Rip van Winkle (Myths and Legends of the World)
Rip Van Winkle (American History Through Literature)
Appearing in The Sketch Book (1819820), Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" became an immediate American classic and retains that position in the American canon today. Indeed, the central character, Rip, has attained iconic status in both popular culture and with academic critics. One reason for the story's popularity is the sheer humor of Rip's predicament: henpecked by a shrewish wife, he sleeps for twenty years and awakens after the American Revolution has radically changed the sleepy Dutch village where he had previously lived. Generations of readers have enjoyed the ways in which Rip slyly escapes Dame Van Winkle's authority and have laughed at his confusion as he walks into the same village twenty years later and finds himself in the new republic, accused of being a Tory spy British sympathizer who had opposed America's independence. Critics have focused on the story's theme of change, in which the contrast between the peaceful pre-Revolutionary colony and the bustling post-Revolutionary America reinforces a simultaneous sense of nostalgia for a simpler time as well as a sense of the reality of our always-shifting American world. Almost everyone, however, recognizes that the American Revolution is somehow central to the story's meaning. Indeed, the secret subject of "Rip Van Winkle" is the significance of the American Revolution vis-à-vis the new democratic nation that came into being in its aftermath. The story records Irving's own ambivalence as both an admirer and a critic of the new republican government the Revolution had wrought.
TEXTS AND CONTEXTS
To understand this ambivalence and its significance in the story, it is necessary to recover a series of contexts that impinge on the story's meaning. First, there is the biographical context of Washington Irving, who had moved to Liverpool in 1815 to look after the interests of his brother's soon-to-be bankrupt firm and who subsequently achieved literary prominence with the publication of The Sketch Book. Here at last, English critics proclaimed, was the first American who seemed to be worthy of literary recognition, an American who wrote like a cultured Englishman. The American public, gratified to have one of its own acknowledged by English critics who usually sneered at anything American, also hailed Irving's accomplishment. But not all of his compatriots were pleased, for Irving was identified as a sympathizer of the Federalistshe conservative American party of John Adams and others opposed to the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. With Jefferson's election, Republicans like the poet Philip Freneau despised Irving and accused him of preferring to live abroad among aristocrats in a country that had just attempted to deprive Americans of their freedom. Irving was self-conscious that some were accusing him of not being American enough, and the American stories in The Sketch Book, such as the "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," were his attempt to highlight his American identity as a way of making his return to the United States easier.
This most American of stories, "Rip Van Winkle" derives from a foreign source, specifically a German folklore story, "Peter Klaus," which Irving borrowed and subsequently Americanized. But Irving makes many substantive changes, lengthening the tale and adding a variety of cultural and political themes that constitute the true source of its originality. In addition, Irving incorporated a variety of texts and contexts into the plot, including two previous works that he had published: Salmagundi (1807808) and The History of New York (1809). Salmagundi and the History reveal Irving's hostility to both popular democracy and the French Revolution, which in the American mind started in 1789 and continued into the Napoleonic invasions and aftermath (1799815), finally subsiding after convulsing Europe for over two decades. To many Americans, the French Revolution represented the forces of a chaotic and bloody mob democracy. The History additionally includes almost all the names appearing in "Rip Van Winkle" as well as Irving's well-known hostility to New England Yankees, who are characterized as aggressive Puritan usurpers and interlopers who "invade" peaceful Dutch New York and who prefigure the appropriation of the American Revolution and hence America by their descendants ruthless demagogic people that Irving believed were imposing a republican tyranny on the rest of the country.
THE POSITIVE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Despite Irving's criticisms, he was a patriot and admirer of both the Revolution and his country, but he had serious questions about their democratic excesses. He was interested in the Revolution throughout his life and had collected many books on the subject. On its primary level, "Rip Van Winkle" is a public celebration of the American Revolution. The story opens with the prefigurative imagery of family breakups, specifically the Kaatskill (Catskill) Mountains that "are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family" (p. 769). In the story, Rip's colonial family is also dismembered as he escapes from his tyrannical wife, but he is finally rediscovered and reintegrated into his new American family at the end. The context of family breakups is significant since there were a flurry of newspaper articles and pamphlets on the eve of the Revolution dealing with the misery of bad marriages and "bad wives" who made the marriage union impossible and hence divorce an inevitable reality. There was hence a psychological dimension to the sudden discourse on divorce, as if the colonists were rehearsing reasons for their inevitable divorce from England.
