Rip Van Winkle Historical Context
by Washington Irving

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Becoming a Nation

Washington Irving was born in 1783, the year that the American Revolution was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris. His parents had been born in England but Irving was among the first generation of people to know from birth that they were not British subjects, but Americans. The nation was still new, and in many ways unformed. It was not yet clear what the Revolution meant and how the new country would be different from the old colonies. Irving wrestled with this question in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ by having his characters hotly debate political change on election day.

Before the turn of the century, men and women of society wore elaborate powdered wigs and fussy clothing reminiscent of that seen in the French court. Now the common man was the ideal, and the idea that the nation would be ruled by a wealthy aristocratic class was giving way to a more egalitarian sense of rule ‘‘by the people,’’ or rule by all of the white men, regardless of social class. Two political parties, Federalist and Democratic-Republican, were formed in 1792, and scenes like the one Rip finds when he returns to his village, of a ‘‘crowd of folk’’ arguing and ready to riot on election day, became common throughout the land. The transition to egalitarian rule was a bumpy one. Issues like the ‘‘rights of citizens,’’ including property rights, were hot topics, and debate was often characterized by ignorance and anger.

One question that was little addressed when ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ was published in 1819 was the matter of where the Native Americans should live. Native Americans had been routinely removed from their lands as the new nation pushed westward, and in 1830 an act of Congress established the Oklahoma Indian Territory, to which thousands were forcibly moved. The proper role for Native Americans in the new America became increasingly a subject for debate. In 1848, Irving added a ‘‘postscript’’ to the end of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ after the ‘‘Note.’’ The added section, which is omitted from many editions of the story today, describes several Native American traditional stories about ghosts and spirits in the Catskill region, a reinforcement of the sense of ancient mystery that Irving tried to capture in the story.

The New American Literature

‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ was created during a period when America demanded a new type of literature to represent its vision of itself. At the end of the eighteenth century, the writing coming out of the colonies and the new nation tended toward schoolbooks and sermons and historical essays, developing ideas that had come out of Europe. There was little to distinguish American writing from British. A small collection of plays—most of them bad, and none of them still performed—had featured American characters, but readers who wanted fiction had to import novels from England. Now the new nation wanted to look forward, to create American ideas and American models for future generations to look to.

One of the most striking things about The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. for readers today is how European it is. Most of the thirty or so sketches and stories are about English characters in English settings. Some of the plots, including the plot of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ are borrowed from German folk tales. But readers of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in the 1820s marveled at two things: a few of the stories, including ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ were set in the United States; and the writing itself was stronger and more interesting than anything else available at the time. The stories set in America were filled with romantic descriptions of beautiful and powerful American landscapes, and celebrated the desire to escape from society and return to the wilderness that soon became a characteristic American theme.

Irving became a model for writers on both sides of the Atlantic for the next fifty years. One group of...

(The entire section is 1,021 words.)