American Literature

Terms in this set (29)

The major events of the Revolutionary era played a significant role in influencing writers and intellectuals of the time. Starting from the end of the French and Indian War, the British government sought to tax the American colonies to recover the costs of the war and pay for troops stationed in America. However, the American colonies were not represented in the British Parliament. The question of taxation without representation, along with other attempts by the British government to wield power over the colonies (and to restrict self-government in the colonies) led to rising tensions between the colonists and the British government.

Events such as the passing of the Tea Act and the the Intolerable Acts, the Boston Tea Party, and the Boston Massacre aroused general sentiment against British rule in the colonies and led writers and thinkers to view it as harmful or tyrannical in nature. These events also united the residents of different colonies because they perceived a common enemy in the British government.

The development of age of reason ideas in Europe, such as an emphasis on logic and individual rights, also influenced intellectuals in America. Thomas Paine, who became one of the most influential writers of the period, sailed to America from England to motivate Americans to fight for independence. Paine and other writers of the era used strong arguments to push for American independence. Paine was not a wealthy or powerful man, and he was inspired by the fact that ordinary people could find a voice and power during the American Revolution.
In "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving criticizes the selfish and heartless sections of American society, especially usurers, by satirizing them through Tom Walker's character. He also criticizes the hypocrisy of American religious groups through his satirical description of Tom's churchgoing and through his mention of the Salem witch trials and the persecution of Quakers and Anabaptists. He also seems to suggest that American society was founded on violence and inequality:

"Since the red men have been exterminated by you white savages, I amuse myself by presiding at the persecutions of Quakers and Anabaptists; I am the great patron and prompter of slave dealers, and the grandmaster of the Salem witches."

"The Devil and Tom Walker" has many romantic traits. The American romantics emphasized individualism and held the belief that man's choices decided his fate. In "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving suggests that it is Tom's own choices that led to his damnation. Fittingly, Tom's own words lead to his punishment.

The romantics were fascinated by the supernatural and by nature. In his story, Irving includes many supernatural elements such as the devil. He draws connections between the woods and the devil, who only ever appears before Tom in the woods and swamps.

At length, it is said, when delay had whetted Tom's eagerness to the quick, and prepared him to agree to anything rather than not gain the promised treasure, he met the black man one evening in his usual woodman's dress, with his axe on his shoulder, sauntering along the swamp, and humming a tune.

In this story, Washington Irving uses romantic elements to satirize the darker side of American Puritan society, particularly greed and hypocrisy:

Having secured the good things of this world, he began to feel anxious about those of the next. He thought with regret on the bargain he had made with his black friend, and set his wits to work to cheat him out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent churchgoer. He prayed loudly and strenuously, as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs. Indeed, one might always tell when he had sinned most during the week, by the clamor of his Sunday devotion.