American Romanticism is generally considered to take place from around the end of the 18th century to the latter half of the 19th century (1800 to 1860). Only a few decades prior to this movement, the United States, in 1776, had become an independent nation. America, being so young in its sovereignty, did not really have a history of its own making to fall back on. In other words, it had yet to create for itself, a so-called, “national literature” or recorded history to identify with, as opposed to the kind of literary history England had for instance, which extended back multiple centuries. Consequently, literature in American schools at the time would have consisted primarily of Greek, Roman, and English literature. America had yet to establish a literary voice that was unique in itself, of which the American population, being so diverse, could use as a means of uniting or coming together as one people.
American Romanticism was the first, true, attempt at giving the freshly independent nation a distinctive American voice. One of the earliest and most recognized of the new-American writers was Washington Irving. He is known, particularly, for his two short stories, “Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle”, both of which combined fantasy and folklore, creating, for the readers, a sort of “mythic history” of America. However, for the sake of this post, we will only speak on behalf of Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” It is in this story that we see the portrayal of a “lost” character (peculiarly named Rip Van Winkle) who cannot identify with the world around him due to some rather self-inflicted discombobulation. He is a simple man who likes simple things and one day, while roaming through the forest and partying with some dwarves, Rip Van Winkle dozes off into a deep sleep that lasts some twenty odd years. After awaking and returning home, he realizes that nothing is the same and finds the world around him to be chaotic and confusing.
The story is obviously utterly unrealistic, but perhaps it might be better to look at what the story is trying to say underneath all of the fantastical elements. It would seem that it is a sort of commentary on how, following the Revolutionary War, the United States, in becoming an independent nation, had lost its way, for it was abandoning an already forming history (connected to Britain) prior to the war. America had decidedly dropped all ties with the old world so that it could start afresh, but much of the country’s populace felt “lost in time” – as if they had slept through half of their lives. In ways, it was considered to be a type of living without any instruction on how to live. Irving’s writing may have been constructed primarily of fantasy and fiction, but with the occasional application of historical fact, Irving helped to create an American “history” that gradually became true, for the falsehoods were almost indistinguishable from the certainties.
Another Romantic writer who took part in shaping the American Identity of the times was James Fennimore Cooper. In Cooper’s The Pioneers, the segment titled “The Slaughter of the Pigeons” presents us with a strong focus on how, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, man and nature did not quite see eye to eye. Instead, it seemed that man looked down on nature as something lesser than himself. In this short chapter, Cooper tells the story of a town’s thoughtless massacre of the migrating pigeons flying overhead. The towns-people consider this slaughter to be a sort of sport, competing with one another to see who can kill the most. Whereas the main character of the novel, Natty Bumppo, only kills one pigeon, intending to keep it for his next meal. Natty Bumppo, for Cooper, is a man of nature. He lives off the land respectfully, believing that one must only take from nature what they need as a means of survival.
For the American Romantics, living to excess, otherwise known as greed or gluttony, is not considered to be a quality characteristic; Rather, an influence that seems to have been left behind by the Europeans. One might think of manifest destiny and the mindless slaughter of the indigenous population of the so-called “New World” or perhaps, the deforestation of trees on their own continent. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Western Europe harvested nearly all of their forests in order to build ships for their navy (the largest in the world at the time) as well as for all of the sorts of trade they were engaged in at the time. It would seem that Cooper’s chapter, “The Slaughter of the Pigeons,” is speaking directly to that desecration of the natural landscape. Still a brutal quality that humanity has still yet to shake. Perhaps Cooper is using this story as a means of advising the American people not to take the natural world for granted.
Similarly, another group of writers, known as the transcendentalists (still part of American Romanticism), also incorporated the thematic influences of nature into their work, helping to further develop the American identity and its literary voice. Particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of which, it would seem, were the original architects behind the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was as much a literary movement as it was a philosophical movement. This group believed that the individual could only find the true meanings of life through that of nature. The natural world offered truth and to understand that truth, one must use their intuition rather than their logical reasoning.
From the end of the 18th century all the way into the latter half of the 19th century, America created for itself, an identity that the rest of the world could recognize as new and inimitable. However, to get there, America had to face the many challenges that were both already inherently part of the land as well as the ones left behind by European influence. The land surrounding them was so vast in scale and so rough in terrain yet so beautiful and inspiring; how overwhelming it all must have been! The American people were faced with a past full of conflict and contention, not to mention a revolution that had left the nation full of all sorts of doubts and uncertainties. Because they lacked an original history and had a strong absence of tradition, they had to boldly create their own; an opportunity that we may never see again. Let us hope that this American identity they helped to create was for the better. Not for the worse.
