Appearing in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, “Rip Van Winkle” was an immediate popular success. In retrospect, it helped refute the infamous question posed by the British critic Sydney Smith: “Who, in the four corners of the globe, reads an American book?” With The Sketch Book—and the story of Rip in particular—Irving established the United States on the English-speaking literary map. Today many scholars call “Rip Van Winkle” the most important story written in the early years of the republic. With its publication, Irving not only created the modern short story form but also laid the foundations for American literature, particularly the frontier humor that flowered in the 1830s and eventually reached a crescendo with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
In The Sketch Book and in this tale, Irving creates Geoffrey Crayon, the first-person narrator who leads the reader into the Hudson River valley, sets the scene through vivid description, and depicts the town as Rip and its inhabitants know it. The leisurely accumulation of detail is important, for when Rip departs with his gun and his dog, we need to know the nature of the place he has left before we can appreciate the radical nature of its changes when he returns after his 20-year sleep.
When he does return to the much-changed town, the narrator gives us the signs one by one so that, with Rip, we see the truth emerge from an accumulation of detail: The length of his beard, the rustiness of his gun, and the disappearance of his dog help prepare us for the more significant changes. Not only has his shrewish wife passed on, but, as the pub sign signifies by its metamorphosis from the head of King George III to the head of President George Washington, the Americans have fought their revolution and claimed independence from England.
As narrator, Geoffrey Crayon disclaims responsibility for the authenticity of the story, protesting that he found it among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, who himself heard it from some old Dutch wives. In a wittily clever move, Irving then has Knickerbocker add a postscript vouching for the truth of the tale. Indeed, so central is the question about Rip’s 20-year absence that critics still debate it today. Did Rip really encounter the Dutchmen at their bowling—and, if so, did they ply him with a magic liquor that made him sleep for 20 years? Or did Rip simply run away from his wife, returning only after she is safely dead? The interpretation of Rip’s character depends as well as whether the narrator is reliable: Is Dame Van Winkle the henpecking wife as portrayed by Rip and Crayon? Or is she, as are so many women in literature, the product of a male perspective? Is Rip the comic and somewhat pitiful character of myth? Or is he the prototype of the lazy American male who reappears, for instance, in Anse Bundren of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying? Irving’s romantic legend continues to attract new readers who must resolve the ambiguous denouement for themselves.
Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” In Complete Tales, edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.
Myers, Andrew B. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.