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With a certain tone of romantic nostalgia, Washington Irving describes the "fairy" Catskill [Kaatskill] Mountains:
...every change of weather, indeed every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains,....they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky...they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which , in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.
Perhaps the most memorable site is the "majestic course" of the "lordly Hudson" River that winds and finally loses itself in the "blue highlands." For, with this scene, Irving conjures the image of Henry Hudson and his crew members reappearing in the form of "a company of odd-looking personages playing at ninepins" in the glen where Van Winkle finds himself. One wonders if these are the men placed in a small boat in the cold Hudson Bay by the mutineers of 1611 who were never heard from again.
This sighting of the little figures who resemble those of an old Flemish painting establishes the magical mood of the narrative as Rip drinks from the large flagons and becomes overpowered by them, falling into his deep sleep of twenty years.
The Catskills setting of most of "Rip Van Winkle" is memorable for its slow-moving, backward-looking aspect, a village caught in stasis, a place out of joint with the times even before Rip's memorable nap. We learn from the start that the Catkills (or "Kaatskills") are a "dismembered" (cut off) part of the Appalachians. The village itself is "of great antiquity" and some of the homes, dating back to its earliest Dutch days, are "sadly time worn." Rip himself has a slow-moving, aimless quality: he can happily go fishing all day "without a nibble" and hunt all day merely to shoot a few squirrels, and while he will gladly help neighboring wives with errands, he lacks the goal-oriented drive and ambition that would enable his family to get ahead. His family farm is shrinking and has fallen into disrepair. No wonder his wife harangues him.
The town's small inn, marked by the portrait of George III, also captures the stasis of the village and its men (if not its women), who do little and are behind the times:
Here they used to sit in the shade through a long, lazy summer’s day, talking listlessly over village gossip, or telling endless sleepy stories about nothing. But it would have been worth any statesman’s money to have heard the profound discussions that sometimes took place when by chance an old newspaper fell into their hands from some passing traveller. How solemnly they would listen to the contents ... how sagely they would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.
Irving, however, describes this torpid mood most fully in the scene where Rip wanders into the magical part of the Catskills and encounters the strange, antique Dutchmen, like figures in a "Flemish painting," congregated in the amphitheater. Here, Irving stops to note their dress in detail, culminating in their odd bowling party:
though these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest face, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed. Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder.
Given the layers of stasis in Rip's life and environment, it almost makes sense that when he drinks the magical beer, he falls asleep for twenty years.
The strikingly dreamlike, somnolent, unchanging quality of the setting that Rip dwells in only magnifies the changes that have taken place while he slept. The American Revolution and subsequent freedom from British rule has changed everything. The town now bustles with life:
There were rows of houses which he had never seen before, and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared.
The inn sports a portrait of George Washington and it too has changed:
There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity. He looked in vain for the sage Nicholas Vedder, with his broad face, double chin, and fair long pipe, uttering clouds of tobacco smoke, instead of idle speeches; or Van Bummel, the schoolmaster, doling forth the contents of an ancient newspaper. In place of these, a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of Congress—liberty—Bunker’s hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.
But despite all this, what we remember about the story most vividly is the earlier mood of "torpor," a stance Rip maintains until the end, for "being arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village." The Republic bursts forward energetically, but Rip remains a relic of slow-moving times past.
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