(As always… These posts are strictly for my own train of thought – to see what is it is that I truly think about what I am engaging with… I love to read, but to make sense of what I read, I must write.)
Colson Whitehead may be African American, but his last name says otherwise. Perhaps this is why, in his novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, he explores names and the major role they play in our lives today. It is in the 21st century that names have mattered more than in any other time whilst humans have existed. I have just finished Whitehead’s novel and intend to use this short response to Apex Hides the Hurt as a means of exploring the theme/value of names. With the use of the novel, we will delve into the question: Why is it an essential part of being human to put names to the things surrounding us?
A few weeks back, some friends and I had traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is a beautiful place and its name is too. While we were there, we had gone to a concert – playing was a band known by the name of Starfucker. While at the concert, my friend met a girl of whom he danced with the entire show. As we were leaving, he accidentally hit her in the nose, causing it to bleed. Somehow, they managed to start dating and are still doing so presently. Since the trip to Santa Fe, she has come to visit him twice and due to the fact that we don’t really know her, we refer to her as “the nose-bleed girl.” On one of the afternoons while she was visiting, we happened to let the nickname slip out. Let’s just say she was not too thrilled. The nicknames we often give people are either based on experiences or appearances. In Whitehead’s novel, the narrator refers to the bartender as “Muttonchops” because, not only does the bartender’s name remain unknown to the narrator, but the bartender also has “some old-school muttonchops” (21). This label, unlike “the nose-bleed girl,” expresses a more positive and definite identity for the individual.
It is because names hold on to the meaning we give them, that they can either be positive or negative. Hitler, for example, is not a name you would want to give to your child. The name Jesus on the other hand, is still a very popular name. That’s because the name holds a very positive role for many people in our culture. In the novel, the town’s current name is Winthrop, which is the last name of a successful white man who caused the town to prosper by mass-producing barbed wire. Barbed wire is used for keeping things in or keeping things out. The name the town had before it was renamed to Winthrop was Freedom – for the many slaves who relocated there after the Revolutionary War. As you can see, Winthrop, being a name that represents control, is the opposite of Freedom. One plays a negative role while the other plays a positive.
Humans have an obsession with naming places. Basically every location on the planet has been given a title and I personally find this very interesting. New York for instance, is one of the most popular and modern cities in the world. The fact that the first half of its name has “new” in it is very attention-grabbing. The place is “NEW!” Everything in it is new and all the new stuff that humans make hits New York first. Then again, New Mexico also has “new” in its title and the two are in no way similar. Many people in our country don’t even know that New Mexico is a state. But New Mexico’s next door neighbor, Colorado, everyone has heard of. ColoRADo is actually one of the few states, like New York, that marketizes/brands its name.
A name we have been seeing everywhere for the last few years is Donald Trump’s - now Mr. President, once Mr. Presidential Candidate. During his candidacy, Trump, who is all about marketing, loved to market his own name. All we saw on the news at the time was Trump-this and Trump-that. He wanted everybody to hear his name and even Donald, himself, loved to hear it, commonly referring to himself in the third person… I think people were a fan of the name – I never was... But then again, I’m not too big a fan of my own name.
Sometimes I think it sounds weird – three first names: Samuel David Travis. And I definitely don’t think it’s a name that could one day flourish (doesn’t sound too good in the books). Names like Shakespeare, Armstrong, Kennedy and Monroe have a certain sound to them. Some people recognized this and went ahead and changed their name before they took hold of their fame. Marilyn Monroe’s name was previously Norma Jean Mortensen. She changed her name to something more seductive and memorable so it could be marketed better. It’s the same with the famous author Mark Twain whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens (funky). Perhaps Colson Whitehead chooses to leave our narrator nameless because he understands just like Twain and Monroe and many others, that some names can just succeed and that others simply cannot. It’s like our narrator says, “Some names are keys and open doors” (69).
Names are an important part of the human culture. Whether it’s a state or a country; a pet or a person; a film or a novel, we, as humans, must name everything. And just imagine if Colson Whitehead, instead of Apex Hides the Hurt, had decided to title his book, “Band-Aid Covers Cut.” That’s not a very appealing name. With a name like that, I doubt the book would have gone anywhere. Names are used to give meaning and purpose. We use them for guidance, acceptance and reputation. Without the name, the identity ceases to exist. Without our names, we would cease to exist.