In this context, Rip is dominated and henpecked by his wife, who is associated with "petticoat government," the "yoke of matrimony," and "the yoke of Old England" (p. 783). Dame Van Winkle accuses Rip of being lazy, of not maintaining the patrimonial estaten argument that the British used in the context of the Americans following the French and Indian War (1754763). The Americans were hence accused of neglecting their domestic, economic duty in maintaining the British empire in America. Rip, in this context, engages in a kind of passive resistance à la the prerevolutionary colonies. There is a series of suggested family resemblances encoded in the story, and Rip's marital evasions constitute a metaphoric rebellion against the monarchic wife, the domestic, colonial, petticoat governor. Thus it is significant that Rip, in contrast, helps his neighbors with their labor and that his neighbors take his part against the "bad" wife. The tale includes recognizable familial commonplaces impinging on Rip's eventual independence and integration into the new American familyhe national "patrimonial estate" and "union" under new management (p. 771). In other words, Irving is engaged, on various levels, in an allegory of the American Revolution, starting in colonial times when "the country was yet a province of Great Britain" (p. 770). But despite Rip's resistance to the domestic petticoat "governor," he still identifies with the British monarchy, specifically George III, the king the Americans will rebel against in the future. Rip enjoys sitting under the "rubicund portrait of his Majesty George the Third," in a colonial inn, exchanging gossip and stories with his cronies (p. 772). Rip, like the colonists of the time, has not made the ultimate break with Great Britain and has consequently not discovered his new American identity. The story is, among other things, about this discovery, and there is an allusive autobiographical link to the American writer also accused of identifying with the British before coming "home."
After Rip falls in with the ghostly crew of Hendrick Hudson, drinks too much, and sleeps for twenty years, he awakens to a new America. The reference to Hudsonho discovered the Hudson River in 1609 and returns with his ghostly gang every twenty yearsuggests that Rip must have fallen asleep in the year 1769, on the eve of the Revolution, when America was still a colony of Great Britain, and that when he awakens twenty years later the year must be 1789, the year of the French Revolution and the first inauguration of George Washington. Thus the implicit, allusive date is significant and not coincidental. When he awakens, the first thing Rip sees is an eagle, a conspicuous symbol of the new American nation. But Rip is disoriented; he does not recognize anything, and when he walks into his former village everything seems changed. Allegorically Rip still clings to his old colonial identity, something that is underscored when the suspicious villagers ask him to identify himself and he exclaims that he is "a loyal subject of the King [i.e., George III]od bless him!" The villagers, of course, accuse him of being a Tory and a spy sympathizer and collaborator with the British. A beleaguered and bewildered Rip exclaims that "every thing's changednd I'm changednd I can't tell what's my name, or who I am" (pp. 78081). Rip thus suffers an identity crisis and, consequently, must soon choose between his allegiance to Great Britain and his allegiance to the new nation. He must find out who he is within the political parameters of the new nation and the new reality. When his daughter, at the end, finally recognizes Rip, he is accepted into the community and reintegrated into the new American family: the familial breakup at the beginning ends with a new domestic and national union.
Irving highlights the change from colonial America to independent America in the scene where the Union Hotel has replaced Nicholaus Vedder's colonial inn and the portrait of George Washington has replaced that of George III. That it is now the Union Hotel puns on the new national "union" that is under new management: the proprietor is Jonathan Doolittle (since the Revolution, Jonathan had been the American national name), his surname identifying him as a New England Yankee. In other words, since New England was the cradle of the Revolution, the new national union is managed by New Englanders, descendants of the Puritans. Indeed, the original Jonathan Doolittle appears in Irving's History as one of the New England Puritan "warriors." The fact that an American flag is waving over the Union Hotel reinforces the great revolutionary change that Rip experiences.
Rip quickly accepts the new changes and hence assumes his new American identity: after learning about the Revolution and the correspondent political changes, he prefers to associate with "the rising generation," the first post-Revolutionary generation, rather than "his former cronies," clearly preferring the liberating
DEMOCRACY AND THE REVOLUTION QUESTIONED
This is how the story operates on its primary level. But Irving simultaneously encodes his ambivalence about both the Revolution and the new democratic nation. When Rip returns to the village, for instance, he is asked on what side he voted and whether he is a Federal or Democrathat is, a Federalist or a Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican (the conservative Federalists were friendly to Great Britain and hostile to revolutionary France while the liberal Democrats were hostile to Great Britain and friendly to France). Irving is conscious of Jefferson's electoral win over the Federalist Party in what was characterized as the "revolution of 1800." He, in fact, conflates various revolutions anachronistically to covertly suggest his disapproval of the intimidating mob democracy he believed had come into being with the Revolution. Thus, despite the humor of Rip being interrogated by his suspicious, patriotic countrymen, there is an air of mob intimidation and intrusive political conformity in the new land. In the new America there are political parties, and Rip is threatened with punishment: Loyalists, or "Tories," were conventionally tarred and feathered or hung during the Revolution. There are also allusions to Jefferson's "democratic" administration, something clear in the intertextual links between the story and Irving's 1809 History. In other words, Rip awakens and walks into a recognizably Jeffersonian America, with its obtrusive democratic politics and its aggressive Anglophobia. Irving is hence pushing us to question just how threatening an old man could be in 1789: If the Revolution was fought for freedom and independence, just how much is there in an America where political intimidation still exists? Is there really that much difference between colonial and revolutionary America?
