I wanted to look at some good, sturdy old American short fiction this week, since I’d even gone slack on my specially designed “easy Friday posts,” and after thinking about some Melville and Hawthorne it was suggested I go all the way back to Washington Irving. So I did. Other than a brief sketch in my American Sea Writing anthology, I don’t think I’ve read any Irving since the seventh grade. We did a project on him then, but all I remember about that is my friend making snickerdoodles. What do snickerdoodles have to do with Washington Irving, anyway? Well, on to the story.
“Rip Van Winkle” was so successful in its myth-making function that I probably had the most foreknowledge reading it of anything I’ve read as an adult. I’m always going into things with an awareness of plot, character, theme, but here it felt like reading a story my parents had read me over and over as a child (they did not). I realized I knew not only the broad outline of the tale, but also many of the lesser points, which I wouldn’t have thought to mention if asked to tell the story myself, but were in fact familiar: Rip’s nagging wife and his way with children and dogs, for example. Not that his being henpecked is a minor detail, I just didn’t know I already knew it, if you see what I mean.
But for all that, I don’t feel like I’d ever thought much about what it meant for Rip to sleep away those twenty years. I’d looked on it as a romance, and it is a nice romance, and for me a comforting regional read. I’ve always liked that it’s about these old Dutch settlers of New York, even though Rip lives in the time of George III. But that’s just it. Rip not only sleeps through the tumult of the American Revolution, he seems to have even missed the whole business of English colonization. He lives in an old settlement full of houses made of little yellow bricks brought over from Holland. He sits around the pub with his idle friends talking about the events in old newspapers and “sagely…deliberat[ing] on public events some months after they had taken place.” When he returns from the mountains after his sleep he looks for his friends Brom Dutcher and Van Bummel, and is identified by Peter Vanderdonk. And of course, when he’s in the mountains, he’s with the Dutch, dressed up like something out of Rembrandt and drinking Hollands.
So Rip has always been asleep, and he’s missed everything from the time his descendants “figured so gallantly in the days of Peter Stuyvesant” to when he returns to find the pub hung with a picture of George Washington. Of course the only thing he’s interested in having missed is his wife’s death—nothing further afield has ever really affected him, and all it takes to settle back in is enough time to catch up on the current village gossip.
Irving assures us of the veracity of Rip’s tale both at the beginning and end, where he explains that the story has been set down by one “Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York, who was very curious in the Dutch history of the province, and the manners of the descendants of its primitive settlers.” Irving marginalizes this interest, and Knickerbocker’s work, but I for one am glad of the writer’s care for “the old burghers, and still more, their wives, rich in that legendary lore, so invaluable to true history.”