Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Irving erected an elaborate facade for the book in which this story first appeared. Purporting to be the work of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman,” The Sketch Book featured primarily literary “sketches” of the type popularized by Joseph Addison a century earlier and influenced writers as late as Charles Dickens. Irving’s sketches are chiefly travel essays of an American in England, written in a graceful, well-bred manner calculated to appeal to the English gentleman as well as his American readers. As a result, Irving became the first American literary man widely read abroad.
Irving further distanced himself from his narrative by means of a headnote alleging the story to be a posthumously discovered work of “Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York” and a postscript to the effect that Knickerbocker himself had it from a “German superstition,” though Irving more or less retracts this suggestion by including a note reputed to be Knickerbocker’s own in which the old gentleman claims to have talked with the real Rip Van Winkle himself.
This sort of elaborate hocus-pocus was common in American fiction up to about the middle of the nineteenth century, and readers may compare Irving’s frame for this story with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lengthy customhouse essay at the head of The Scarlet Letter (1850). Common to both works is a desire both for the freedom from any obligation to respect prosaic everyday...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Dutch village. Unnamed village of Dutch settlers in New York that is the home of Rip Van Winkle, who sleeps in the woods for twenty years and then returns to the village. Rip’s twenty-year absence from the village gives Irving a chance to reflect and comment on changes that occurred in the United States between the period shortly before the American Revolution and the early years of the independent republic.
Irving first describes the village as one of “great antiquity,” founded by the original Dutch colonists who settled in New York. The village rests at the foot of the Catskill Mountains and seems to be a charming and quaint place. Its people are friendly and—except for the henpecked Rip—happy. When Rip escapes from his wife’s nagging, he plays with the children of the village and runs errands for all the goodwives. All the village dogs know him and greet him. The familiarity and friendliness of the village before Rip’s sleep is shown so that Irving can contrast it with Rip’s return from the mountain. When Rip returns from his long nap, children stare at him and mock him, and dogs bark at him.
Before Rip’s sleep, the village had a “busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity.” Rip returns when an election is taking place, and villagers want to know for whom he is voting. The town’s former tranquillity has been usurped by the new...
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Becoming a Nation
Washington Irving was born in 1783, the year that the American Revolution was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris. His parents had been born in England but Irving was among the first generation of people to know from birth that they were not British subjects, but Americans. The nation was still new, and in many ways unformed. It was not yet clear what the Revolution meant and how the new country would be different from the old colonies. Irving wrestled with this question in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ by having his characters hotly debate political change on election day.
Before the turn of the century, men and women of society wore elaborate powdered wigs and fussy clothing reminiscent of that seen in the French court. Now the common man was the ideal, and the idea that the nation would be ruled by a wealthy aristocratic class was giving way to a more egalitarian sense of rule ‘‘by the people,’’ or rule by all of the white men, regardless of social class. Two political parties, Federalist and Democratic-Republican, were formed in 1792, and scenes like the one Rip finds when he returns to his village, of a ‘‘crowd of folk’’ arguing and ready to riot on election day, became common throughout the land. The transition to egalitarian rule was a bumpy one. Issues like the ‘‘rights of citizens,’’ including property rights, were hot topics, and debate was often characterized by ignorance and anger....
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Although the part of the story that carries the plot is relatively straightforward and chronological, this main section of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is preceded and followed by other material that does not directly advance the plot. This kind of structure is sometimes called a frame structure, because the beginning and ending material can be said to frame the main section. ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ has two pieces of writing before the actual tale begins (a quotation in verse, and a note explaining where the story came from) and in most editions one piece afterward (a note from the narrator attesting to the truth of the story, and quoting a letter from Knickerbocker affirming that the story is ‘‘beyond the possibility of doubt’’). A postscript containing bits of lore from the Native Americans who inhabited the Catskill region was added by Irving in 1848, but most modern editions of the story do not include this section.
With the frame, Irving emphasizes the truth of the tale and at the same time distances himself from accountability for that truth. In other words, he protests too much. He does not expect the reader to take the tale seriously, and every time he insists on its accuracy he puts that accuracy further into doubt.
The only one who knows what Rip saw on that mountain is Rip himself. He has told the story frequently, but he is not the narrator of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’ In the note at the end...
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1700s: Husbands and wives divide up labor according to a strict system. Men are responsible for farm work and handling money and business; women run the house, the children, and the garden.
Today: Husbands and wives are more likely to divide up responsibilities according to the talents of each person, although women are still primarily responsible for house cleaning and child care.
Late 1700s: Laws would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Dame Van Winkle to divorce her husband and remarry, even after being abandoned for twenty years.
Today: A woman in Dame Van Winkle's position would be able to divorce her husband after being abandoned and would be able to find a new partner to help her maintain the farm.
Late 1770s: Irving's hometown, New York City, is a major metropolitan center with a population of 80,000. The population of the United States is under 7 million.
