Irving erected an elaborate facade for the book in which this story first appeared. Purporting to be the work of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman,” The Sketch Book featured primarily literary “sketches” of the type popularized by Joseph Addison a century earlier and influenced writers as late as Charles Dickens. Irving’s sketches are chiefly travel essays of an American in England, written in a graceful, well-bred manner calculated to appeal to the English gentleman as well as his American readers. As a result, Irving became the first American literary man widely read abroad.
Irving further distanced himself from his narrative by means of a headnote alleging the story to be a posthumously discovered work of “Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York” and a postscript to the effect that Knickerbocker himself had it from a “German superstition,” though Irving more or less retracts this suggestion by including a note reputed to be Knickerbocker’s own in which the old gentleman claims to have talked with the real Rip Van Winkle himself.
This sort of elaborate hocus-pocus was common in American fiction up to about the middle of the nineteenth century, and readers may compare Irving’s frame for this story with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lengthy customhouse essay at the head of The Scarlet Letter (1850). Common to both works is a desire both for the freedom from any obligation to respect prosaic everyday life and for an air of authenticity these writers seemed to feel readers of the time required.
Unlike Hawthorne, however, Irving does not aspire to profundity, and his style is much more colloquial and familiar. The dialogue is extremely simple and straightforward, and the descriptions, while effective, are rather understated. Irving’s simplicity, which has helped make his tales enduringly popular school texts, is somewhat deceptive, for although Irving is not an ambitious artist, he has an artful way of suggesting more than he seems to say. Thus, the allusions to Franklin and Washington establish the standards of duty and accomplishment against which Rip’s withdrawal from responsibility is to be measured. Unlike his greatest American contemporary in fiction, James Fenimore Cooper, Irving seldom overwrites. By describing his mountaineers very little and keeping them absolutely silent, he creates the desired atmosphere of enchantment. He understands the value of describing Dame Van Winkle indirectly through her effect on Rip. In a century of writers always poised to spin great webs of words, Irving demonstrates the virtues of an economical and unpretentious style.
For all its derivative nature, simplicity, and modest statement, “Rip Van Winkle” achieves universal significance. It depicts the pastoral contentment yearned for in a society aware of its own increasing complexity but shows this peace to be purchased at the expense of the protagonist’s full manhood and maturity. With considerable justification, “Rip Van Winkle” has been called the first successful American short story.