I. “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving
Irving was a master of folklore. He scooped up all these wonderful legends that littered New England and, like Grimm had done for the Germans, put them into refined prose, collecting them together into a compendium which would define a mythology. This story is no different. It is the American version of the Faustian legend, just as terrifying and just as telling.
It begins with the story of Kidd the Pirate, who is rumored to have buried a treasure chest somewhere in the hills outside of Boston. He made a deal with the Devil to protect this fortune but died before he could retrieve it. The Devil consequently has guarded it ever since.
The story cuts to Tom Walker who loves money and hates his wife. One day as he’s walking through the wood, he stumbles upon an old Indian fort. There he meets a lumberjack who claims he has many names, but is called “Old Scratch” in these parts. As they get on, it is realized that this man is the Devil himself. He offers Kidd’s riches to Tom for only the price of his soul. He says he’ll think about it and return home.
When he arrives he can’t help but tell his wife what happened. She, being a miser as well, sets out to find this man herself. Tom goes searching for her and only comes upon her apron with a heart and liver wrapped up inside it (it’s presumed the Devil doesn’t like people coming to make deals, rather he only deals with those he wants to make offers to).
Well, Tom’s ecstatic. He is glad to be unburdened with that pesky wife and agrees to Old Scratch’s offer. There’s one condition however: Tom must become a slave trader. Well he doesn’t like that too much so the Devil says he’d settle for time being an usurer (today known as a loan shark). Tom says okay and becomes a rich man, enjoying his trade swindling deperate people out of their money.
As he ages Tom begins to fear for his soul. He becomes a devout Christian carrying a bible everywhere he goes. But in the end Old Scratch comes to take him anyway. It is said that Tom still roams the countryside, trying to outrun the Devil on horseback.
The story itself is so overdone by this day and age that it has little effect on the modern reader. In Irving’s time, the Faustian story was certainly known, but this was a truly fresh take on it and it was relevant. Nonetheless it is timeless and retains its charm even if its terror and mystery has dwindled. And it’s still relevant to a degree. One of the strongest messages Irving makes is that having debtors is no nobler than owning slaves (and being a debtor offers no more freedom than being a slave). Our own bankers and buyers could really do well to take a second look at this message.
II. “Araby” by James Joyce
Joyce is an elegant writer both in composition and deliverance, that cannot be denied. This story, being part of Dubliners originally, deals with growing up in early twentieth century Ireland and everything that goes along with it. It is beautifully told and I was captured by the language, but the story itself was dull. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else, for this of course is Joyce’s signature.
We follow a teenaged boy who we come to realize is infatuated with a friend’s sister. He builds up an image so grand in his head of her that when it comes time to speak he blunders and stumbles and plays the fool of himself. She asks if he’ll be attending the Arab Bazaar that’s in town and remarks how she’d like to have gone but can’t for some reason or another. He says yes despite his lack of forethought on the matter, and promises to buy her something.
His aunt skeptical and his uncle detached prefer the boy not to go but allow him anyway. When he arrives it is late, the excitement has mostly gone, the vendors are counting their money, and the woman selling painted vases, a gift he thinks would be perfect for his object of affection, is disinterested in his business, focused more on her conversation with two men. The boy stands there crushed, his childish ideals on love and the exotic destroyed. His Catholicism comes to mind, there the true mystery lies, there is something to work for. He leaves empty handed, shamed and angry.
III. “Split Cherry Tree” by Jesse Stuart
We begin this tale with a group of students on a class field trip in Appalachia, searching for bugs and critters to dissect for their biology class. A group of boys sees a lizard crawl up a tree and the whole lot decide to go after it. Unfortunately the tree breaks and the farmer who owns it demands retribution. All the boys but one are able to pay.
Luckily the schoolmaster pays this last boy’s share and tells him he must work it off sweeping up after school. He complies, but when he comes home late, his farm chores neglected, his undereducated father is upset. The next day he comes into school, rifle in hand, to settle the matter. He argues there is no point in education if it’s just gallivanting around the countryside. But the schoolmaster calms him and helps him to understand the wonders of science. In the end, the father warms up to the necessity of the new educational system, only he is not happy with and will not watch a creature be cut open. He says he wouldn’t even kill a snake on his own farm. In the end, despite the schoolmaster’s insistence against it (saying it is enough that the father stayed and learned something new), the boy and his father finish the work to pay for the cherry tree.
What this story comes down to is mid-twentieth century political propaganda atop a cultural study of the area in question. Stuart seems to say that the new education system is necessary and ought to be compulsory, but we also must respect the good ol’ boys, for they are not ignorami, only they are from a different time and so understand different rules, but they are gentle and kind at their essence, and they are honest.
It is nice how Stuart reaches back and looks forward all at once. The symbol of the cherry tree especially alludes to George Washington and the founding of our nation, and the reason it was broken, for scientific pursuit, predicts and defines where Stuart believes the future of the U.S. is headed. Unfortunately this story hasn’t stood the test of time. It simply is not relatable any longer, and there is no virtue in the convoluted prose that makes it a worthwhile read. It served its purpose in its own time, but fails to interest the contemporary reader.