(As always, these posts are just a rambling-nonsense – a method I use to throw my thoughts around and to see what I really think [that is, if my thinking is thinking at all])
Whitehead, Colson. Apex Hides the Hurt: a Novel. 1969. New York: Anchor, 2007. Print.
Everywhere I look, people argue that the Judge, from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, is a figurative representation of Satan or a demonic being or something similar, come up from the depths of hell to cause chaos. I disagree. I mean you’re probably right, But I’m going to argue differently, or at least point out some things that might support this meaningless argument. But first, you’re going to have to forgive me, for I have misplaced my copy of Blood Meridian and therefore will not and cannot cite the references/quotations I use.
Well anyways, back on topic.
I believe the Judge actually represents personified Death. Throughout the ages, death has come to us as a character in many forms (the grim reaper being the most popular). In fact, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which this book (Blood Meridian) used as inspiration supposedly, the character of Death plays a large role. This character, Death, is actually Satan’s child along with his twin sister Sin. Death is known for taking pleasure in human pain and also in inflicting pain. This is very similar to the way the Judge is always in high spirits: laughing and smiling up a storm throughout the novel whenever some thoughtless acts of evil take place. He loves his violence.
Next, I’d like to point out the fact that he is called the “Judge.” At one point in the novel, the kid asks why the Judge is called the Judge, but no answer is given. It’s obvious isn’t it? He is the Judge, the determiner of whether one lives or dies - and like a real judge does, he gets to decide whether or not someone gets to be confined to a life in prison (hell) or gets to walk scot-free (heaven). Satan does not get to decide whether someone goes to heaven or hell. That is God’s job right? And I’m pretty sure the Judge is not a representation of God although, the Judge does say that “War is God” and wherever war goes, Death (the Judge) follows.
The fact that religion is, for the most part, absent in this book (and when it is mentioned it is shot down… both literally and metaphorically) leads us to believe that there is no Devil and God out there at all. And that means that there is no such thing as an afterlife as well. If this is the case, then the Judge cannot be Satan, for if there is a Satan, then there has to be a God. And Judging by the fact that there are no redeeming qualities to this novel, then God can definitely not exist in this text. Like I said, the few references of religion in the novel are all "shot" down. The Judge, in his introductory scene, decides that it is necessary for the priest to die by man’s hand. There is also the ex-priest Tobin. I would consider the fact that he is an “ex-priest” a reference to religion, but obviously not a pleasant one. He’s an “ex”-priest for Christ’s sake! If he’s not at least lost his faith in God, (which I’d assume he has) then he’s at least lost his faith in humanity… and everything else for that matter.
Another thing I’d like to point out, is that we never actually see the Judge (Death) kill anyone. We can assume that he kills people, but we never actually read of him doing it. In the scene with the puppies, he throws them in the water, but it is either the water that drowns them or the bystander that shoots them. When the little Native American boy that is riding on the Judge’s horse with him dies, it doesn’t show the judge killing him. The book changes scenes and when it comes back to the judge, it says that the boy just happens to be dead. Also, the ending scene with the kid (our “protagonist”)… We don’t actually get words saying, “and the Judge shot him stone dead…” now do we? There is also the scene that I mentioned earlier, where at the very beginning of the novel the Judge plays that dirty trick and gets the preacher killed. The judge doesn’t actually do the killing. It is man who kills him. It seems that the Judge is only around when people die… perhaps he’s just there to collect souls (scalps). Perhaps he isn’t there at all… He does seem kind of ghost-like and all. Especially considering the fact that he is whiter than can be and he has no hair on his body. He also likes to get naked and walk around in the moonlight. And let’s not forget when he just happens to show up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert to receive the warring party and lead them all to their demises as well as take a bunch of other lives along the way.
One last thing... Remember when Tobin is telling the kid all he knows about the Judge? Well if you don’t, I’ll remind you. The ex-priest Tobin specifically notes the Judge’s talents as a dancer, and as the most extraordinary fiddler player he has ever seen. He also says that it is the Judge who is the only man that can out-dance the Devil himself. Well no human can dance with the Devil and live right? So that should mean that it is only Death who can dance with the Devil for he is already dead. Tobin also tells the kid that the Judge is said to have met and known every single man in the group at one time or another. How could this be? It is because the Judge is Death.
