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.
Dutch village. Unnamed village of Dutch settlers in New York that is the home of Rip Van Winkle, who sleeps in the woods for twenty years and then returns to the village. Rip’s twenty-year absence from the village gives Irving a chance to reflect and comment on changes that occurred in the United States between the period shortly before the American Revolution and the early years of the independent republic.
Irving first describes the village as one of “great antiquity,” founded by the original Dutch colonists who settled in New York. The village rests at the foot of the Catskill Mountains and seems to be a charming and quaint place. Its people are friendly and—except for the henpecked Rip—happy. When Rip...
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escapes from his wife’s nagging, he plays with the children of the village and runs errands for all the goodwives. All the village dogs know him and greet him. The familiarity and friendliness of the village before Rip’s sleep is shown so that Irving can contrast it with Rip’s return from the mountain. When Rip returns from his long nap, children stare at him and mock him, and dogs bark at him.
Before Rip’s sleep, the village had a “busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity.” Rip returns when an election is taking place, and villagers want to know for whom he is voting. The town’s former tranquillity has been usurped by the new politics. Rip eventually comes to grip with these changes, even if he does not quite understand them. He even takes his place as a patriarch of the village on the bench. He settles into place and his new role, much like the new country he encounters.
Village inn. Besides moving the plot along, the changes in the village after Rip’s sleep also provide a pointed look at the changes in the new republic. Before Rip’s twenty year absence, the center of town was an old inn sporting a portrait of England’s King George III. On a bench in front of the inn, the elders and idle of the village would gather and discuss events. The innkeeper, Nicholas Vedder, presided over the gatherings and let his feelings on the discussions be known by how he smoked his pipe. Outside the inn stood a great tree that shaded the building. When Rip returns, the inn has changed, and definitely for the worse. Its great tree is gone, replaced by “a tall naked pole” from which hangs a strange flag. The old inn itself has been replaced by a “large rickety wooded building . . . with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats.” It is no longer the old country inn, but the Union Hotel. King George’s portrait has been painted over with one of George Washington.
*Kaatskill (Catskill) Mountains
*Kaatskill (Catskill) Mountains. New York range bordering the village. From the beginning of the story, Irving describes the beauty of the mountains and gives them a magical air as he describes them as “fairy mountains.” Rip goes up on a mountain to hunt and avoid his nagging wife. The mountain is also the home of the somber Henrik Hudson and his men who play at ninepins. In a hidden amphitheater, the strange little men drink wine and play their game. Rip also helps himself to the wine which leads to his twenty-year sleep. He awakens outside the amphitheater only to find the scenery changed. The use of the Catskills, a chain familiar to American readers of Irving’s time, helped to Americanize the German folktale.
Although the part of the story that carries the plot is relatively straightforward and chronological, this main section of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ is preceded and followed by other material that does not directly advance the plot. This kind of structure is sometimes called a frame structure, because the beginning and ending material can be said to frame the main section. ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ has two pieces of writing before the actual tale begins (a quotation in verse, and a note explaining where the story came from) and in most editions one piece afterward (a note from the narrator attesting to the truth of the story, and quoting a letter from Knickerbocker affirming that the story is ‘‘beyond the possibility of doubt’’). A postscript containing bits of lore from the Native Americans who inhabited the Catskill region was added by Irving in 1848, but most modern editions of the story do not include this section.
With the frame, Irving emphasizes the truth of the tale and at the same time distances himself from accountability for that truth. In other words, he protests too much. He does not expect the reader to take the tale seriously, and every time he insists on its accuracy he puts that accuracy further into doubt.
The only one who knows what Rip saw on that mountain is Rip himself. He has told the story frequently, but he is not the narrator of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’ In the note at the end of the story, Knickerbocker claims to have heard the story from Rip’s own mouth and Knickerbocker gives it his ‘‘full belief.’’ But it is not Knickerbocker, either, who tells the story, but a different narrator. Readers of the entire The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. know that the narrator is Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (for ‘‘gentleman’’), the purported author of the book. Crayon claims to have found the manuscript of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ among papers left behind by Knickerbocker after his death, and Crayon appears to revere Knickerbocker for his ‘‘unquestionable authority.’’ The frame creates, then, several layers of doubt. Crayon, of questionable judgment, has the story from the unreliable Knickerbocker (if he is telling the truth about the manuscript), who has it from Rip, who in the beginning used to ‘‘vary on some points every time he told it.’’ To read the story and ignore the frame is to miss Irving’s insistence that the story is fiction.
A frequent device used by comic writers is the mock-heroic, or the borrowing of elements from epic literature and using them to tell a trivial or ridiculous tale. The quotation that opens ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ from the playwright William Cartwright, is an example of the mock-heroic. It is a simple passage, an unnamed speaker swearing by the god Woden to be always truthful. True epics, which the mock-heroic imitates, often begin with an invocation, or an application to a deity to guide the writing to follow. The quotation from Cartwright, which has nothing to do with the story and has apparently been supplied by the narrator himself, reinforces the claim of truthfulness, and uses dramatic language to make the claim seem more solemn. This is Irving’s method throughout the frame: he keeps a solemn face while he claims to be telling the truth, but gives away just enough to demonstrate that he is not.
Typically, the epic begins with the hero being forced to leave his home and setting off into the wilderness where he meets new and threatening people and engages in battles or contests with them. Rip is forced from his home by his wife’s temper, and when he sets off into the woods with his gun he soon meets the group of strangely-dressed men bowling. The structure is the same at its core, but the individual elements in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ are silly, presented in a serious tone.
Romanticism is a literary movement that swept through Europe and then the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It affected literature and the other arts, as well as philosophy and politics, and it can be described as a breaking away from formal, classical structures and embracing imagination and spirit over intellect. In literature, several characteristics came to typify romanticism, and many of these are found in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’
A central theme of romantic literature is a reverence for nature. The fact that Rip leaves the city and ventures forth into the rugged mountains, where he undergoes a life-changing experience, is a common romantic plot element. When Rip is especially troubled by the stresses of civilized, city life (that is, by his wife), he has no choice but to ‘‘stroll away into the woods.’’ In the story, nature is described with as much attention to imagination as to accurate detail: the ‘‘fairy mountains’’ surrounding Rip’s village reach a ‘‘noble height’’ with their ‘‘magical hues and shapes.’’ The opening in the cliffs opens and closes with ‘‘no traces.’’ The druginduced sleep, the mysterious strangers, and the idea that they might be ghosts from the past, are also found frequently in romantic literature.
Critics often describe the romantic period in American literature as beginning around 1830, ten years after the publication of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle,’’ but romanticism flourished in Great Britain from about 1798. An avid reader and traveler, Irving was adept at borrowing from the literatures of other cultures and transporting themes and techniques to his new American literature.