"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét. This retelling of the classic German Faust tale is based on the short story The Devil and Tom Walker, written by Washington Irving. Benet's version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and is defended by Daniel Webster.
The story was published in 1937 by Farrar & Rinehart. In 1938, it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and won an O. Henry award that same year. The author would adapt it in 1938 into a folk opera with music by Douglas Stuart Moore. Benét also worked on the screenplay adaptation for the 1941 RKO Pictures film.
The story is about a New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone, who is plagued with unending bad luck. It is set in 1841
Stone swears that "it's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil!" When Satan, disguised as "Mr. Scratch", arrives the next day, he makes such an offer, and Stone reluctantly agrees to the deal.
Stone enjoys seven years of prosperity, and later bargains for three more years, but as the "mortgage falls due," he convinces famous lawyer and orator Daniel Webster to argue his case with the Devil.
At midnight of the appointed date, Mr. Scratch arrives and is greeted by Daniel Webster presenting himself as Stone's attorney. Mr. Scratch tells Daniel, "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 Daniel since the signature and the contract are clear, and Mr. Scratch will not agree to a compromise.
In desperation Daniel 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 America, concluding that "though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours".
A trial is then demanded by Daniel as the right of every American. Mr. Scratch agrees after Daniel says that he can pick 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 America:
After five other unnamed jurors enter (Benedict Arnold not among them, he being out "on other business"), the Judge (John Hathorne) enters last. He had presided at the Salem witch trials.
The trial is rigged to go against Daniel. Finally he is on his feet ready to rage, without care for himself or Stone, but catches himself before he begins to speak: 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".
Daniel begins speaking of 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 a man, and to be an American. He admits the wrongs done in America, but argues that something new and good had grown from it, "and everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors". Mankind "got tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but it was a great journey" that no "demon ever foaled" could ever understand.
The jury announces its verdict: "We find for the defendant, Jabez Stone." They admit that, "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 Daniel and the contract is torn up.
Daniel 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." Daniel 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 ever become President, the death of Webster's sons, and the backlash of his last speech, warning "Some will call you Ichabod," as in Whittier's poem in reaction to the speech. Webster takes all these predictions in stride, and asks only if the Union will prevail. Scratch reluctantly admits that, though a war will be fought for it, the United States will remain united.
Webster then laughs and kicks him out of the house. It is said that the devil never did come back to New Hampshire afterward.
is the 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 America, thereby demonstrating his presence in America. 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. The Devil then provides the worst 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 most of the jury in reality would not have classed themselves as Americans as Governor Dale and Blackbeard were English and several others were loyalists.
In his speech, Webster denounces Slavery
. "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 many abolitionists.
At the end of the story during the Devil's fortune telling, he says: "But the last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you ... They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die." This doesn't bother Webster: "For, by the thirteen original colonies, I'd go to the Pit itself to save 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 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 - even though more modern historical sentiment holds that King Philip's "villainies" were merely a just response to the wrongs done to his people.
(As an aside, the historical King Philip died from a gunshot to the heart and not a gash to the head.)
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 in this story for the devil (Mr. Scratch
, or the stranger
) are both terms that were locally used around New England and other parts of pre-Civil-War America (ex:"... Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I’m often called that in these regions.
"), and are taken primarily from the Washington Irving
story published more than 100 years before, The Devil and Tom Walker
Daniel, in response to Jabez Stone's entreaty to depart while there is still time
- "I'm obliged to you, Neighbor Stone. It's kindly thought of. But there's a jug on the table and a case in hand. And I never left a jug or a case half finished in my life."
Daniel asks the Devil's name
- "I’ve gone by a good many... Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I'm often called that in these regions."
Daniel on jury selection
- "Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury! Let it be the quick or the dead ; I'll abide the issue!"
The jury enters
- One and all, they came into the room with the fires of hell still upon them, and the stranger named their names and their deeds as they came, till the tale of twelve was told. Yet the stranger had told the truth - they had all played a part in America.
- "Are you satisfied with the jury, Mr. Webster?" said the stranger mockingly, when they had taken their places.
- The sweat stood upon Dan'l Webster's brow, but his voice was clear.
- "Quite satisfied," he said. "Though I miss General Arnold from the company."
- "Benedict Arnold is engaged upon other business," said the stranger, with a glower.
- Dan'l Webster had faced some hard juries and hanging judges in his time, but this was the hardest he'd ever faced, and he knew it. They sat there with a kind of glitter in their eyes, and the stranger's smooth voice went on and on. Every time he'd raise an objection, it'd be "Objection sustained," but whenever Dan'l objected, it'd be "Objection denied." Well, you couldn't expect fair play from a fellow like this Mr. Scratch.
