Friday, July 1, 2011


The other famous character found in Washington Irving's 'The Sketch Book' is 'Rip Van Winkle'. ''Rip', perhaps, as in R.I.P. - Rest In Peace - as indeed this strange tale will have its hero slumber as if dead for twenty years. This is another of those papers found among the effects of one Diedrich Knickerbocker, deceased; an old gentleman who had researched the history of the Dutch settlers in that region. The story takes place in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It opens with its hero, Rip, being portrayed as a 'loafer' - one who loves to fish and hunt rather than engage himself in more profitable labor. After hunting squirrels one late afternoon he settled down on a green knoll.
From there he continued on, meeting a square-built stranger along the way. They joined up together and as they went along they heard a sound like distant thunder, and came upon some strange looking men playing ninepins. After joining them for a drink Rip fell into a deep slumber.
Upon waking he found himself once again on that green knoll where he had first dozed off. Since it was morning he realized that he must have slept there all night. Next to him he found a rusty old gun and his dog had disappeared. He headed back to the village but he met no one along the way.
The village itself was larger and more populous than he remembered it, and there were strangers everywhere. He headed over to his house but found it gone to decay and a half-starved dog waiting there. His nagging wife was nowhere around and the very character of the people in the town had changed. He found himself, then, after twenty years of sleep, "alone in the world." Eventually he meets up with his daughter and her child, and goes to live with them.
Again an afterward is signed D.K. and in it he attests to the absolute truth of this account. "The story therefore," he concludes, "is beyond the possibility of doubt."
In this story of Rip Van Winkle it is shown that change is not always for the better, and that Rip has lost his identity in the time he has been gone. In this world of constantly accelerating change and progress and 'future shock', alienation is a very valid motif in American literature, and has been right from the start. If one should only happen to blink, or to take forty winks, as it were, he might lose his place in time. Unlike the tradition-bound Europeans that have been left behind, Americans are at a loss to find any tradition at all. The American character, again, is just not able to find a place in this world.
As with the Sleepy Hollow story, old Rip returning home reveals the very American tension between the wilderness 'out there', and the civilization he returns to. Between the outer and inner aspects of humankind. Between the one who hunts and the one who works. Between brains and brawn. Here, another theme is added as well - the confusion that change brings in the lives of those who live through it.
In his eulogy to Washington Irving given at the Massachusetts Historical Society in December of 1859 his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke of this author's contribution in these words: "We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters."
Copyright 2011 James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.

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