As children, many readers have been told some version of the story of Rip Van Winkle before they ever get around to reading Washington Irving’s tale. Moreover, a number of theatrical adaptations have made the basic elements of the story familiar to many who have never read it. As a consequence, the story comes across as one without an author, a product of the folk imagination, and there is much in the genesis of the tale that reinforces this impression. In these circumstances, it is altogether too easy to overlook the art involved in Irving’s telling of his tale, especially given that it would be difficult to find anywhere in American literature a more compelling example of an art that conceals art.
“Rip Van Winkle” first appeared in Irving’s collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). Much of the content of this book, the first by an American to enjoy a transatlantic reputation, focuses on subject matter derived from Irving’s stay in England, to which he had sailed in 1815. It expresses an attitude toward England, announced as that of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving’s persona, that is often critical and sometimes melancholy. In this context, the American qualities of “Rip Van Winkle,” set in the time of the revolution that established the independent United States of America where previously there had been only British colonies, make themselves emphatically felt.
Irving places the tale in a second context as well. The story was found, we are told, among the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker is, of course, one of Irving’s earlier creations, the fictional author of Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasties (1809), Irving’s first masterpiece. How the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker came into the possession of Geoffrey Crayon is never explained. Two personae, Geoffrey Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker, separate Irving, the actual author, from the work; the separation encourages in the reader an air of ironic detachment toward the story Irving tells. It may also constitute a sort of authorial self-effacement, a...
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