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 disappearance of the author behind his work. It is ironic that this success results in a diminished sense of the author’s accomplishment.
The actual source of the story is a German folktale; it is Irving’s genius that resets the story in America and in history. The twenty years that Rip sleeps are not merely an arbitrary period, suggesting simply a long time, as is common in folktales. Rather, they are the twenty years during which the American nation was born in revolution. Rip himself is also historically situated. At the beginning of the story, he is a loyal subject of England’s King George III. As his name suggests, however, he is descended from the Dutch settlers who preceded the English in the area that became New York. Before that, the Dutch the area was inhabited by American Indians. They are present in the story only as figures in the tales Rip tells to frighten and amuse the children of the village. History has pushed them to the margins, to dwell with the witches and ghosts who otherwise populate Rip’s yarns, yet they remain in memory and imagination.
Irving thus suggests a multiplicity of historical layers beyond the surface of his tale. Even the most fantastic element, the apparition of Hendrick Hudson and his crew playing at ninepins, recalls the importance of Dutch exploration in American history. The background to the dynamic of history is provided by the Catskills, emblematic on this occasion of the American landscape, the theater in which the acts of the historical drama are played out. The latest (and not the last) act of this drama is the age to which Rip awakens. His awakening leads swiftly to a crisis of identity: He no longer knows who he is.
In his confusion, as he begs someone to identify him to himself, Rip articulates a version of one of the central questions of classic American literature: What are these new beings called Americans? Do they represent a new beginning in human history? Or is the change from British colonist to American citizen as superficial as the coat of paint that transforms the George III inn into the George Washington inn? In fusing the materials of a German folktale with the stuff of American history, Irving encourages in his readers an ironic reflection on just such questions.
Part of the art of this story, then, rests in the mastery of touch that allows Irving to bring into play such complexities of time and place while maintaining without rupture a surface of unruffled urbanity and humor. A mastery of narrative craft is at work here as well. The story opens on a panorama of the geographical setting. The passages in the Catskills, including Rip’s encounter with the little men, are developed in more tightly focused, scenic terms. Viewpoint becomes strictly limited as the story moves to Rip’s discovery, through his observation of the reactions of others, of his long beard. This prepares the reader for the inspired confusion of election day in the village as perceived by a befuddled old man who thinks he is coming home. “Rip Van Winkle” is a marvel in its author’s manipulation of point of view.