‘The Devil And Daniel Webster’ by Stephen Vincent Benét

The Devil And Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benét, 1936

The magic trick:

Balancing the potentially overly sincere with humor

Classic stuff today. And of course we couldn’t do a week of New Hampshire stories without this one.

Stephen Vincent Benét goes all in on his “Nathaniel Hawthorne with a 20th century sense of humor” act, and it works perfectly. He makes a believable myth of Daniel Webster, American hero. He gets 100 years of American history into focus. He celebrates a patriotic ideal of what America means, without it ever getting too pompous. And it’s a plot so good that it would hold any child’s interest.

I like the humor the most, though. It’s not overt. It’s not as if this is a Mark Twain writer’s voice here. Not every sentence drips with irony and snark. But he deploys it just enough to strike the right tone. Just enough laughs to balance the sincere.

And that’s quite a trick on Benét’s part.

The selection:

“You’ve certainly given yourself the devil’s own row to hoe, Neighbor Stone,” he said, “but I’ll take your case.”

“You’ll take it?” said Jabez Stone, hardly daring to believe.

“Yes,” said Dan’l Webster. “I’ve got about seventy-five other things to do and the Missouri Compromise to straighten out, but I’ll take your case. For if two New Hampshiremen aren’t a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians.”

Then he shook Jabez Stone by the hand and said, “Did you come down here in a hurry?”

“Well, I admit I made time,” said Jabez Stone.

“You’ll go back faster,” said Dan’l Webster, and he told ’em to hitch up Constitution and Constellation to the carriage. They were matched grays with one white forefoot, and they stepped like greased lightning.

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