The Devil in
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
On a bitter evening of December, I arrived by mail in a large
town, which was then the residence of an intimate friend, one of
those gifted youths who cultivate poetry and the belles-lettres,
and call themselves students at law. My first business, after
supper, was to visit him at the office of his distinguished
instructor. As I have said, it was a bitter night, clear
starlight, but cold as Nova Zembla,--the shop-windows along the
street being frosted, so as almost to hide the lights, while the
wheels of coaches thundered equally loud over frozen earth and
pavements of stone. There was no snow, either on the ground or
the roofs of the houses. The wind blew so violently, that I had
but to spread my cloak like a main-sail, and scud along the
street at the rate of ten knots, greatly envied by other
navigators, who were beating slowly up, with the gale right in
their teeth. One of these I capsized, but was gone on the wings
of the wind before he could even vociferate an oath.
After this picture of an inclement night, behold us seated by a
great blazing fire, which looked so comfortable and delicious
that I felt inclined to lie down and roll among the hot coals.
The usual furniture of a lawyer's office was around us,--rows of
volumes in sheepskin, and a multitude of writs, summonses, and
other legal papers, scattered over the desks and tables. But
there were certain objects which seemed to intimate that we had
little dread of the intrusion of clients, or of the learned
counsellor himself, who, indeed, was attending court in a distant
town. A tall, decanter-shaped bottle stood on the table, between
two tumblers, and beside a pile of blotted manuscripts,
altogether dissimilar to any law documents recognized in our
courts. My friend, whom I shall call Oberon,--it was a name of
fancy and friendship between him and me,--my friend Oberon looked
at these papers with a peculiar expression of disquietude.
"I do believe," said he, soberly, "or, at least, I could believe,
if I chose, that there is a devil in this pile of blotted papers.
You have read them, and know what I mean,--that conception in
which I endeavored to embody the character of a fiend, as
represented in our traditions and the written records of
witchcraft. Oh, I have a horror of what was created in my own
brain, and shudder at the manuscripts in which I gave that dark
idea a sort of material existence! Would they were out of my
"And of mine, too," thought I.
"You remember," continued Oberon, "how the hellish thing used to
suck away the happiness of those who, by a simple concession that
seemed almost innocent, subjected themselves to his power. Just
so my peace is gone, and all by these accursed manuscripts. Have
you felt nothing of the same influence?"
"Nothing," replied I, "unless the spell be hid in a desire to
turn novelist, after reading your delightful tales."
"Novelist!" exclaimed Oberon, half seriously. "Then, indeed, my
devil has his claw on you! You are gone! You cannot even pray for
deliverance! But we will be the last and only victims; for this
night I mean to burn the manuscripts, and commit the fiend to his
retribution in the flames."
"Burn your tales!" repeated I, startled at the desperation of the
"Even so," said the author, despondingly. "You cannot conceive
what an effect the composition of these tales has had on me. I
have become ambitious of a bubble, and careless of solid
reputation. I am surrounding myself with shadows, which bewilder
me, by aping the realities of life. They have drawn me aside from
the beaten path of the world, and led me into a strange sort of
solitude,--a solitude in the midst of men,-where nobody wishes
for what I do, nor thinks nor feels as I do. The tales have done
all this. When they are ashes, perhaps I shall be as I was before
they had existence. Moreover, the sacrifice is less than you may
suppose, since nobody will publish them."
"That does make a difference, indeed," said I.
"They have been offered, by letter," continued Oberon, reddening
with vexation, "to some seventeen booksellers. It would make you
stare to read their answers; and read them you should, only that
I burnt them as fast as they arrived. One man publishes nothing
but school-books; another has five novels already under
"What a voluminous mass the unpublished literature of America
must be!" cried I.
"Oh, the Alexandrian manuscripts were nothing to it!" said my
friend. "Well, another gentleman is just giving up business, on
purpose, I verily believe, to escape publishing my book. Several,
however, would not absolutely decline the agency, on my advancing
half the cost of an edition, and giving bonds for the remainder,
besides a high percentage to themselves, whether the book sells
or not. Another advises a subscription."
"The villain!" exclaimed I.
"A fact!" said Oberon. "In short, of all the seventeen
booksellers, only one has vouchsafed even to read my tales; and
he--a literary dabbler himself, I should judge--has the
impertinence to criticise them, proposing what he calls vast
improvements, and concluding, after a general sentence of
condemnation, with the definitive assurance that he will not be
concerned on any terms."
"It might not be amiss to pull that fellow's nose," remarked I.
