Saturday, June 22, 2019

Rip Van Winkle

Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches

The Return of Rip Van Winkle, 1849, oil on canvas by American painter John Quidor (1801–1881). Quidor's painting “accurately sets the scene in the Catskills and shows brick houses with step-gabled, Dutch roofs.” Image and description courtesy National Gallery of Art.
Found among Washington Irving’s papers are fragments of what might have been notes for a memoir, scribbled down in spare moments during either 1843 or 1845 (the date is hard to decipher), when he was the American minister to Spain under President John Tyler. In one entry he describes the genesis of his most famous story:
When I first wrote the Legend of Rip van Winkle my thought had been for some time turned towards giving a colour of romance and tradition to interesting points of our national scenery which is so deficient generally in our country. My friends endeavored to dissuade me from it and I half doubted my own foresight when it was first published from the account of the small demand made for that number, but subsequent letters brought news of its success and of the lucky hit I had made. The idea was taken from an old tradition I picked up among the Harz Mountains.*
Two hundred years ago, on June 23, 1819, the first paperbound number of Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. was printed in four American cities by the coincidentally named publisher Cornelius S. Van Winkle. The entire work, a miscellany of stories and essays, appeared in seven parts over the course of the next fifteen months. The last piece in the first issue was “Rip Van Winkle,” advertised as a newly discovered work by the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, the elderly (and wholly fictitious) author of Irving’s previous book, A History of New York. Living in London at the time, Irving then arranged for a British edition of The Sketch Book to be printed at his expense, but the publisher went bankrupt. At the urging of Walter Scott (whose immensely popular novel Ivanhoe had appeared only months earlier), another printer bought the inventory for Irving’s book and brought it out instead. The story—indeed, The Sketch Book as a whole—became a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic and made Irving an international celebrity.

The idea for “Rip van Winkle” first came to Irving in June 1818, when he was visiting his sister in Birmingham. He had just finalized bankruptcy proceedings after the business he operated with his brothers failed, and he was determined to try to make a go of it as a writer. He and his brother-in-law were having an after-dinner chat, recalling nostalgically younger days in the Hudson River valley when, family lore has it, Irving had a flash of inspiration, shut himself in his room, and rushed out a draft, which he then read to the household the next day. The basis for his story was a folk tale, “Peter Klaus the Goatherd,” in the collection Volkssagen (1800), one of the books Irving read while he was studying German. Set in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany (where Irving had not yet been), the old tale provided him with the basic plot and several details. Irving moved the action to the period before and after the American Revolution and changed the location to the Catskills—where he had also never been, having only viewed their slopes from a distance.

“The borrowings are obvious,” writes historian Andrew Burstein in his 2007 biography The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving. “The strange silent men and their bowling game, the alcohol-induced twenty-year sleep in the mountains, the grown-up daughter who acknowledges her father. Irving’s genius lies in the hypnotic charm his simple story holds, for he makes Rip a more sympathetic being than Peter Klaus.” Literary scholar Walter Evans likewise contends that, in spite of Irving’s thorough appropriation of an old legend, the story’s importance to the history of literature can not be overstated. By combining two traditions—the essay-sketch and the tale—Irving introduced readers to the genre of the short story as we know it. Furthermore, the addition of Diedrich Knickerbocker as narrator in the story’s metafictional frame “helps make ‘Rip Van Winkle’ more than Western civilization's first significant short story and more than one of the best ever written. After generations of readers the story still seems to be one of the most modern.”

* The fragments were first published in Barbara D. Simison, “Some Autobiographical Notes of Washington Irving,” The Yale University Library Gazette (July 1963).

Notes: A volume of black letter mentioned in the introduction to the story refers to an old book set with a heavy Gothic typeface. A Waterloo medal was a commemorative silver medal presented to all British soldiers who served against Napoleon in the battle on June 16–18, 1815. Queen Anne farthings, coined late in her reign, were not intended for circulation but eventually became used as money. The epigraph that opens the main story is from The Ordinary, a comedy written in the 1630s by British playwright William Cartwright. A red night cap was the Phrygian cap that became a symbol of liberty during the Revolutionary era

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The following Tale was found among the papers of the late 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 from its primitive settlers. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.