Historical Context in The Devil and Tom Walker
“The Devil and Tom Walker” takes place in New England in 1727 and was published in 1824. Irving draws on events from New England’s history, such the Salem Witch Trials and relationships with the Native American Tribes, in order to give his story a recognizable period setting. Since New England was the largest American colony and a center for Puritanism, the setting makes the story uniquely American. Irving’s accurate description of New England is more impressive because he composed the story while abroad in Germany, the country where he became fascinated with the legend of Faust upon which this story is based.
The Massachusetts Land Bank was a paper-money experiment for poor debtors, particularly farmers, to get out of paying their debts and taxes by creating cheap paper currency based on land instead of gold or silver. This rush for money in a time of economic depression provides the perfect situation for Tom walker to work as a usurer.
The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. Twenty people were executed after being convicted of witchcraft. These people, predominantly women, were accused of consorting with the Black Man of the Woods (the devil) and using their black magic for evil purposes. Many American authors like Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne used or referenced the witch trials in their stories.
In addition to the bluffs and swamps that New Englanders at the time would have recognized, Irving also situates Tom's meeting with the devil in an old American Indian fort. Since this fort served as a stronghold during a war with the Europeans, it adds to the uniquely American context of the story.
A "squaw" refers to an American Indian women or wife. Until the mid 20th century, this word, derived from an Algonquian language, was used neutrally by anthropologists and other social scientists in research contexts. While Irving uses the word in this neutral sense, it is worth noting that after the Cultural Revolution and the changes in the political climate in the US in the later 20th century, the word can no longer be used inoffensively.
Washington Irving wanted to establish a uniquely American style of literature, so he set "The Devil and Tom Walker" near Boston in the New England area. In the early 18th century, New England was one of the largest and most-established metropolitan areas in North America. Irving's descriptions of the landscapes and the cultural references would have been familiar to the area's inhabitants. Furthermore, the New England setting provides background for Irving's interest in Walker's morality. Puritans, Quakers, and Anabaptists, all strict Christian orders concerned with moral consciousness, populated the area.
Washington Irving composed this short story while he was living in Germany and was particularly interested in the folktales of the region and the Faust legend. For this reason, some critics consider “The Devil and Tom Walker” to be the “New England Faust.” However, the primary difference between the two is that while Faust craved many things, including love, Tom Walker's sole desire is wealth.
Governor Jonathan Belcher's notoriously corrupt administration of the then-British colony of Massachusetts created an economic depression around 1740. These poor economic conditions forced many people to seek out usurers so that they could obtain loans to make ends meet.