Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521
“RIP VAN WINKLE,” published as the end of the first installment of Irving’s SKETCH BOOK, purports to be “A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker"--Irving’s imaginary chronicler of the early Dutch history of New York.
The story itself could hardly be simpler. Rip, a good-natured, lazy fellow, is henpecked by his wife, whom he escapes by taking daylong jaunts with his gun and dog into the Catskill Mountains. One evening, having scrambled onto one of the highest peaks, he is hailed by a stranger dressed in “the antique Dutch fashion,” who without speaking asks Rip to help him with a keg he is carrying. Rip complies, and the stranger leads him to a hollow where a whole company of similarly dressed men is playing a ninepins.
Rip begins to drink along with them, falls asleep, and awakes to find himself alone with an old rusty gun beside him. When he gets home it emerges that he has slept right through the American Revolution; his wife is dead, so, happier if no wiser, he goes back to his old idle ways and is “reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village.”
On one level the story is a gentle satire on politics: Freedom to Rip has nothing to do with King George or George Washington, but is simply a matter of being out from under his wife. “RIP VAN WINKLE” is also a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Its charm however, lies mostly in Irving’s invocation of “the magical hues and shapes” of those “fairy mountains,” where the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew play at nine-pins and make the thunder.
Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A general introduction to the work, including a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Bowden emphasizes the integrity of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., in which “Rip Van Winkle” first appeared, and suggests that Irving’s greatest literary accomplishment was his style.
Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965. Although Hedges believes that Irving reached an intellectual dead end by 1825, he asserts that in his greatest works, including “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving stands as an important forerunner in style to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James and in narrative and thematic concerns to Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
Myers, Andrew B., ed. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. New York: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976. A representative sampling of critical writing about Irving.
Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. Argues that “Rip Van Winkle” is one of the few exceptions to a decline in Irving’s work already underway by the writing of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Emphasizes the “Americanness” of Irving, the way he was shaped by, and came to identify himself with, his country and its particular heritage. The tale Irving tells in “Rip Van Winkle” reenacts Americans’ doubts about identity and their fantasies of escape.
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