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 Faustian tale was inspired by Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker." Benet's 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 statesman, lawyer, and orator.
The story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (October 24, 1936) and was later published in book form by Farrar & Rinehart, 1937. That same year, it won the O. Henry Award. The author also adapted it in 1938 into a folk opera with music by Douglas Stuart Moore, a fellow Yale University alumnus, member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize. Benét and Dan Totheroh co-authored the film adaptation All That Money Can Buy (RKO, 1941).
Farmer Jabez Stone, from the small town of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, is plagued with unending bad luck, causing him to finally swear "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. Stone agrees.
After seven years, Stone bargains for an additional three years. After the additional three years, Mr. Scratch refuses any further extension. 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, presenting 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 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, "though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours."
Webster demands a trial 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
- King Philip (Wampanoag chief Metacomet)
- Governor Thomas Dale
- Thomas Morton, a rival of the Plymouth Pilgrims
- The pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard
- Reverend John Smeet
The trial is rigged against Webster. He is ready to rage, without care for himself or Stone, but he catches himself: 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 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 points out 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, "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. (A point sometimes not appreciated by the reader is that by agreeing to a jury trial, the Devil has also agreed to be bound by the Common Law rule that a jury is the exclusive judge of the law and the facts. It can do what it likes in favor of the defendant. Webster, as an experienced lawyer, would know that; presumably the Devil would as well, but is confident in his hand-picked jury.)
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 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 supporting the Compromise of 1850 that incorporated The Fugitive Slave Act). Scratch predicts 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 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 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.
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, (and certainly, they are in Hell) 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 US. 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 Indians who were outside European settlement.
In his speech, Webster denounces slavery. Earlier, he states flatly "A man is not a piece of property." Later, there is this description "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."
The real Daniel Webster was willing to compromise on slavery in favor of keeping the Union together, disappointing some radical abolitionists, but he held that only the preservation of the Union could keep anti-slavery forces active in the slave areas. This desire to end the institution was a mainspring of his support for the Union.
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 sometimes 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. (The historical King Philip (Metacomet), died from a gunshot to the heart, not a gash to the head.) Some modern historical sentiment holds that King Philip's "villainies" were merely a just response to the wrongs done to his people, but the story holds to the view that atrocities are wrong, whoever does them — and that Indian culture saw nothing wrong with them.
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 Benét gives the Devil—Mr. Scratch or the stranger—were both used around New England and other parts of the pre-Civil-War United States: "Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I’m often called that in these regions." These terms are taken primarily from "The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824) by Washington Irving, who usually calls the Devil Old Scratch.
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 never had a wide theatrical release.
An animated television film loosely based on the story, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, was released in 1978.
Phil Reisman, Jr. adapted the story for a live television performance of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" on Breck Sunday Showcase (NBC, Feb 14, 1960, 60 min), starring Edward G. Robinson (Daniel Webster), David Wayne (Mr. Scratch), and Tim O'Connor (Jabez Stone). A color videorecording of the production aired two years later on Breck Golden Showcase (CBS, Apr 30, 1962).
Each of these adaptations used the original story title, unless otherwise indicated:
Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, and James Craig reprised their 1941 film roles in the “All That Money Can Buy” episode of The Cavalcade of America (NBC Red Network, Oct 20, 1941, 30 min). Howard Teichmann and Robert L. Richards abridged and adapted the screenplay.
Edward Arnold again played Daniel Webster for The Prudential Family Hour of Stars (CBS, Sep 18, 1949, 30 min).
Walter Huston again reprised his 1941 film role in the “All That Money Can Buy” episode of Theatre Guild on the Air (NBC, Apr 30, 1950, 60 min); Cornel Wilde and Martha Scott co-starred.
Benét adapted his story as a play, The Devil and Daniel Webster: A Play in One Act (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1938), and also as a folk opera, The Devil and Daniel Webster: An Opera in One Act (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1939), music by Douglas Moore. (Moore and Benét had earlier collaborated on an operetta, The Headless Horseman , based on Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" .)
Archibald MacLeish, a friend and associate of Benét's in the Thirties and until his death in 1943, also adapted the story as a play: Scratch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971). On Broadway very briefly, Scratch starred Will Geer in the title role and Patrick Magee as Webster.
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.
- 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. Benét explained that her husband occasionally used to insert imaginary people into his writings. Benét 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 Benét anticipated authors Tim Powers and James Blaylock, who created a poet named William Ashbless."
- Maggin, E.S. (1981). at Ch.3Miracle Monday
- Chick, J.T. (2004). The Contract!, chick.com
- Chick, J.T. (2009). It's a Deal, chick.com
- Electronic version of the story
- Criterion Collection essay by Tom Piazza
- , 1941)The Devil and Daniel Webster (a.k.a. All That Money Can Buy at the Internet Movie Database
- (2004)The Devil and Daniel Webster at the Internet Movie Database