Good literature makes us think. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is a classic that everyone can enjoy, and it makes us think. It can raise many questions for perceptive readers. Lots of adaptations were made of the story, including two full-length movies in 1941 and 2001 – the first version winning an Academy Award, a one act play that Benet wrote in 1938, as well as TV and radio versions. Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943) introduced the tale in a magazine in 1936 and in book form the following year. The story won the O. Henry Award. A Kindle version of the 32-page story can be purchased on Amazon for only 99 cents since the copyright on it has expired.
Benet is an excellent writer. He obtained a Pulitzer Prize twice for his poetry. One of the things that he wrote was:
Life is not lost by dying,
Life is lost minute by minute
Day by dragging day
In all the thousand small uncaring ways.
In “The Devil and Daniel Webster” Benet depicts Daniel Webster caring, saving a New Hampshire farmer from the Devil and from Hell.
In the story, the farmer Jabez Stone was impoverished, every effort he made on his farm turned out bad. Exacerbated, he agrees to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for ten years of great prosperity. His request is granted. At the end of the ten years, Jabez rushes to the famed orator and lawyer Daniel Webster to come and save him. The Americanized Devil, who calls himself Scratch, comes to collect the farmer’s soul.
Webster argues that “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!” Hearing this, Scratch insists on his citizenship, citing his presence at the worst events of US history, when Indians were mistreated and when blacks were enslaved.
Webster then demands a trial by jury with an American judge and an American jury, the right of every American. Scratch agrees and raises from Hell vicious people from America’s past to serve on the jury, men who had done evil, but had played a part in the creation of the United States. As a judge, he brings the judge who had presided at the trials of women charged with being witches.
Webster forced to accept the thugs from Hell, admits the wrongs performed in America’s past, but adds patriotically that something good for America grew from them, “everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.”
Webster then talks about “things that make a country a country, and a man a man” rather than legal points of the case which he could not deny and which he had no chance of winning. Freedom and independence, he argued, defines manhood: “Yes, even in hell, if a man was a man, you’d know it.”
Moved by Webster’s oratory, the evil jury from Hell ignored the law and set Jabez Stone free.
- Is Webster correct that good things can come from the worst evils? Solomon was born after King David’s adultery. The messiah will, according to tradition, be descendant of David but also from the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel because David’s later descendant married a granddaughter of this king and queen and produced a son who became king of Judea and ancestor of the messiah.
- Why couldn’t Jabez Stone retract his oath as soon as he realized his mistake? Why couldn’t the patriarch Isaac retract the blessing he mistakenly gave to Jacob when he wanted to give it to Esau? Why couldn’t Jephthah repudiate his oath when he promised to sacrifice the first thing that came to greet him when he returned from his battle, when his daughter came to him, when he thought it would be one of his animals.
- Can people ignore the law and decide to act based on what they feel is right as the jury did in this tale? Is this the basis for the Jewish rule of lifnim meshurat hadin, going beyond the letter of the law?
- Does it make sense to believe in the devil? What impact does such a belief have upon one’s life and behavior?
- Does it make sense to think that there is a place called Hell? What is the impact of believing this?
- I there a legal argument that Daniel webster could have made and not have to rely on patriotism and manhood?