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3.17: Washington Irving (1783-1859)

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    Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” follows the tale of a man named Rip Van Winkle who lives at the base of the Kaatskill mountains. The story is based off of a Dutch folk tale, and is set in the English colony of New York, when the settlers considered themselves to be English citizens loyal to King George.

    Washington Irving is considered by many to be the first true American author. He was born in 1783 in New York City, and was named after George Washington. Irving was the youngest of eleven children, and was the son of Scottish-English immigrants. He toured Europe as a young man, and studied to become a lawyer in 1806. He preferred to pursue more creative outputs, and wrote several satirical essays that earned him critical acclaim. He went on to become the editor for the Anelectic Magazine.

    In 1815, Irving travelled to England to assist his brother in his failing business, and wrote a collection of short stories and essays when that endeavor failed. The collection was known as the Sketch Book, and it contained two of Irving’s most famous works: “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These works gave him international acclaim. He would go on to write other short stories and essays, including the biography, The Life of George Washington. Later in his life he would attempt to nurture other American writers, and he also pushed for stronger copyright laws to protect their works.

    There are several themes throughout “Rip Van Winkle.” The two most prevalent are mysticism and stasis versus change. Mysticism can be found throughout the short story. In the very first paragraph, Irving sets up the story with a description of the Kaatskill mountains. He talks about how they appear magical and how they seem to change colors with the weather. He even describes them as “fairy mountains’ which sets up the notion that something otherworldly is taking place on these mountains (8). The mysticism of the story is brought up again when Rip Van Winkle ventures into the woods of the mountains and meets the traveling man who does not appear normal dressed and is very short. It can be inferred by the description that this person is like an elf or perhaps a dwarf of the forest. The theme continues as the man leads Rip back to a clearing where more short, strange looking men are. They drink, and Rip falls asleep for twenty years, something that would not be possible outside fiction. The last mention of mysticism is when Rip is trying to convince the town that he fell asleep for twenty years and the oldest man in the village who recognizes him defends him saying, “the Kaatskill mountains had always been haunted by strange beings. That it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years, with his crew of the Half-moon; being permitted in this way to revisit the scenes of his enterprise, and keep a guardian eye upon the river, and the great city called by his name” (22-23). The theme of mysticism plays an important role in moving the story forward and to help resolve the story.

    The theme of stasis versus change appears both in the main character Rip and within the village where the story takes place. Rip begins in the story as a lazy man who does not wish to take care of or work on his own farm. His attitude towards life bothers his wife and she constantly nags him. Despite this he continues to waste his days fishing, hunting squirrels and helping his neighbors with their work. Rip wishes to just live life like this. His wish is ultimately fulfilled when he wakes up twenty years later as an old man. After he is re-integrated into the town he goes back to his way of life. However, his wife can no longer nag him because she had died and because he is an old man, no one question his laziness and laid back lifestyle. His is the ultimate example of stasis in this story. The change in this story comes from the town, and the country as a whole. The town was a small town of Dutch descent that was under British rule. When Rip wakes up the town has grown quite a bit and is now post revolutionary war. The town is now part of a different country and a new form of government. While the country has gone through a great upheaval in the years Rip was asleep, aside from the town growing larger and the poster changing from King George to George Washington, the everyday lives of the townspeople hasn’t changed. Many of the people Rip knew had died or went off to fight. His children were grown and he even had a grandchild. While Rip stayed the same, his whole world around him moved forward. This is mostly likely the main message of the story. If you don’t progress you get lost in time.

    Is it canonical?:

    “Rip Van Winkle” is canonical because it is a story that has never-ending popularity. This story is referenced in other literary works and by other major literary authors. This text has been taught in English classes for years, and is still taught in English classes today. Since it is taught so much in English classes, most people know what others are referring to when they talk about themes and events that happened in “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving was the quintessential American author, and all of his works qualify as major works in American literature. “Rip Van Winkle” should be in the American literary canon because its themes are still relevant today, and they are still written about, which makes the story canon. If the themes were fleeting themes, and if they were not still relevant today, then the story would not be canonical.

    Works Cited:

    Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” Ed. Geo P. Webster and Thomas Nast. N.p.: Applewood , of America’s Living past, 2012. Print.

    “Washington Irving.” A&E Networks Television, 20 Oct. 2015. Web.

    This page titled 3.17: Washington Irving (1783-1859) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.