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By Ed Simon


The Montréal Review, March 2022



By Ed Simon

Abrams (2022)




Stephen Vincent Benét has the distinction of writing something so successful that it's attainted the status of folklore, its author all but forgotten. "The Devil and Daniel Webster," the 1937 story of a yeoman farmer in antebellum New Hampshire who foolishly sells his soul to the Devil only to be defended at trial by the brilliant orator and congressman Daniel Webster is well-known in American popular culture, so that many broadly know the story, but not the name of its creator. Evocative of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benét's tale is frequently misattributed to that most influential of authors known only by that collective name of "Anonymous," for no greater honor can be paid to a writer than for their story to ascend from mere fiction and into the realm of legend. There's a reason for the success of this story about a New England necromancer, and that's because many of us intrinsically understand its unsettling moral – that America has always been a Faustian bargain.

In Benét's tale Jabaz Stone sold his soul to "Mr. Scratch" in exchange for material prosperity, and per the stipulations of their contract, after seven years the Devil arrives to collect his due. With no one else to turn to, Stone hires the great Webster to plead his case before a thoroughly "American jury…with the fires of hell still upon them," an infernal group that includes the libertine colonist Thomas Morton, the feared Wampanoag chief "King Philip" Metacomet, and Blackbeard the Pirate, with the court presided over by Judge John Hathorne of the Salem witchcraft trials. With grand rhetoric, Webster convinces the jury that Stone's soul was never for sale in the first place, claiming that "no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince."

Ever the patriot, the historical Webster's doctrine of unionism above all else entailed its own Faustian negotiations, as with the Compromise of 1850 that he helped broker in Congress, which preserved the shaky foundations of the state at the cost of passing the Fugitive Slave Act and allowing Southern states to expand into new territories. Because of that, after the jury finds in Stone's favor, Mr. Scratch reads Webster's palm, predicting that the representative will be considered a traitor by his fellow northerners, while his sons will die in an apocalyptic civil war which all of the representative's political concessions did nothing to prevent. The ultimate joke is that Satan understands the national soul better than even Webster does – "I am merely an honest American like yourself," the Devil tells the congressman.

Because Benét had the good sense to clothe his prophetic urgency and radical honesty in homespun Yankeeisms, the subversive import of a story like "The Devil and Daniel Webster" is easily occluded. Yet it is the exact narrative for our current moment, precisely because of the uncomfortable truths which it tells during our age of conservative moral panics over "critical race theory" and The 1619 Project, "cancellation" and "trigger warnings." Last year the Texas State House took up HR 3979 which bans teaching anything that could cause students to "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress," to which Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause added an addendum listing 850 books to be banned from school libraries. This month Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis proposed legislation which would allow parents to examine  curriculums and to even sue instructors who include anything nebulously defined as "critical race theory," while in Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin won a surprise victory in part by featuring a campaign ad in which a concerned parent said her "heart sunk" when her son was made to read a book about American racism which made him feel guilty, the novel being Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning classic Beloved.

And yet as far as I can tell, none of these demagogic politicians have tried to cancel Stephen Vincent Benét, most likely because the author continues to do what he does most often – be forgotten. Yet if Krause, DeSantis, or Youngkin want to read something that makes their heart sink, they'd do well to meditate upon Satan's courtroom testimony, wherein he reminds the reader that "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… 'Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner," though Lucifer precedes both, being the spirit of the nation, whose "name is older in this country than yours."

Often that which is maligned by the right-wing as being "woke" is claimed to be intellectually novel, what the conservative scholars who compiled the shoddily researched, so-called research of the Trump administration's "1776 Commission" concluded was simply contemporary "identity politics" designed to indoctrinate students into the belief that "America itself is to blame for oppression." That Benét's 85-year-old story says that not only is American history a story of oppression – but Satanic oppression at that – should put a lie to the idea that so-called "identity politics" is something just dreamt up by liberal Ivy League faculty or progressive public-school boards. The other thing that must be remembered is that Benét's claim – that American prosperity, power, and privilege were born from the incomprehensible evils of slavery and genocide – is true.

