Critical Overview

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‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ was part of the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. to be released in the United States. It was an immediate success, selling enough copies to encourage Irving to publish future installments (each containing three or four pieces of writing), and to begin a twovolume British publication. The British publication was also a tremendous success, and Irving began work on a German edition. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. sold enough copies that Irving was able to devote himself to writing full time for the rest of his life. British critics, especially, were surprised as well as delighted to see that an American writer was capable of creating good prose. In an 1820 review for the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey praised the book’s ‘‘great purity and Beauty of diction,’’ and called the book ‘‘the first American work . . . to which we could give this praise.’’ With The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving became the first American writer to achieve international acclaim.

Although ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ was not singled out for criticism in the early reviews, it became popular immediately and soon there were plays, poems, cartoons, and songs based (often rather loosely) on the story. The character of Rip Van Winkle entered the national consciousness (along with the incorrect notion, found in several standard reference works, that Rip meets a gang of dwarfs on the mountain).

In the twentieth century, the gaze of serious criticism was turned on ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’ Much of the criticism has focused on interpreting Irving’s political stance. In a 1959 article for American Literature, Terence Martin describes the tension between Rip and the townspeople he returns to. A new country, Martin concludes, can ill accommodate imagination and idleness. Steven Blakemore, in a 2000 article in Early American Literature, picks up on earlier work on Irving’s hostility toward the Puritans, and reveals a complex intermingling of Irving’s political and personal ambivalence.

The state of the Van Winkle marriage has also come under scrutiny. In an article published in ESQ, William P. Dawson uncovers Irving’s ‘‘bawdy satire’’ as he reveals sexual puns scattered throughout the story. He demonstrates that ‘‘in images and puns Irving perhaps implies that [Rip] is anything but faithful,’’ and suggests that Rip simply tries to cover up ‘‘twenty years of promiscuity’’ with a tall tale. Jennifer S. Banks, in an essay titled ‘‘Washington Irving, the Nineteenth-Century American Bachelor,’’ sees in the story the ‘‘theme of growing up and accepting adult responsibility,’’ with Dame Van Winkle representing ‘‘the voice of duty and obligation.’’ The reason Rip responds so negatively to his wife, Banks posits, is due to Irving’s own ‘‘lifelong ambivalence toward women.’’ More common, however, is the viewpoint expressed by James W. Tuttleton, who accepts at face value the narrator’s ‘‘delight’’ in seeing Rip ‘‘delivered from that body of affliction called Dame Van Winkle.’’

Another body of criticism has attempted to delineate Irving’s sources so that judgments might be made based on what Irving changed and retained in the original source material. One of the earliest of these analyses was Henry A. Pochmann’s 1930 article for Studies in Philology, ‘‘Irving’s German Sources in The Sketch Book, which gave later critics essential information for further interpretation. A more recent and wider ranging study is by Philip Young, who not only traces but also interprets the German sources and Irving’s adaptations of them, to uncover ‘‘immemorial ritual significance [and] an extraordinary picture of the self arrested in a timeless infancy.’’ Deanna C. Turner breaks new ground in a 2000 article in Symbiosis, in which she traces Irving’s imagery in his descriptions of the mountain to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘‘Kubla Khan.’’

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Rip Van Winkle


Essays and Criticism