Oh yeah, chew on this quote that ends the novel: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” I’m pretty sure Death never sleeps and is already dead… that is if he ever had lived to begin with.
Blood Meridian is not an easy read, and it certainly is not a pleasant one, but I enjoy it all the same as when I first read it… Perhaps more this time around. Its truth is universal, and as near to us today as ever. Would you not agree? And on some level, we have or will all encounter Mr. Judge Holden at some point in our lives just as every character in the novel had: that being Death. We are all dancers, hoping that we will never die, therefore defying Death, but we can never out-dance Death himself. For in this world… shoot, in this universe, (that same universe in which the Judge describes as being “no narrow thing”) it all has to come to an end and in that end, everything crumbles into dust.
Like the Judge says in one of his infamous speeches, “The way of the world is to bloom and flower and die…”
(P.S. Not sure if any of this made sense, similar to the rest of my posts, but hey… I’m sure we can all agree that this book didn’t make a whole lot of sense either so what’s the problem?)
If you haven’t read Robert Browning’s epic poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, then I recommend you do… Especially if you enjoy the grotesque and despicable nature of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian like I am right now (my third reading of this unique post-modern text). If you would like to read it (its fairly short and easy to read) - Here's a link. And if you haven’t read Blood Meridian then I recommend giving it a try and stomaching what it has to offer.
Well anyways, let’s get to the point… shall we? I believe that Cormac McCarthy had drawn inspiration from Browning’s “Childe Roland” to write up the horrific masterpiece known as Blood Meridian (or The Evening Redness in the West). I’m absolutely in love with both of these texts. “Childe Roland” was written in the latter half of the 19th century and portrays a dreadful world set deep in the future. The other, Blood Meridian, was written in the late 20th century and the terrifying and cruel world the novel is set in, is back in the latter half of the 19th century. Literally the texts are swapping their dates with one another…
Childe Roland, the main character of Browning’s poem, is an old soldier who has nothing left to live for. All he desires to do now is walk the long and weary road to reach the “Dark Tower” which I believe represents death. The land surrounding him is a wasteland where every living thing that is left is evil or at least is supposedly evil. This is very similar to the landscape presented to us in Blood Meridian.
Like I said a second ago, Roland is an old soldier. What I mean by this is that he is actually no longer a soldier at all. The war(s) he fought in is/are over and all his mates that fought at his side are dead. Perhaps this is what the future holds for Blood Meridian’s “the kid.”
The kid could be considered a soldier. The first warring party he joins is slaughtered. Then he joins another, and it seems that he is always headed down a road that leads to nothing but death… for him and all those that travel the road as well. What is actually very interesting to myself, is that throughout the text of Blood Meridian, the phrase “rode on” is said over and over again. Here is a list of just some of the pages that the phrase is said on: (76), (94), (95), (109), (118), (119), (134), (“We went on.” (137)), and (“We climbed on.” (137)). It is an interesting phrase and if I may say so myself, I believe it to have some symbolic meaning to it. Road vs rode and rode on as in they rode on a horse, but also the idea that one goes on even if they don't want to but have no other choice. They push forward.
In the novel Blood Meridian, McCarthy uses a boat-load of horses and horse imagery… particularly in chapter 9. Horses do seem to die a lot – those poor, innocent creatures that man taints with their maliciousness. In “Childe Roland”, the passage below shows a horse as well, not quite as gruesome as Cormac’s own descriptions, but gruesome all the same:
As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
- Robert Browning's "Childe Roland" (Lines 73-84)
We can see here how Browning uses imagery to just tug at our heartstrings and make us hate the world we are reading about.
I could just go on and on with ways as to relate these two very similar texts, but I’m tired now and I want to go home... And this post is long and pointless enough. If you have any thoughts, please don't hesitate to share. I will most likely be posting more on McCarthy's Blood Meridian when I finish it.
Browning, Robert. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2013. 2131-2137. Print.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. New York, NY: Random House, Inc. 1985. Print.
“Young Rip Van Winkle Once – Old Rip Van Winkle Now”: The Myth is Complicated in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”
The country of North America founds itself on a false history of which has been examined repeatedly. Consider the great explorer, Christopher Columbus, for instance. He is said to be the first man to set foot on the so-called “American” soil, when in fact, it is well-known that the Native American population had been around for thousands of years prior to his arrival, not to mention the Vikings, of whom explored the continent well before Columbus did. Similarly, the myth of the American (Wild) West defines the American identity more-so than any other period. It may be born from a factual 30-year span of frontier conquering in the latter half of the 19th century, but its transference into fictional stories is what matters, for those stories, in turn, transform back into fact.