The Jury's verdict
- Walter Butler: Perhaps 'tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence, but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.
- They say whenever the devil comes near Marshfield, even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn't been seen in the state of New Hampshire from that day to this. I'm not talking about Massachusetts or Vermont.
Two film adaptations have been made: an award-winning 1941 film starring Edward Arnold as Daniel, and a less well-known film starring Anthony Hopkins, which was made in 2001, but has taken until 2007 to receive a wide release.
- All the predictions the devil makes are based on actual events of Daniel Webster's life: He did have ambitions to become President, his sons died in war, and as a result of a speech he gave denouncing abolitionists, many in the North considered him a traitor.
- This story was parodied in the first segment of The Simpsons' special Halloween episode, "Treehouse of Horror IV", entitled "The Devil and Homer Simpson". In their version, the Devil is played by Ned Flanders, and Homer sells his soul not for better luck, but for one 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 screwing up, and its up to Marge to save the day with a hilarious wedding photo. The Devil turns Homers 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 dammed includes Blackbeard, John Dillinger and Richard Nixon.
- A 2005 biopic about cult musician Daniel Johnston was entitled The Devil and Daniel Johnston in reference to the story.
- The story is referenced in the Magnetic Fields song "Two Characters in Search of a Country Song", from the 1994 album The Charm of the Highway Strip ("You were Jesse James, I was William Tell/ You were Daniel Webster, I was The Devil Himself").
- This story was also parodied in the Tiny Toons special, Night Ghoulery, with Plucky Duck in the role of Daniel Webster.
- This story was parodied in an episode of "Tripping the Rift". In this episode entitled "The Devil and a guy named Webster", Chode McBlob sells his soul to save himself, and by extension his crew, from a black hole. His crew in an attempt to save his soul, decide to go back in time and bring Daniel Webster to the future to act as Chode's attorney. Instead of returning with Daniel Webster, they come back with Emmanuel Lewis from the TV sitcom Webster. After seeing how good Lewis is with contracts, he is hired. The jury for the trial consisted of Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon. Lewis is quick to get the Devil to admit he had created a fake black hole to force the deal. Chode is awarded with a "Get Out of Hell Free" card, which he uses immediately.
- The Superman novel Miracle Monday mentions the events of this story without naming the characters, except for 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 was adaptated by Warner Bros. in A Pinky and the Brain Halloween, in which Pinky gives his soul to "Mister Itch" so that Brain's dream of world domination is realized (with Snowball reduced to his court jester). But Brain soon misses Pinky and travels to Hell to get him back (leaving Snowball behind to seize his throne). In the end, however, the contract between Pinky and Mister Itch is declared null and void because Itch was never able to provide Pinky with a "radish-rose whatsamawhosits" he requested being given at the beginning of the episode.
- The story and title were also adapted in an episode of the 1960s television series, The Monkees entitled "The Devil and Peter Tork". In the episode, Peter unwittingly signs a contract and sells his soul to the devil ("Mr. Zero" - played by Monte Landis) in order to own a harp he found at a pawn shop. Peter plays beautifully, and the Monkees automatically become an overnight success because of it. But when Mr. Zero finally comes and reveals himself to the Monkees, he convinces Peter that the only reason he could play was because of the power the devil had given him...and that since he sold his soul, he only had a few hours before he would be sent to hell. As a result, the Monkees sue, and bring the matter to court to prove the contract was null and void (Witnesses included Billy the Kid, Blackbeard the Pirate, and Atilla the Hun). However, when the Monkees are called up to the stand, Michael makes a speech on the importance of love, and because of Peter's love for playing the harp, that he didn't need the devil's help to play it at all. In the end, Peter proved the devil wrong, and the Monkees win the case.
- Nelvana created an animated made-for-television special called "The Devil and Daniel Mouse" based on the story. In the program, Daniel Mouse is a musician whose partner sells her soul to the Devil in exchange for fame.
- John Fogerty wrote his famous hit, "Bad Moon Rising", based on this book.
- The Chick Publications tract, The Contract! , borrows heavily from the story.
- "Printer's Devil", an episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone, also borrows heavily from the story.
- In his 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 17th episode of television series Reaper the Devil tells the main character that he has debated with Daniel Webster and that (he) is no Daniel Webster.
- Dominic Fera created a new humorous cartoon version of the story that is loosely based on the original. About half of the video is in musical format.
- Bleiler, Everett The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers.