The Devil and Tom Walker: A Property Tale — Part II: Property as mediator of human conduct 1

In my first post, I described how the landscapes shape the relationships in the Devil in Tom Walker.   Today, I am going to look at elements of the story that focus on the relationships of people to property.   To do so, lets pick up the tale where we left off.  In fact

As Tom returns from his encounter with the Devil, he reluctantly tells his wife of his encounter.  As we described in the first post, the relationship between Tom and his wife is centered around their individual quest to hoard property; there is no community action between the two.  What might seem to be an attempt to partner with her husband is really a selfish push to allow Tom Walker to absorb the risk of dealing with the devil for the mutual benefit of the gold.  But Tom remained determined to not “be damned to please her.”  The wife not to be deterred, attempts to negotiate with the Devil herself.   After her first attempt is unsuccessful, she returns offering all of their valuable chattels to the Devil — their silver teapot, silver spoons, and other belongings.  Later Tom, when he goes to look for her, discovers her apron with a heart and a liver tied in it.

As before, when the wife and Tom bickered over stashed items, Tom’s pursuit of his wife is more about retrieving the things she took than it is about retrieving her from Old Scratch.  Its even unclear whether Tom sought after her; though the author seems to believe he did.   Whatever the case, the story is clear that Tom was not remorseful for his wife’s loss.  “Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property with the loss of his wife; for he was a man of fortitude. He even felt something like gratitude towards the black woodsman, who he considered had done him a kindness.”  Notice how property in this last instance mediated the relationship (the broken relationship) between Tom and his wife.    Tom’s dissatisfaction of losing property is ameliorated by the loss of his wife — as if the spouse were another piece of property to be bargained away.

Ironically, though Tom does not have trouble accepting the loss of his wife as a good bargain for property (thereby reducing her to property to be bargained), he finds the Devil’s suggestion that he engage in the slave trade to be distasteful.  Tom’s distaste is difficult to explain.  His willingness to part with his spouse for a few chattels suggests he has no problem equating humans with economic value — as long as those humans are as wretched as his wife.  Likely, Tom’s reluctance to engage in the slave trade is a commentary by Irving on the moral choices made by slave opposed states.   The story is set in Massachusetts and was written in 1824.   This  should not be taken that Irving was particularly opposed to slavery.  As Kenneth Reed has pointed out, Irving was rather agnostic towards the plight of African Americans, and often used them in stories as a means of pointing to fallacies in his white characters — like Tom Walker.   In this instance, let me proffer a theory.  Massachusetts, and Boston were the sources of many anti-slavery advocates, like William Ellery Channing, William Lloyd Garrison and David Walker, who published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829.  Though both Garrison and Walker come several years after the publication of the Devil and Tom Walker, there was brewing before that a sentiment that Boston was an anti-slavery society.

Much of the Bostonian view was symbolized in the preacher William Ellery Channing.   It is no accident that Irving has Tom Walker establish a usury business using pirate gold in Boston, and thereby become a respected member of the community, while refusing to take part on the tasteless activity of the slave trade.  Irving is pointing out the North’s hypocrisy in turning a blind eye to deeds that take advantage of others through ill-gotten or less-than-honorable means, while condemning the slave trade of the South.  In fact, we see as much glee in Tom Walker’s acceptance for opening a broker shop as a usury lender as he showed distaste for the slave trade.

“You shall open a broker’s shop in Boston next month,” said the black man.

“I’ll do it to-morrow, if you wish,” said Tom Walker.

“You shall lend money at two per cent. a month.”

“Egad, I’ll charge four!” replied Tom Walker.

“You shall extort bonds, foreclose mortgages, drive the merchant to bankruptcy-”

“I’ll drive him to the d–l,” cried Tom Walker, eagerly.

“You are the usurer for my money!” said the black legs, with delight. “When will you want the rhino?”

“This very night.”

Tom Walker then finds a successful career as a money lender.   His success is built on the failure of others, collecting large sums against defaulting lenders.  More than a few commentators have found allusions to the world of Tom Walker and our current lending climate (or at least the climate a few years ago). For Tom, though, the gold shapes his interactions with his clients.  It affords him the opportunity to be lenient, which he refuses.  Likewise, it shapes his revival as he realizes his soul will be called shortly, much like the loans for which he is calling.

At this propitious time of public distress did Tom Walker set up as a usurer in Boston. His door was soon thronged by customers. The needy and the adventurous; the gambling speculator; the dreaming land jobber; the thriftless tradesman; the merchant with cracked credit; in short, every one driven to raise money by desperate means and desperate sacrifices, hurried to Tom Walker.

Thus Tom was the universal friend of the needy, and he acted like a “friend in need;” that is to say, he always exacted good pay and good security. In proportion to the distress of the applicant was the hardness of his terms. He accumulated bonds and mortgages; gradually squeezed his customers closer and closer; and sent them at length, dry as a sponge from his door.

As with the miserly house from the first part, Tom’s property begins to reflect the condition of his soul. Tom “set up a carriage in the fullness of his vain glory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it; and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screeched on the axle trees, you would have thought you heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.”
And Tom knowing the state of his soul does not seek mercy but seeks to best the Devil — yet another contrast to those in the social order that Tom is distancing himself from.   He attempts to out pious the pious and in fact leads them to believe he is more pious than they.  At the end of the day, its Tom’s failure to show mercy that warrants him no mercy from his own usury lender of the soul.
What is important from a Property perspective is the role that property plays in shaping the social relations around Tom Walker.  Property becomes the mediator between his wife and the devil; it becomes the mediator between illicit activities and Tom; and it becomes the mediator (or the stage) upon which Tom’s religion is played out.   In short, The Devil and Tom Walker illustrates the role of Property in shaping human interactions.
Here are some discussion questions like the last post.  What other questions would you raise?


Some Questions for Students Following Tom Walker:

Drawing on Justice Marshall’s opinion in The Antelope, how is Tom Walker’s moral position on slavery similar to Justice Marshall?  How is it different?

We talk about Property being primarily about “relationships amongst people to things;” is Property the primary tie between the characters?  Is there something else?

The Devil is primarily a bailor with respect to the pirate gold.  If Captain Kidd indeed never returned, should the Gold be treated as abandoned property?  Should it be treated as treasure trove?  Why?

Should we understand this story as a critique of the financial lending market?   Why or why not.

For more information See Kenneth Reed, Washington Irving and the Negro, Negro American Literature Forum (1970).

One comment

  1. Pingback: Magic and Muggle Toys as Metaphors of Translation: How Harry Potter makes a case for Literature inclusion in the legal curriculum « The Literary Table

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