In his article, “The ‘Wild West’: The Life and Death of a Myth,” Paul Christensen explains that “the very nature of myth is that it tells the story of how a people become a nation” (Christensen, 310). In other words, myth is history (to a degree). Perhaps we might consider the mythically altered identities surrounding many of America’s heroic, historical figures such as Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett and George Washington. Yes, even the man who could never tell a lie is a lie himself, but that is not to say that he did not exist. It is just that his existence has been transformed in order to add to the creation of the American identity. In this sense, it might be better to say that myth is a selective history. This transformative retelling is what many of the writers during the American Romantic Period (1800-1860) concerned themselves with.
Only a few decades prior to this literary movement, the United States, in 1776, had become an independent nation. America, being so young in its sovereignty, did not really have a history of its own making to fall back on. Strictly speaking, it had yet to create for itself a national identity or recorded history, or even a so-called “national literature” of which it could identify with. America was in need of a literary voice that was unique in itself, of which the American population, being so diverse, could use as a means of uniting or coming together as one people. And thus, writers like Herman Melville, James Fennimore Cooper and Washington Irving (as well as many others) came forward and took it upon themselves to give America the definitive history it so desperately needed.
However, for the sake of this post, only Washington Irving and his much-loved short story, “Rip Van Winkle” will be spoken of. This idea that myth derives itself from fact, but that the fact is often forgot or even indistinguishable, and that only the myth remains, can trace itself back into the many themes and unrealistic plot of this fantastical tale. But it’s complicated, for the story has two authors, both of which ask for their readers to believe the story to be true (as historical fact). The original author, (whether he is real or not – decidedly not), Diedrich Knickerbocker, is a historian proclaimed to be real by the formerly mentioned Washington Irving. So complex is the telling of this tale and throughout the course of this post, an examination will take place to uncover the certainties and uncertainties that define this definitive American myth.
The fact that “Rip Van Winkle” is a tale originally told by the deceased Diedrich Knickerbocker and in turn, reprinted by Irving, is an approach that is meant to confuse the reader. We understand that this is the case because of the three peculiarly detailed add-ons Irving chose to include at the beginning and end of the story (a preamble, an added note, and a postscript). In Ib Johansen’s article, “Rip Van Winkle’s Fall into History,” the framework previously described is noted to “serve to mystify the reader, [and] to blur the borderline between fact and fiction, challenging the reader’s notion of reality” (Johansen 57-58). Knickerbocker is, if truth be told, the narrator of the tale, so Irving has unquestionably given us a story from a speaker who is deceased. One might also consider the text following the title, “A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker,” for it decidedly labels the original author as being unable to confirm in the authenticity of the story. The term “posthumous” asserts the author as having passed away, and in the preamble written by Irving, we know that the tale “was found among the papers… [of the] old gentlemen [Diedrich Knickerbocker]” (Irving, 941).
As for Knickerbocker’s own authenticity, Irving takes it upon himself to make it so. He describes Knickerbocker in a most delicate way, that it is hard for the reader to doubt its legitimacy. Irving even goes so far as to quote Knickerbocker, himself, from his “travelling notes from a memorandum-book” in the added note following the tale’s conclusion:
The story of Rip Van Winkle may seem incredible to many, but nevertheless I give it my full belief, for I know the vicinity of our old Dutch settlements to have been very subject to marvelous events and appearances. Indeed, I have heard many stranger stories than this, in the villages along the Hudson; all of which were too well authenticated to admit of a doubt. I have even talked with Rip Van Winkle myself, who, when last I saw him, was a very venerable old man, and so perfectly rational and consistent on every other point, that I think no conscientious person could refuse to take this into the bargain; nay, I have seen a certificate on the subject taken before a country justice and signed with a cross, in the justice’s own handwriting. The story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of a doubt.
Indeed, it would appear that Knickerbocker is as real as the tale and character he describes. Irving even includes the initials at the end of the quote for further authentication. What reason would we, as readers, ever have to doubt the authenticity of Diedrich Knickerbocker and the tale of “Rip Van Winkle?” None, it would seem.