Today: The population of New York City alone is over 7 million.
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Topics for Further Study
Many critics have studied Irving's familiarity with seventeenthcentury Dutch or Flemish painting, and Rip himself thinks of an "old Flemish painting’’ when he sees the bowling men in their unusual clothing. Find copies of paintings of country life by Adriaen Brouwer, Willem Buytewech, Jan Steen, Adriaen van Ostade, Esaias van de Velde, or others of the socalled Dutch genre painters. Is Rip's perception that the strangers make up a "melancholy party of pleasure'' echoed in the scenes depicted in the paintings?
Make a list of important published writings by Americans in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In what ways are Irving's stories unusual? What do they share with other writings?
When Rip Van Winkle sleeps for twenty years, he sleeps through the American Revolution and awakens into an independent nation. Examine life in Rip's village before and after his long sleep, and in colonies like New York just before and just after the Revolution. How much effect on daily life did this large political upheaval have?
Trace the travels of Henry Hudson through North America. Where did he go, and when?
Find a collection of Native American folk tales, preferably tales that come from the Native peoples of upper New York. How do these tales compare with folk tales from other parts of the world? What are the values held in common by the different cultures? Which values are different?
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Three excellent unabridged readings of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle'' are available on audiocassette or compact disc. In each case, ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is paired with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'' A reading by Jim Beach was recorded in 1990 by Blackstone Books. James Hamilton reads the two stories on the 1993 Recorded Books, LLC, recording. And a reading by George Vafiadis was recorded in 2000 by Sound Room Publishers.
Tales of Washington Irving (1987) is a videocassette release of animated films made in 1970. Distributed by MGM/UA Home Video, the 48-minute tape includes ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ and ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ and features the voices of Mel Blanc and other familiar stars.
A children's video version, based on Irving's story, Rip Van Winkle, was produced in 1997 by Rabbit Ears Productions. It is narrated by Angelica Huston and features original music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
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What Do I Read Next?
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ also from Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., is the second of the two Irving stories that have remained popular since their publication in 18191820. In the upstate New York town of Sleepy Hollow, pompous schoolteacher Ichabod Crane gives up courting the village's most beautiful and wealthy young woman when he is frightened by a Headless Horseman.
The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper, is a series of five novels set in upper New York State and featuring the character of Natty Bumppo, a traditional American hero of the wilderness. In The Pioneers, published in 1823, Natty Bumppo grows disgusted with civilization and heads for the West.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem ‘‘Kubla Khan,’’ written in 1797, is said to have been composed during an opium-induced sleep. Critic DeannaC. Turner believes that Irving drew heavily on imagery from the poem when he composed the descriptive passages in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’
In Catskill Country: Collected Stories of Mountain History, Life and Lore (1995), by Alf Evers, is a collection of essays about the region where Rip Van Winkle lives. Among the mysteries explored is the legend of Kaaterskill Falls, mentioned at the end of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’
In Charting the Sea of Darkness: The Four Voyages of Henry Hudson (1995), author Donald S. Johnson draws on Hudson's original logs...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Banks, Jennifer S., ‘‘Washington Irving, the NineteenthCentury American Bachelor,’’ in Critical Essays on Washington Irving, edited by Ralph M. Aderman, G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 253-54.
Blakemore, Steven, ‘‘Family Resemblances: The Texts and Contexts of 'Rip Van Winkle',’’ in Early American Literature, Vol. 35, 2000, pp. 187-212.
Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon, Washington Irving, Twayne, 1981, pp. 50-51.
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 30,51,72,77, 218,220,226.
Dawson, William P., '‘‘Rip Van Winkle' as Bawdy Satire: The Rascal and the Revolution,’’ in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 27, 1981, p. 198.
Jeffrey, Francis, Review of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in the Edinburgh Review, Vol. 34, August 1820, pp. 160-76. Martin, Terence, ' 'Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination,’’ in American Literature, Vol. 31, May 1959, pp. 137-49.
Pochmann, Henry A., ‘‘Irving's German Sources in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,’’ in Studies in Philology, Vol. 27, July 1930, pp. 489-94.
Turner, Deanna C, "Shattering the Fountain: Irving's Re-Vision of'Kubla Khan' in 'Rip Van Winkle,'’’ in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Vol. 4, No. 1, April 2000, pp....
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A general introduction to the work, including a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Bowden emphasizes the integrity of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which “Rip Van Winkle” first appeared, and suggests that Irving’s greatest literary accomplishment was his style.
Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. Although Hedges believes that Irving reached an intellectual dead end by 1825, he asserts that in his greatest works, including “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving stands as an important forerunner in style to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James and in narrative and thematic concerns to Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. New York: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. A representative sampling of critical writing about Irving.
Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. Argues that “Rip Van Winkle” is one of the few exceptions to a decline in Irving’s work already underway by the writing of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
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