American Romanticism in "The Devil and Tom Walker"

Categories: Folklore


Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" stands as a captivating example of American Romanticism, a literary movement that emerged in the early 19th century. This essay delves into the various elements of Romanticism present in the narrative, including the influence of myth, legend, and folklore, the prioritization of emotion over reason, and the championing of individual freedom. Through an in-depth exploration, we aim to unravel the nuanced layers of Romantic ideals embedded in Irving's timeless tale.

Myth, Legend, and Folklore

Kidd the Pirate is a central figure in "The Devil and Tom Walker" and serves as a prime example of how the narrative draws inspiration from myth, legend, and folklore.

The mention of Kidd's buried treasure under a gigantic tree adds a layer of mystery to the story, echoing the Romantic fascination with the supernatural. The text states, "Under one of these gigantic trees, according to old stories, there was a great amount of treasure buried by Kidd the Pirate.

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" This incorporation of legendary tales aligns with the Romantic tradition of finding beauty and truth in the extraordinary and the unknown.

As the plot unfolds, the Devil himself becomes intertwined with Kidd's treasure, adding another dimension to the supernatural elements. The narrative explains, "The old stories add, moreover, that the Devil presided at the hiding of the money, and took it under his guardianship..." This blending of pirate lore with supernatural intervention contributes to the Romantic aesthetic, where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are blurred, inviting readers into a realm of heightened imagination.

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Emotion Over Reason

The theme of emotion prevailing over reason is a quintessential aspect of American Romanticism, and "The Devil and Tom Walker" vividly illustrates this characteristic. Tom's quick agreement with the Devil, driven by his eagerness to attain the promised treasure, serves as a testament to the prioritization of emotional desires. The text notes, "Tom’s eagerness to the quick and prepared him to agree to anything rather than not gain the promised treasure." This impulsive decision-making, fueled by emotion, aligns seamlessly with Romantic ideals that champion intuition and the visceral experience of the individual.

Furthermore, the Devil's ability to offer solutions that cater to the emotional needs of Tom and his wife emphasizes the Romantic notion of transcending the limitations of the rational world. The text elaborates, "He knows how to play his cards when pretty sure of his game." By appealing to the couple's desires and imagination, the Devil becomes a symbolic figure representing the power of inner experiences and the boundless potential of the human imagination—a key theme within American Romantic literature.

Championing Individual Freedom

"The Devil and Tom Walker" not only explores the supernatural and emotional realms but also champions the idea of individual freedom—a cornerstone of American Romanticism. Tom's wife, driven by her aspirations, seeks to strike a deal with the Devil independently, embodying the Romantic emphasis on personal autonomy. The text states, "At length, she determined to drive the bargain on her own account, and if she succeeded to keep all gain to herself." This pursuit of individual goals, even through morally questionable means, aligns with the Romantic celebration of the worth of the individual.

Moreover, Tom's discovery of a buried skull in the soil serves as a powerful symbol of challenging established norms. The text describes the finding, "He raked it out of the vegetable mold, and lo! A cloven skull with an Indian tomahawk buried deep in it, lay before him." This revelation becomes a commentary on the destructive impact of colonization, symbolizing the greed and violence that accompanied the conquest of native lands. Through this, Irving critiques societal norms and underscores the Romantic belief in questioning established orders for the sake of individual freedom.


In conclusion, "The Devil and Tom Walker" emerges as a rich tapestry woven with the threads of American Romanticism. From the infusion of myth and legend to the prioritization of emotion over reason and the championing of individual freedom, Washington Irving crafts a narrative that encapsulates the essence of a literary movement that sought to break free from convention and embrace the untamed spirit of human nature. Through this exploration, readers are invited to appreciate the enduring legacy of American Romantic ideals within the context of this timeless tale.

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American Romanticism in "The Devil and Tom Walker". (2016, Oct 20). Retrieved from

American Romanticism in "The Devil and Tom Walker"
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