Is America Selling Its Soul?

Walter Huston wants your soul

Film Friday

St. Mary’s College senior Caitie Harrigan is writing her senior project for me on the many versions of the Faustus/Faust story so last weekend I watched the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster (also known as All That Money Can Buy). While being somewhat dated and not having the same timeless quality as Citizen Kane, another RKO film made that year, the film is nevertheless disconcertingly relevant: like Jabez Stone, we too may be selling our souls to the devil.

Jabez is a New Hampshire farmer who has fallen on hard times. His farm faces foreclosure and even giving his seed corn to the bank won’t save it. He sells his soul for a pot of Hessian gold from revolutionary days and then uses the money to exploit his fellow farmers.

Unlike in the Christopher Marlowe version, Jabez gets his soul back but it takes a powerful Daniel Webster speech about American ideals for him to regain it.

Given all the libertarian talk in America these days, including Republican attempts to roll back collective bargaining rights in certain states, it’s noteworthy how pro-union the film is. Jabez’s fellow farmers want him to join forces with them through “the Grange,” reasoning that only if they stick together do they stand a chance. Jabez rebuffs their invitation, however, and instead buys out their debt and then exacts a stiff toll so that, eventually, they are all working for him. He uses the money to build a large house, buy fancy clothes, and engage in expensive hobbies. His family falls apart.

Selling your soul, in other words, means turning your back on your fellow citizens and prizing wealth above all other things. By those standards, a number of Americans today have sold their souls.  We have stories of items flying off of shelves in American high-end stores while 16 percent of the American work force is unemployed or underemployed. The income gap between wealthy and poor has reached new levels, and those with money appear unwilling to undergo shared sacrifice to get the economy moving again. Anyone who argues for redistributionist taxes is accused of “class warfare.”

Maybe the film’s issues seem relevant because there are historical parallels between now and 1941.  The Great Depression began in 1929 (our own crash occurred in 2008 but it feels like it happened a decade ago), and in 1938 the United States suffered a second dip as the country became unnerved by its high debt and opted for an austerity budget. The Democrats were on the defense but the Republicans didn’t have any answers. Hyper-partisanship picked up and Congress began rolling back some of the New Deal programs. Add to this the uncertainty abroad: World War II had broken out in Europe (it’s the euro crisis now) and an Asian power was contesting U. S. supremacy.

So how do we get back in touch with our soul? Daniel Webster, an idealized politician who will say what he believes even if it costs him a shot at the presidency, argues Jabez’s case before an jury of the damned, including a number of Americans who fought against the American Revolution. He must reach deep within to find a spark of idealism that can override their skewed priorities.  Here’s his final speech:

Gentlemen of the jury, tonight it is my privilege to address a group of men I’ve long been acquainted with in song and story, but men I had never hoped to see. My worthy opponent, Mister Scratch, called you Americans all. Mister Scratch is right. You were Americans all. Oh, what a heritage you were born to share. Gentlemen of the jury, I envy you, for you were present at the birth of a mighty union. It was given to you to hear those first cries of pain and behold the shining babe, born of blood and tears. You are called upon tonight to judge a man named Jabez Stone. What is his case? He’s accused of breach of contract. He made a deal to find a shortcut in his life, to get rich quickly, the same kind of a deal all of you once made.

And then further on:

You were fooled like Jabez Stone, fooled and trapped in your desire to rebel against your fate. Gentlemen of the jury, it is the eternal right of every man to raise his fist against his fate. But when he does, there are crossroads. You took the wrong turn. So did Jabez Stone. But he found it out in time. He’s here tonight to save his soul. Gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to give Jabez Stone another chance to walk upon this earth, among the trees, the growing corn, and the smell of grasses in the spring. What would you all give for another chance to see those things you must all remember and often yearn to touch again? For you were all men once. Clean American air was in your lungs and you breathed it deeply. For it was free and blew across an earth you loved. These are common things I speak of, small things, but they are good things. Yet without your soul, they mean nothing. Without your soul, they sicken. Mister Scratch once told you that your soul meant nothing. And you believed him. And you lost your freedom. Freedom isn’t just a big word. It is the morning and the bread and the risen sun. It was for freedom we came to these shores in boats and ships. It was a long journey and a hard one and a bitter one. Yes, there is sadness in being a man… but it is a proud thing, too. And out of the suffering and the starvation and the wrong and the right, a new thing has come: a free man. And when the whips of the oppressors are broken and their names forgotten and destroyed, free men will be talking and walking under a free star. Yes, we have planted freedom in this earth like wheat. And we have said to the skies above us, “A man shall own his own soul… ” Now, here is this man. He is your brother. You were Americans all. You can’t be on his [the Devil’s] side, the side of the oppressor. Let Jabez Stone keep his soul, a soul which doesn’t belong to him alone but to his family, his son, and his country. Gentlemen of the jury, don’t let this country go to the devil. Free Jabez Stone. God bless the United States and the men who made her free.

Webster’s eloquence sways the jury and they return Jabez’s soul to him. Scratch has been momentarily defeated. But in the final scene, we see him consulting his notebook and figuring who he will approach next. In a shot that would have startled 1941 audiences, he breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera–which is to say, directly at us.  It is up to each American to make the right choice.

So who will give Webster’s speech today, a speech that is not empty rhetoric but a genuine call for unity? Barack Obama? Mitt Romney? Rick Perry? Perhaps we need to deliver it to ourselves, remembering that we are privileged to live in this country and that we owe her a deep debt of gratitude. Because if we continue to operate as though only our own individual interests matter, we are already well on our way to damnation.


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