"If the whole 'trade' had one common nose, there would be some
satisfaction in pulling it," answered the author. "But, there
does seem to be one honest man among these seventeen unrighteous
ones; and he tells me fairly, that no American publisher will
meddle with an American work,--seldom if by a known writer, and
never if by a new one,--unless at the writer's risk."
"The paltry rogues!" cried I. "Will they live by literature, and
yet risk nothing for its sake? But, after all, you might publish
on your own account."
"And so I might," replied Oberon. "But the devil of the business
is this. These people have put me so out of conceit with the
tales, that I loathe the very thought of them, and actually
experience a physical sickness of the stomach, whenever I glance
at them on the table. I tell you there is a demon in them! I
anticipate a wild enjoyment in seeing them in the blaze; such as
I should feel in taking vengeance on an enemy, or destroying
I did not very strenuously oppose this determination, being
privately of opinion, in spite of my partiality for the author,
that his tales would make a more brilliant appearance in the fire
than anywhere else. Before proceeding to execution, we broached
the bottle of champagne, which Oberon had provided for keeping up
his spirits in this doleful business. We swallowed each a
tumblerful, in sparkling commotion; it went bubbling down our
throats, and brightened my eyes at once, but left my friend sad
and heavy as before. He drew the tales towards him, with a
mixture of natural affection and natural disgust, like a father
taking a deformed infant into his arms.
"Pooh! Pish! Pshaw!" exclaimed he, holding them at arm's-length.
"It was Gray's idea of heaven, to lounge on a sofa and read new
novels. Now, what more appropriate torture would Dante himself
have contrived, for the sinner who perpetrates a bad book, than
to be continually turning over the manuscript?"
"It would fail of effect," said I, "because a bad author is
always his own great admirer."
"I lack that one characteristic of my tribe,--the only desirable
one," observed Oberon. "But how many recollections throng upon
me, as I turn over these leaves! This scene came into my fancy as
I walked along a hilly road, on a starlight October evening; in
the pure and bracing air, I became all soul, and felt as if I
could climb the sky, and run a race along the Milky Way. Here is
another tale, in which I wrapt myself during a dark and dreary
night-ride in the month of March, till the rattling of the wheels
and the voices of my companions seemed like faint sounds of a
dream, and my visions a bright reality. That scribbled page
describes shadows which I summoned to my bedside at midnight:
they would not depart when I bade them; the gray dawn came, and
found me wide awake and feverish, the victim of my own
"There must have been a sort of happiness in all this," said I,
smitten with a strange longing to make proof of it.
"There may be happiness in a fever fit," replied the author. "And
then the various moods in which I wrote! Sometimes my ideas were
like precious stones under the earth, requiring toil to dig them
up, and care to polish and brighten them; but often a delicious
stream of thought would gush out upon the page at once, like
water sparkling up suddenly in the desert; and when it had
passed, I gnawed my pen hopelessly, or blundered on with cold and
miserable toil, as if there were a wall of ice between me and my
"Do you now perceive a corresponding difference," inquired I,
"between the passages which you wrote so coldly, and those fervid
flashes of the mind?"
"No," said Oberon, tossing the manuscripts on the table. "I find
no traces of the golden pen with which I wrote in characters of
fire. My treasure of fairy coin is changed to worthless dross. My
picture, painted in what seemed the loveliest hues, presents
nothing but a faded and indistinguishable surface. I have been
eloquent and poetical and humorous in a dream,--and behold! it is
all nonsense, now that I am awake."
My friend now threw sticks of wood and dry chips upon the fire,
and seeing it blaze like Nebuchadnezzar's furnace, seized the
champagne bottle, and drank two or three brimming bumpers,
successively. The heady liquor combined with his agitation to
throw him into a species of rage. He laid violent hands on the
tales. In one instant more, their faults and beauties would alike
have vanished in a glowing purgatory. But, all at once, I
remembered passages of high imagination, deep pathos, original
thoughts, and points of such varied excellence, that the vastness
of the sacrifice struck me most forcibly. I caught his arm.
"Surely, you do not mean to burn them!" I exclaimed.
"Let me alone!" cried Oberon, his eyes flashing fire. "I will
burn them! Not a scorched syllable shall escape! Would you have
me a damned author?--To undergo sneers, taunts, abuse, and cold
neglect, and faint praise, bestowed, for pity's sake, against the
giver's conscience! A hissing and a laughing-stock to my own
traitorous thoughts! An outlaw from the protection of the
grave,--one whose ashes every careless foot might spurn,
unhonored in life, and remembered scornfully in death! Am I to
bear all this, when yonder fire will insure me from the whole?
