In Rip Van Winkle, how did Irving shape the viewpoint of American history?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Clearly, there is a certain tone of romantic nostalgia in  Washington Irving's descriptions, from the "fairy" Catskill [Kaatskill] Mountains to the "majestic course" of the "lordly Hudson" River that winds and finally loses itself in the "blue highlands" where 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."

Throughout the narrative of "Rip van Winkle" there is the prevalent tone of romanticism that contrasts with the presence of the termagant wife, Dame van Winkle, who represents the Puritan voice of duty and responsibility.  In fact, it is Dame van Winkle--the Puritan--that Rip escapes by entering the magical world of "the silver Hudson" and the "long blue valleys." 

And, although Rip sleeps for twenty years, time only stops for him, unfortunately.  For, when he returns home, he finds the inn much changed.  Now it is noisy with a

bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.

In place of the "idle speeches" of the sage Nicholaus Vedder now there are "lean bilious-looking" fellows "haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens."  The crowd bustles and dispute politics;when Rip is interrogated, he replies that he is "a poor quiet man.... and a loyal subject of the King," not realizing that the Revolutionary War has occurred.  So, then, he is subjected to being called a traitor--"A Tory! a Tory."  Indeed, poor Rip van Winkle is lost in all the din; bewidlered, he does not understand the noisy, harsh changes in his old environment.  He retreats to the home of his daughter where he resumes his place on the bench at the inn door where he reminisces and enjoys his "deliverance" from the "tyranny of Dame van Winkle."

Certainly, Irving's depiction of nostalgic beauty in the Catskills and on the silver Hudson river and his satiric depiction of the post-Revolutionary inn with its noise, confusion, and haranguing convey his Romantic inclinations for peaceful days long gone. He  celebrates the desire to escape from society and return to the wilderness.  This desire to return to nature is one that soon became a characteristic American theme.

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Before Rip van Winkle leaves on his hunt trip up into the mountains, there is little evidence that he had any view on politics or the larger world outside his village.  One of his many ways of avoiding work, though, was to visit the tavern "of a long lazy summer's day, talk listlessly over village gossip, or tell endless sleepy stories about nothing."   But even here, the only evidence that the village is part of the British Empire is the tavern sign depicting King George III.

When Rip returns to the village after his long sleep, however, we are presented with a very different characterization of the village and its inhabitants.  First, and most obvious, the old sign is still there, but the image of King George has been altered to depict George Washington--the King's scepter has been replaced with a sword, a natural change, but very symbolic of what has changed in this new world.  Second--and clear evidence of Irving's attempt to illustrate a fundamental change in the people in particular, and American history in general--we learn that "the very character of the people seemed changed."  No more "stories about nothing": these people are "bustling and disputatious," a characteristic one expects to see in the new democracy.  Among the first questions they have for Rip is how he voted and whether he's a Republican or Democrat, and his answer that he's "a loyal subject of King" creates cries of outrage from the other villagers.

Rip's new situation as a "free citizen of the United States" doesn't leave much of an impression on him, but Irving, by describing the changed character in the people in such positive terms, is subtly shaping the reader's view of the new world to which Rip has returned.