The historical significance of "Rip Van Winkle" is just one of the reasons that the story remains among the greatest examples of early American literature. Released in 1820, "Rip" was an instant success, gaining author Washington Irving immediate fame--both in America and in Europe. Also highly popular in England, Irving made enough money to initiate German-language printings as well. Critics called "Rip" a book of "great purity and Beauty of diction" and "the first American work... to which we could give this praise." "Rip" is also a great tale that features an unforgettable title character; the natural surroundings of Irving's Catskills and Hudson River valley; and the timeless plot of the henpecked husband who falls asleep for 20 years. Though it lacks a surprise ending considered necessary in later short stories, Irving's story has reached classic status nonetheless. With stories like "Rip" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving established himself as one of America's first great writers (along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and, later, Edgar Allan Poe).
When Washington Irving set out to write "Rip van Winkle" his purpose was to create American folklore by weaving legend, folklore, and drama into a narrative of the New World. The legendary part of Irving's story supposedly derives from some papers of "the late Diedrich Knickerbocker" who investigated the Dutch history of New York. Purportedly, the manuscript of Knickerbocker lends verity to the tale.
Other elements of the folk tale that "Rip van Winkle" shares with ones from Europe are the mysterious supernatural happenings, a dangerous journey, a sleep-inducing potion and the resulting enchanted slumber. If "Rip van Winkle" is classical in any way, it is so regarding this enchanted slumber as numerous legendary characters and their narratives are associated with such a sleep: Charlemagne, King Arthur, Merlin, and William Tell among others. And, this slumber motif continues to appear in modern works today.
It is thus generally agreed by critics that Washington Irving's tale of "Rip van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
were the models for the modern American short story and that both tales introduced imagery and archetypes that enriched the national literature (enotes)
At any rate, these two narratives of Irving are certainly recognized as the first American short stories, stories that record "a glorious American past," that certainly verges on the legendary.