Essays and Criticism
Manipulating the Hero
Although Washington Irving’s ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ offers one of the most widely recognized characters in all of American literature, and was a part of the first book by an American to win international acclaim, it is in many ways not an American story at all. Irving was not shy about admitting, and scholars have since verified, that the basic elements of his plot were borrowed from German folk tales that he learned about through a life of reading and traveling.
Beneath that level of influence, however, lie deeper levels. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) theorized that behind each individual’s unconscious lies the human ‘‘collective unconscious,’’ the memories of our existence before history, or even before we became human. As we struggle to regain our memory, he argued, we form stories around a small group of images called ‘‘archetypes.’’ Because we are all human and share the same archetypal memories, each culture around the world tends to create the same stories.
One story that is repeated in many similar forms in cultures throughout the world, or one archetype, is the archetype of the hero. This story has been studied and explained by a great number of scholars, but the clearest and most thorough book on the subject is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, originally published in 1949. Campbell studied myths, epics, legends, dreams, and rituals from around the world, and...
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Theme in Historical Context
The story of Rip Van Winkle is known to almost everybody. Even more than Washington Irving’s other American fable, ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is one of the few literary creations to have achieved truly mythic status. Natty Bumpo, Ichabod Crane, and even Tom Sawyer are well on the way to the glass museum case, there to rest alongside Peregrine Pickle, Uncle Remus, and the Five Chinese Brothers. But even a casual Nexis search reveals ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ alive and well, still being used in the most casual conversations on non-literary topics. Rip went to sleep for twenty years, and when he woke up, the world had changed; aside from being easy to remember, the myth has stood well in a country whose greatest constant has been traumatic, continual change.
Rip Van Winkle is immortal, in other words, not because of the story’s literary brilliance, or because the main character is so deathlessly individuated. Van Winkle is no Sherlock Holmes; there really is not that much to know about his character, other than a few very important characteristics. But those characteristics are so essential to America, and are presented by Irving in such a powerfully allegorical way, that every American, however illiterate, grows up knowing the myth of Rip Van Winkle.
What does this myth consist of? Obviously, the part that captures the imagination is Rip’s long nap. The other parts of the story—Rip’s shrewish...
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Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination
The work of Washington Irving reflects signifi- cantly the quality of this tension between imaginative endeavor and cultural tendency. In Bracebridge Hall (1822), Irving tells us that he had experienced England with ‘‘the delightful freshness of a child,’’ but that he was ‘‘a grown-up child.’’ He admits in The Sketch-Book (1819–1820) that the scenic splendor of America has failed to stimulate him imaginatively; in Europe are ‘‘all the charms of storied and poetical association.’’ America is filled with youthful promise, but Europe is rich ‘‘in the accumulated treasure of age.’’ He longs for a meditative antiquity, for the ‘‘shadowy grandeurs of the past,’’ in place of the ‘‘commonplace realities of the present.’’ Irving’s most profoundly felt imaginative need was to escape from such ‘‘commonplace realities,’’ from—in Hawthorne’s phrase—the American insistence on actualities. In Bracebridge Hall he lamented that America ‘‘unfortunately cannot boast of a single ruin.’’ Yet in Europe he failed to get in touch with the essentials of any older culture and remained, as Stanley Williams terms him, ‘‘a young man with slender knowledge of the past,’’ one who loved ‘‘scraps of culture.’’ The very vagueness of Irving’s conception of the past served his artistic temperament; he required for imaginative creation, not the actuality but the ‘‘shadowy grandeurs’’...
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Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle
Nearly a century and a half have elapsed, and the name of Rip Van Winkle, one of the oldest in our fiction, is as alive as ever. The subject of innumerable representations—among them some of the country’s finest paintings—America’s archetypal sleeper is almost equally well known abroad. Nor is his fame simply popular, or commercial. The most complex of poets, as well as the least sophisticated of children, are attracted to him.
But there is something ironic here, for at its center Rip’s story is every bit as enigmatic as it is renowned, and the usual understanding of Rip himself, spread so wide, is shallow. Very few of the millions of people who have enjoyed his tale would be comfortable for long if pressed to say exactly what ‘‘happened’’ to him, or if asked to explain what there is about the ‘‘poor, simple fellow’’ that has exerted so general and deep a fascination. Thanks to Irving, the thunder Rip heard is still rolling out of the Catskills. And it is pregnant thunder, charged with meaning. Perhaps it is time someone tried to make out what it has to say. . . .
To be sure this story, though a fine one, is not perfect. For one thing, although Irving’s Federalism enables him to jab in mildly amusing fashion at the shabby and pretentious republicanism of Rip’s new village, such pleasantries come at the expense of our being wholly convinced of what he is trying to tell us—that Rip at the end is in...
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