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Literature / The Devil and Daniel Webster

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"I'd fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man."
Daniel Webster

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is a 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, which in turn was based on the 1824 short story "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving. Both stories are based on the legend of Dr. Faustus.

Its protagonist is Jabez Stone, a man for whom fortune has never shined and has, in fact, laughed upon. That all changes when the sly Mr. Scratch, who is none other than Satan himself, comes visiting. Jabez sells his soul to the devil and enjoys seven years of contractual good luck. However, near the end of the deal, Jabez decides to find some way out of it; he finds it in the famed attorney Daniel Webster. Now, Jabez can only hope Webster can give him a chance out of hell.

Its most well known adaptation was a 1941 film directed by William Dieterle, starring Walter Huston as Scratch, Edward Arnold as Webster, and James Craig as Jabez Stone. It was retitled All That Money Can Buy in some states, as well as on Academy Award ballots. At that year's ceremony, it won composer Bernard Herrmann his only Oscar for his original score.


Was given a short musical parody by DominicFear. There is also an operatic adaptation by Douglas Moore, who also wrote The Ballad of Baby Doe. There is an animated Funny Animal adaptation for children called The Devil and Daniel Mouse.

This short story contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The devil is depicted as not all that bad of a guy, considering. He's only asking that Stone uphold his end of their bargain, and when he loses the case he takes it in stride.
  • As Long as There is Evil: Scratch gives a pretty good tirade about it when Webster questions his claim of being an American.
    Webster: Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince.
    Mr. Scratch: Foreign? And who calls me a foreigner?
    Webster: Well, I never heard the dev— of you claiming American citizenship.
    Mr. Scratch: And who with better right? 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 the deck. Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? 'Tis true, the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. To tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in the country than yours.
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  • Butt-Monkey: Jabez Stone, at the beginning of the story.
  • Deal with the Devil: Mr Stone makes a deal with the devil in exchange for seven years of prosperity.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: He takes it pretty well.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The Devil has left New Hampshire for good.
  • Exact Words: Webster insisted on a fair trial for his American client. A jury of his client's peers, after all. So he gets a Jury of the Damned.
    Mr. Scratch: Americans, all.
  • Hanging Judge: Justice Hathorne. This may also count as Truth in Television as Hathorne was the judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials and never regretted it. However, he is an American judge, which is what Daniel Webster demanded.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Yes, Daniel Webster was a great statesman. No, he did not possess a pair of horses that could outrun the wind, a ram that could butt through an iron door, or the ability to sink a river into the ground with his oratory.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Not all of the jury of the damned were really that evil in reality. In particular, Thomas Morton was only evil in the sense of being an enemy of Puritans and was an early proponent of treating Native Americans decently.
    • Lampshaded when, in Webster's final speech, the author turns the perspective around and lets the reader see their more-admirable qualities — though they're still, you know, damned.
  • In the Style of...: It's written in a sort of tall tale style which fits the literature written at the period that it's set, and also shows the influences of American Lovecraft Country stories, specifically "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving.
  • Jury of the Damned: The Trope Maker. Webster demands a trial, ceding the selection of judge and jury to the Devil, on the sole condition that they be American. The Devil naturally calls upon (only American!) damned souls to fill the jury roster, as well as a famous Hanging Judge.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Miser Stephens' contract expires hours before Jabez's.
  • Louis Cypher: The Devil appears to Jabez Stone using the name "Mr. Scratch", a reference to the nickname "Old Scratch" for the Devil.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Miser Stephens' soul appears as a moth-like creature. Scratch informs us that most of the souls he gets look like moths. He does suggest, however, that the souls of greater or more virtuous men are "bigger".
  • Patriotic Fervor: One of the main themes.
  • Satan: Right there in the title.
  • Setting Update: It was adapted into a movie called Shortcut to Happiness in 2003.
  • Shout-Out: Not only does the Superman novel Miracle Monday make reference to the events of TDADW, the basic premise (Superman beating the Devil's agent with just his righteousness) is inspired by it.
    Weber: While the official reports disclose no case where this defendant has appeared as defendant there is an unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire where this defendant filed an action of mortgage foreclosure as plaintiff. The defendant in that action was represented by the preeminent advocate of that day, and raised the defense that the plaintiff was a foreign prince with no standing to sue in an American Court. This defense was overcome by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whether or not this would raise an estoppel in the present case we are unable to determine at this time.
  • Take That!: The story's last line is one against Vermont and Massachusetts.
  • Trial of the Mystical Jury: The above Jury of the Damned.

The film contains examples of:

Alternative Title(s): The Devil And Daniel Webster


Example of: