In this fantasy, author Stephen Vincent Benet brings together people who played a part in American history, for good or evil.
Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer tired of his long string of bad luck, sells his soul to the devil, “Mr. Scratch”. Afterwards, Mr. Stone’s prosperity is as good as his calamities were bad. His wife and family, not knowing what he did, are happy, but Jabez lives in dread of the day the devil will come to claim his soul.
Jabez asks the well-known lawyer/orator Daniel Webster to plead his case with the devil. Daniel agrees and comes to the Stone’s house with Jabez. When Daniel is unable to negotiate with Mr. Scratch, he insists on a trial by an American judge and jury. Mr. Scratch agrees, and the door opens to admit some of the worst villains in American history as judge and jury.
The trial begins and goes badly for Daniel and Jabez Stone. Daniel grows increasingly frustrated as his objections are overruled, but the opponent’s are sustained. His anger within grows hot.
The climax of the story comes when, shortly before addressing the jury, Daniel sees his own anger burning in their eyes. He realizes if he tries to fight the devil with the devil’s own weapons of hatred, inhumanity, and rage, all is lost.
With that realization, he makes his unusual defense. He begins by speaking about simple things–simple joys–all the jurors could recognize. He says without freedom, those things “sicken”. He talks about America, and admits that grievous wrongs were done, but there was good too. Without condemnation, he asserts that whatever the jurors had done, they had all played a part in America.
The trial comes to an unusual conclusion.
Reviewer’s Note: While Daniel Webster, the judge, and most of the named characters of the jury actually lived, Stephen Vincent Benet uses literary license to tell his story.
I first read “The Devil and Daniel Webster” several years ago, and think of it often. As I read it the other day for this review I thought how timely it is, years after its publication. The evil of slavery is referred to in the story; racism is with us today. Freedom is a theme of the story; the fight for freedom is never over, for always there will be groups who seek to put other people under their control. The effects of the devil are seen in the world–hatred, rage, the inhumanity of man towards man, totalitarianism, and more. In the way Daniel handled his anger and the way he addressed the jurors, I saw what could be thought of “anger management”, which is so needed in the world today.
2 responses to “Favorite Short Stories–The Devil and Daniel Webster”
Very interesting. I’ve heard of the book, but haven’t read it. Thank you for the synopsis. It’s cool how Webster realizes that his own anger is fueling the rage of the jury. How many times does the devil play that trick on people today?
Many, many times a day, I’m sure. Webster did not speak to the jury in an accusatory fashion. If he had, he would’ve been playing into the devil’s hands. Once he realized his own anger, he spoke in a calm, controlled way, respectfully, you might say. He didn’t have the attitude that “the end justifies the means”, which so many people have now.
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” used to appear in many anthologies of American short stories. It may be possible to find it online in its entirety; I don’t know.