of my property," and so begins the argument. It goes poorly for Webster, since the signature and the contract are clear, and Mr. Scratch will not agree to a compromise.
In desperation Webster thunders, "Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince. We fought England for that in '12 and we'll fight all hell for it again!" To this Mr. Scratch insists on his citizenship citing his presence at the worst events of the US, concluding that "though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours."
A trial is then demanded by Daniel as the right of every American. Mr. Scratch agrees after Daniel says that he can select the judge and jury, "so it is an American judge and an American jury." A jury of the damned then enters, "with the fires of hell still upon them." They had all done evil, and had all played a part in the formation of the United States:
- Walter Butler, a Loyalist
- Simon Girty, a Loyalist
- Indian chief Metacomet, referred to as "King Philip"
- Governor Thomas Dale
- Thomas Morton, a rival of the Plymouth Pilgrims
- The pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard
- Reverend John Smeet
After five other unnamed jurors enter (Benedict Arnold not among them, he being out "on other business"), the "Judge" enters last – John Hathorne, the infamous and unrepentant executor of the Salem witch trials.
The trial is rigged against Webster. Eventually he finds himself on his feet and ready to rage, without care for himself or Stone, but he catches himself before he begins to speak: he sees in the jurors' eyes that they want him to act thus. He calms himself, "for it was him they'd come for, not only Jabez Stone."
Webster starts to orate on all of simple and good things – "the freshness of a fine morning...the taste of food when you're hungry...the new day that's every day when you're a child" – and how "without freedom, they sickened." He speaks passionately of how wonderful it is to be human and to be an American. He admits the wrongs done in the course of American history but argues that something new and good had grown from them and that "everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors." Mankind "got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey," something "no demon that was ever foaled" could ever understand.
The jury announces its verdict: "We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone." They admit that, "Perhaps 'tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence, but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster." The judge and jury disappear with the break of dawn. Mr. Scratch congratulates Webster and the contract is torn up.
Webster then grabs the stranger and twists his arm behind his back, "for he knew that once you bested anybody like Mr. Scratch in fair fight, his power on you was gone." Webster makes him agree "never to bother Jabez Stone nor his heirs or assigns nor any other New Hampshire man till doomsday!"
Mr. Scratch offers to tell Webster's fortune in his palm. He foretells Webster's failure to ever become President, the death of Webster's sons, and the backlash of his last speech, warning "Some will call you Ichabod," as in John Greenleaf Whittier's poem in reaction to Webster's controversial "Seventh of March Speech," in which Webster supported the Compromise of 1850. All the predictions the devil makes are based on actual events of Daniel Webster's life: he did have ambitions to become President, his sons died in war, and as a result of the Seventh of March Speech, many in the North considered Webster a traitor.
Webster takes all the predictions in stride and asks only if the Union will prevail. Scratch reluctantly admits that although a war will be fought over the issue, the United States will remain united. Webster then laughs and kicks him out of the house: "And with that he drew back his foot for a kick that would have stunned a horse. It was only the tip of his shoe that caught the stranger, but he went flying out of the door with his collecting box under his arm." It is said that the Devil never did come back to New Hampshire afterward.
Patriotism is a main theme in the story: Webster claims that the Devil cannot take the soul because he cannot claim American citizenship. "And who with better right?" the devil replies, going on to list several wrongs done in the US, thereby demonstrating his presence in the US. The Devil says "I am merely an honest American like yourself — and of the best descent — for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours."
Webster insists on a jury trial as an American right, with Americans for the jury and an American judge. The Devil then provides the worst (from Webster's perspective) examples of Americans for the judge and jury. In Daniel's speech "He was talking about the things that make a country a country, and a man a man" rather than legal points of the case. For Webster, freedom and independence defines manhood: "Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you'd know it."
This theme of American patriotism, freedom and independence is the explanation for Webster's victory: the jury is damned to hell, but they are American and therefore so independent that they can resist the Devil. However, in reality many of the jury would not have classed themselves as Americans, as Governor Dale, Morton, Hathorne, and Blackbeard were English, and King Phillip was a Wampanoag. Butler and Girty would have called themselves Americans – and indeed were Americans – but they were loyalists, and Webster might not have intended any but U.S. citizens. Classifying the jurors as "Americans" involves a wider definition, including all who had a part in its history – even those who lived and died as English people before 1775, the Loyalists who actively opposed the creation of the US, and even the Native Americans who altogether opposed European settlement.
In his speech, Webster denounces slavery. "And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell." Benét acknowledges the evil by having the devil say: "When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck." As for Webster, "He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors."
Treatment of the Indians
The story may be seen as ambivalent on the treatment of the Indians/Native Americans. Webster states "If two New Hampshiremen aren't a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians." However, the stranger/Satan remarks that "When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there", which implies the author's acknowledgement that the Indians were wronged. Yet "King Philip, wild and proud as he had been in life, with the great gash in his head that gave him his death wound" is included among notorious villains of American history – even though more modern historical sentiment holds that King Philip's "villainies" were merely a just response to the wrongs done to his people.
(As an aside, the historical King Philip died from a gunshot to the heart and not a gash to the head.)