Not only was Benét fully aware of that reality in 1937, but from the earliest days of New World colonization many of those most intimately involved understood that theirs was a perfidious Faustian bargain, wealth purchased at the expense of innocent blood. Making mockery of the disingenuous sentiment which holds that judging a Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson for their actions is an anachronistic imposition of contemporary morality onto the past, and we only have to read the words of those men themselves.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador involved in the destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521, recalled that city of wide porticos, massive pyramids, broad ball fields, and intricate canals as an "enchanted vision" filled with "things never seen, heard of, or even dreamed of before," yet confessing some four decades later that "now all is overthrown and lost; nothing is left standing." Forty years after the establishment of New Spain, and the Dominican priest Bartolomeo de las Casas detailed the murder, enslavement, and mutilation he'd witnessed, estimating that the colonizers had killed at least twelve million Indians since they arrived. Proffering explanation for such brutality, de las Casas concluded that it was due to "insatiable greed and ambition." Lest somebody assume that English colonization wasn't similar, in 1644 the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams bemoaned the "sinful opinion amongst many, that Christians have right to heathen's land," while as early as 1734 the Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay would write that slavery was "the greatest Sin in the World." Even Jefferson, who owned women and men, admitted that slavery was a "moral reproach to us," an "abomination."

To pretend as if the settler-colonials who arrived in the Americas didn't understand that ethnic cleansing and slavery were evil is to ignore the first-hand testimony of men like del Castillo, de las Casas, Williams, Lay, and even Jefferson. That such evidence of humanity was rare among many in the earliest days of America is validation of how wicked such societies often were. Debates about how we remember Columbus or the pilgrims, conquistadors or founding fathers, which argue that the evil that those men propagated can be explained away by theirs being a "different time" are at best morally relativistic and at worst abjectly nihilistic. When Benét conjures an image of Satan overseeing the arrival of the Spanish, and French, and Dutch, and English in the New World, it evokes the metaphysical evil of the genocide which defined European colonization; when he imagines Lucifer aboard a slave ship traversing the horrific Middle Passage, where as many as thirteen million Africans were kidnaped and almost two million died during the trip, it's to understand that slavery wasn't just a political or even a moral issue – it's a religious one. American wealth, power, and influence is directly attributable to not just historical injustices, but historical evils. Critic Leslie Fiedler notes in his classic Love and Death in the American Novel that it's impossible to tell where the "American dream ended and the Faustian bargain began." Presidential committees and conservative pundits might not understand that, but our greatest poets and prophets always have.

The issue of salvation is uncomfortable. One approach, embraced by the political right, is to deny that any kind of reckoning is required, that awareness of historical reality must be squelched. Multiple states have banned the teaching of what supporters' call "critical race theory" (though they almost never correctly define that discipline), and more have legislation that's being considered. In June of last year, Webster's home of New Hampshire passed HB544, which in language echoing Texas' law says that no "individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish" over past history. Taken literally, how then should we teach "The Devil and Daniel Webster," images of Satan sailing the Santa Maria or piloting a slave ship during the Triangle Trade?

Conservatives would have us feel no guilt over history, but what a theologically bereft position that is, since so many on the right claim faith in the Christian doctrine which holds that all of us share responsibility for actions that occurred before we were born? Ironically it is the liberals derided as "woke" who more fully intuit original sin, of that deep, cankered fallenness that defines things of this world, of admitting how much of the Faustian legend there is in our history books. Spiritually, it has been the operative myth of our age since before the Mayflower hit Plymouth  Rock, perhaps even before Columbus sailed that ocean blue.  

Advocating for redress of historical crimes that still affect living people today is an issue of political justice; it is related to, but not equivalent with the more enigmatic nature of redemption. If there is something strident or anemic in the rhetoric of those mocked as being "woke" it is perhaps a result of grasping towards the right conclusion while failing at finding the correct words. The left senses sin's reality, but lacks the language to name it; the right now simply denies that sin exists at all. Burning that Faustian contract that's responsible for national evils requires more than just the correct legislation or sociological jargon – it requires a sense of the numinous that none of us seem to have quite properly developed yet. Just like the America of those past pristine dreams, it requires a transcendent imagination yet to be fully born.


Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and a widely published freelance writer who has been published at The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Paris Review Daily, Jacobin, McSweeney's, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among dozens of others. He is also the author of several books, most recently Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, released in February by Abrams. 


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