No! There go the tales! May my hand wither when it would write
The deed was done. He had thrown the manuscripts into the hottest
of the fire, which at first seemed to shrink away, but soon
curled around them, and made them a part of its own fervent
brightness. Oberon stood gazing at the conflagration, and shortly
began to soliloquize, in the wildest strain, as if Fancy resisted
and became riotous, at the moment when he would have compelled
her to ascend that funeral pile. His words described objects
which he appeared to discern in the fire, fed by his own precious
thoughts; perhaps the thousand visions which the writer's magic
had incorporated with these pages became visible to him in the
dissolving heat, brightening forth ere they vanished forever;
while the smoke, the vivid sheets of flame, the ruddy and
whitening coals, caught the aspect of a varied scenery.
"They blaze," said he, "as if I had steeped them in the intensest
spirit of genius. There I see my lovers clasped in each other's
arms. How pure the flame that bursts from their glowing hearts!
And yonder the features of a villain writhing in the fire that
shall torment him to eternity. My holy men, my pious and angelic
women, stand like martyrs amid the flames, their mild eyes lifted
heavenward. Ring out the bells! A city is on fire.
See!--destruction roars through my dark forests, while the lakes
boil up in steaming billows, and the mountains are volcanoes, and
the sky kindles with a lurid brightness! All elements are but one
pervading flame! Ha! The fiend!"
I was somewhat startled by this latter exclamation. The tales
were almost consumed, but just then threw forth a broad sheet of
fire, which flickered as with laughter, making the whole room
dance in its brightness, and then roared portentously up the
"You saw him? You must have seen him!" cried Oberon. "How he
glared at me and laughed, in that last sheet of flame, with just
the features that I imagined for him! Well! The tales are gone."
The papers were indeed reduced to a heap of black cinders, with a
multitude of sparks hurrying confusedly among them, the traces of
the pen being now represented by white lines, and the whole mass
fluttering to and fro in the draughts of air. The destroyer knelt
down to look at them.
"What is more potent than fire!" said he, in his gloomiest tone.
"Even thought, invisible and incorporeal as it is, cannot escape
it. In this little time, it has annihilated the creations of long
nights and days, which I could no more reproduce, in their first
glow and freshness, than cause ashes and whitened bones to rise
up and live. There, too, I sacrificed the unborn children of my
mind. All that I had accomplished--all that I planned for future
years--has perished by one common ruin, and left only this heap
of embers! The deed has been my fate. And what remains? A weary
and aimless life,--a long repentance of this hour,--and at last
an obscure grave, where they will bury and forget me!"
As the author concluded his dolorous moan, the extinguished
embers arose and settled down and arose again, and finally flew
up the chimney, like a demon with sable wings. Just as they
disappeared, there was a loud and solitary cry in the street
below us. "Fire!" Fire! Other voices caught up that terrible
word, and it speedily became the shout of a multitude. Oberon
started to his feet, in fresh excitement.
"A fire on such a night!" cried he. "The wind blows a gale, and
wherever it whirls the flames, the roofs will flash up like
gunpowder. Every pump is frozen up, and boiling water would turn
to ice the moment it was flung from the engine. In an hour, this
wooden town will be one great bonfire! What a glorious scene for
The street was now all alive with footsteps, and the air full of
voices. We heard one engine thundering round a corner, and
another rattling from a distance over the pavements. The bells of
three steeples clanged out at once, spreading the alarm to many a
neighboring town, and expressing hurry, confusion, and terror, so
inimitably that I could almost distinguish in their peal the
burden of the universal cry,--"Fire! Fire! Fire!"
"What is so eloquent as their iron tongues!" exclaimed Oberon.
"My heart leaps and trembles, but not with fear. And that other
sound, too, -deep and awful as a mighty organ,--the roar and
thunder of the multitude on the pavement below! Come! We are
losing time. I will cry out in the loudest of the uproar, and
mingle my spirit with the wildest of the confusion, and be a
bubble on the top of the ferment!"
From the first outcry, my forebodings had warned me of the true
object and centre of alarm. There was nothing now but uproar,
above, beneath, and around us; footsteps stumbling pell-mell up
the public staircase, eager shouts and heavy thumps at the door,
the whiz and dash of water from the engines, and the crash of
furniture thrown upon the pavement. At once, the truth flashed
upon my friend. His frenzy took the hue of joy, and, with a wild
gesture of exultation, he leaped almost to the ceiling of the
"My tales!" cried Oberon. "The chimney! The roof! The Fiend has
gone forth by night, and startled thousands in fear and wonder
from their beds! Here I stand,--a triumphant author! Huzza!
Huzza! My brain has set the town on fire! Huzza!"