Yet later on, Daniel Webster's appeal to the jury on "what it means to be American" specifically includes King Philip among "the Americans". This is an anachronism as the historical Daniel Webster would have been unlikely to express such an opinion. The narrator also expresses sympathy for King Philip when he tells us that one juror "heard the cry of his lost nation" in Webster's eloquent appeal.
These ambiguities probably reflect ambivalent perceptions of this aspect of American history at the time of writing rather than at the time when the story is supposed to take place.
The devil is portrayed as polite and refined. When the devil arrives he is described as "a soft-spoken, dark-dressed stranger", who "drove up in a handsome buggy". The names in this story for the devil (Mr. Scratch, or the stranger) are both terms that were locally used around New England and other parts of the pre-Civil-War United States. (For example, "Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I’m often called that in these regions.") These terms are taken primarily from the Washington Irving story published more than 100 years before, "The Devil and Tom Walker".
Two film adaptations have been made: an Academy Award-winning 1941 film first released under the title All That Money Can Buy, starring Edward Arnold as Daniel, Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch, James Craig as Jabez Stone, and Simone Simon as Belle; and Shortcut to Happiness, a modernized version set in the publishing world, starring Anthony Hopkins as a publisher named Daniel Webster, Alec Baldwin as a bestselling but terrible author named Jabez Stone, and Jennifer Love Hewitt as a female Devil. This most recent version was made in 2001, but has never had a wide release in theatres.
An animated television film loosely based on the story, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, was released in 1978.
In popular culture
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation, both the premiere and final episodes, "Encounter at Farpoint" and "All Good Things...", had Captain Picard being placed on trial as mankind's representative for the "crimes of Humanity". Omnipotent "Q" served as judge, with a jury of loudly derisive post-apocalyptic criminals. In a reversal of the original story's wholly antagonistic relationship between Scratch and Webster/Stone, Q helped Picard to win the trial, which turned out to be a continuation of the original trial from the premiere episode seven years before.
- This story was parodied in the first segment of "Treehouse of Horror IV", a Halloween episode of the animated television series The Simpsons. In the segment, known as "The Devil and Homer Simpson", the Devil is played by Ned Flanders, and Homer sells his soul not for better luck, but for a doughnut. Lacking an oratorical heavyweight like Daniel Webster, it is up to incompetent attorney Lionel Hutz to win Homer's freedom from Hell. Hutz abandons the trial early on after blundering, and instead Homer's wife Marge saves Homer with the writing on a wedding photo, showing that Homer had already promised his soul to her. Defeated but spiteful, the Devil turns Homer's head into a doughnut, and the next morning the Springfield Police Force are waiting for Homer to come out of his house. The Jury of the Damned consists of Benedict Arnold, Lizzie Borden, Blackbeard, John Wilkes Booth, John Dillinger, the starting line-up of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers and Richard Nixon (who was not dead at the time, but owed the Devil a favor).
- A 2005 biopic about cult musician Daniel Johnston was entitled The Devil and Daniel Johnston in reference to the story.
- The Superman novel Miracle Monday mentions the events of this story without naming the characters, except for Webster and the Devil, who is revealed not to be the Devil himself, but rather Saturn, an agent of his. The climax of the novel, where Saturn must grant Superman a wish after having been defeated by his nobility, is also likely inspired by this story.[original research?]
- The story and title were also adapted in "The Devil and Peter Tork", an episode of the 1960s television series The Monkees.
- Nelvana created an animated television special called The Devil and Daniel Mouse based on the story. In the program, Daniel Mouse is a musician whose partner, Jan, sells her soul to the Devil in exchange for fame.
- Two Chick Publications tracts, The Contract! and It's A Deal, borrow heavily from the story. The Contract! follows the original plot more closely (telling of a bankrupt farmer facing eviction), while It's a Deal is a Chick tract rewritten for the African-American community and features a young basketball player.
- In his court order rejecting plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis in the lawsuit United States ex rel. Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (1971), Judge Gerald J. Weber cited this story as the sole, though "unofficial", precedent touching on the jurisdiction of United States courts over Satan.
- In the 1995 Tiny Toon Adventures TV Special, Night Ghoulery, this story is parodied in "The Devil and Daniel Webfoot."
- Anderson, Charles R. "Puzzles and Essays" from "The Exchange" - Trick Reference Questions, p. 122: "In 'The Devil and Daniel Webster' by Stephen Vincent Benét, there is a character named the Reverend John Smeet. Was this a real person?
- Mrs. Stephen Vincent Benét (1960), in a letter to the New York Times Book Review, claimed that the good reverend was entirely imaginary. Mrs. Benet explained that her husband occasionally used to insert imaginary people into his writings. Benet even quoted from a made-up person named John Cleveland Cotton. He went so far as to write an apocryphal biographical note about Cotton that found its way into Marion King's Books and People (King, 1954). In this Benet anticipated authors Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who created a poet named William Ashbless."
- Maggin, E.S. (1981). Miracle Monday at Ch.3
- Chick, J.T. (2004). The Contract!, chick.com
- Chick, J.T. (2009). It's a Deal, chick.com
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. pp. 46–47.
- Electronic version of the story
- Criterion Collection essay by Tom Piazza
- All That Money Can Buy (a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941) at the Internet Movie Database
- The Devil and Daniel Webster (2004) at the Internet Movie Database