If we return to the patriotic scene of the Union Hotel, the symbol of the new democratic America, we can see how Irving implicitly questions and undercuts both the Revolution and the new democratic nation. The transformation of Nicholas Vedder's Anglo-Dutch inn into the Union Hotel suggests that America, and control of what the Revolution signifies, is under Yankee Puritan management. How the Puritans arrived in the New World, specifically New England, and their "invasion" into other parts of the country, especially New York, and how they came to manage the new "union" is part of the story's between-the-lines history. This history appears in Irving's History of New York, where his sarcastic critique of New England Yankees reappears in the phrases and imagery of "Rip Van Winkle." For instance, Doolittle's Union Hotel is a "large, rickety wooden building . . . with great gaping windows, some of them broken, and mended with old hats and petticoats." Now compare Irving's History and the archetypal Puritan house: "A huge palace of pine boards . . . but so rickety and flimsy withal. . . . The outside remaining unpainted, grows venerably black with time: the family wardrobe is laid under contribution for old hats, petticoats, and breaches to stuff into the broken windows" (p. 499, emphasis added). Scratch the Union Hotel and underneath you find its Puritan prototype in the History, suggesting the new American "union" is based upon old, "rickety" Puritan foundations. That the Puritans in the History, with all their zealous intolerance and petty persecution, resemble the oppressive, inquisitional villagers in "Rip Van Winkle" suggests that despite apparent changes, nothing has changed at all. Colonial Puritan and British oppression resembles the new repression of an intrusive, (un)democratic people. Thus Irving subversively suggests that New Englanders co-opted the Revolution in the new union, just as their ancestors had previously co-opted and appropriated colonial history. While the original Puritans engaged in religious persecution, with its pertinent political implications, Irving suggests that their secular descendents continued the oppressive politicization and "bewitching" of America. When Rip first walks into the republican village, he begins to wonder "whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched" (p. 778).
In addition, beside the stars and stripes floating above the Union Hotel is "a tall naked pole with something on top that looked like a red night cap" (p. 779) liberty pole, symbol of the struggle for independence during the Revolution, and a red liberty cap, associated with the French Revolution. Both were first used in the American Revolution and were subsequently appropriated by the French in theirs. Irving and the Federalists considered the French Revolution to be a terrorist, democratic revolution of guillotines and mob violence. Republicans in America represented both revolutions as struggles for world liberation and commonly combined the respective national symbols in public ceremonies. In the 1809 History, Irving had conflated the American and French Revolutions with their Puritan prototypes, so there are a variety of political contexts in the seemingly innocent union of symbols. There is also a variety of connections between Irving's critique of the French Revolution in Salmagundi and his covert representation in "Rip Van Winkle." That the supposedly glorious American Revolution is linked to and thematically resembles the bloody French Revolution suggests that the War of Independence might have ironically imploded. That the year is allusively 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution and the inauguration of Washington as the first president, also engenders ironic complications.
Likewise, the portrait of George III that has been replaced with George Washington makes another subversive point. Ostensibly the changes are meant to be superficial: George III's red coat changed to Washington's blue and buff (the colors of the American revolutionary uniform), the king's scepter changed to Washington's sword. Irving is ostensibly joking about Jonathan Doolittle's proverbial Yankee stinginessnly touching up the sign but not replacing it with a true portrait of Washington. But scratch the sign of George Washington and underneath is another George, suggesting again that nothing has changed and that George Washington is, mutatis mutandis, George III and vice versa. Indeed, there is an implicit family resemblance between the two Georges, the royal and the democratic "father." Integrated into the new American union, Rip falls back into the "regular track of gossip" (p. 783), just like at the beginning of the story, suggesting in the end that despite the changes, the great American Revolution embodies a series of violent democratic revolutions as well as the repressive "past" it has supposedly transcended.
Written in England for an Anglo-American audience, Irving in "Rip Van Winkle" allegorically addresses his countrymen and reveals his own anxiety and ambivalence about the Revolution and democracy. That these issues are disguised and displaced in a comedy underscores the psychological pressures that compelled Irving to camouflage his critique allusively in a public celebration of the Revolution. In doing this, Irving was not being disingenuous but was writing out the ambiguities of his own place and time: an American in England feeling guilty about lingering, a proud yet ambivalent admirer of his country and the democratic revolution that still seemed ongoing. In a profound sense, the two dialectic readings of the Revolution are both artistically true. Patriots and Puritans, founding fathers and family resemblanceshe story is a palimpsest of texts and cultures, in which Salmagundi and the History are refigured into a complex American classic. Like the disoriented Rip, Irving finally comes "home," albeit ambivalently, in a story of hopeful anxiety. Through the mediation of Irving's great, conservative imagination, the texts and contexts, the traces and secret signatures coalesce into a significant meditation on the many meanings of nineteenth-century America.
See also Americans Abroad; Democracy; Foreigners; Literary Nationalism; Short Story
Irving, Washington. History, Tales, and Sketches. Edited by James W. Tuttleton. New York: Library of America, 1983.
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Dawson, Hugh. "Recovering 'Rip Van Winkle': A Corrective Reading." ESQ 40 (1994): 25173.
Pearce, Colin D. "Changing Regimes: The Case of 'Rip Van Winkle.'" Clio 22 (winter 1993): 11528.
Ringe, Donald A. "New York and New England: Irving's Criticism of American Society." American Literature 38 (January 1967): 45567.
Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Rubin-Dorski, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.