Although, in the epigraph of the text, Irving slyly hints for us to waver in our beliefs for it is there that dwells some doubt of which we could deem as none other than a warning: “Truth is a thing that ever I will keep,” but only “Unto thylke day in which I creep into / My sepulchre–” (Irving, 941). In other words, Irving is giving us but one ambiguity and telling us that we can never know the truth for he will take it with him to his grave. To add another sense though, Lloyd M. Daigrepont believes that both the epigraph and “the repeated claims of factuality… may be taken as a challenge… [and even] as a wry invitation to probe the tale for another, deeper form of truth” (Daigrepont, 58). Irving’s seemingly endless methods of guaranteeing the validity of the tale “forces the reader into a game of levels… that confuse” the reader entirely, rendering fact as indistinguishable from fiction (Ferguson, 529). And so, it is the task of the reader to decide for themselves whether the tale is truth or untruth.
The tale begins with a “simple, good-natured fellow” named Rip Van Winkle, whose reluctant attendance (or should I say “insuperable aversion”) to all things concerning hard work leads him and his life astray (Irving, 943). Because of this laziness Rip’s wife, Dame Van Winkle, continually nags him “about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family.” This endless patronization, in turn, leads Rip to his only alternative: “to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods” so that he can find peace of mind by partaking in “the still solitudes” of nature and “his favorite sport of squirrel shooting” (Irving, 944-945). On this particular retreat though, Rip has a chance encounter with the legendary troop of Hendrick Hudson; the “ghosts of explorers who helped open up the North American continent to white men” (Daigrepont, 52). The company provides Rip with drink, causing him to fall into a deep sleep lasting some 20 odd years. When he wakes, the world has changed drastically: his wife has died, his children are grown, and the only person who recognizes and remembers him is the eldest man in the village.
As you might notice, the tale of “Rip Van Winkle” is a fairly simple one, yet it seems to model the very nature of myth itself. Upon Rip Van Winkle’s return to society after his long absence, he remarks that he was “Young Rip Van Winkle once [but] old Rip Van Winkle now” and following this utterance, we can see that nothing has changed for him (Irving, 950). Rip has managed to keep his sanity despite missing twenty years of his life and the changes that occurred while he slept: “Rip now resumed his old walks and habits…” and “took his place once more on the bench at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village” (Irving, 951). Rip Van Winkle shows no unease for what has been missed or forgotten in his own life. Instead, he returns to the way things were as if nothing had happened. It would seem that there are no concerns given for the history missed in the tale. Like myth, the story of “Rip Van Winkle” glosses over history due to the fact that “the tale itself covers up…the place where history itself had been allowed to enter the scene” (Johansen, 83). This abandonment of history resembles the purpose of the myth, for myth is a retelling of history, usually through a means of falseness or alteration. The myth takes pride in its abandonment of all things true.
Not only does the story seem to be a metaphor for myth, but the character of Rip, himself, does as well. In the story, Rip is a kind of handy man where he is always ready to accommodate his neighbors whenever his assistance is needed, therefore always serving the needs of the common people. Yet he never attends his own: “In a word, Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own” (Irving, 943). Rip’s wife, Dame Van Winkle, on the other hand, is an extremely hard worker who only attends to the work concerning her and her family. She holds true to her protestant ethics, but scolds Rip for not holding true to his own. Because of this, she is Rip’s only opponent throughout the tale. And when the ghostlike crew of Hendrick Hudson causes him to sleep through the period of intense political upheaval, he also happens to sleep through the remainder of his wife’s life too. Her death is symbolic of the way myth tends to kill or leave behind the historical truth. Which means that his wife is a metaphor for history, making Rip the metaphor for myth.
Like myth, Rip is simple and easy to understand, whereas history is complicated and harsh and it tends to get straight down to business, which is similar to Rip’s busy wife, Dame. For the reason that myth is simple and definitive, it becomes accessible by all, especially that of the common people (Rip loved to serve the common people). Romantic authors, such as Irving, wanted their characters “to speak as the natural aristocrats the country desperately needed but had proscribed from office, and it seemed fitting that a… hero surviving as an anachronism in the present day should tell how much the times and ways of the United States were out of joint” (Yoder, 505). In other words, a character such as Rip Van Winkle serving as a mediator between the mythical and historical experiences is perfect because the common people can identify with him more than they could with a scholar or a historian. According to Henry Steele Commager, the generation that gave us “indubitably the most profound and eloquent political treatises of our literature, from the Declaration of Independence… to the debates in the… Federalist Papers, gave us not a single formal historical work that anyone but a scholar can remember” or understand (Commager, 17). To put it simply, true history is complicated and can be difficult for the common folk to comprehend which is why myths tend to flourish.
Myths make sense because they teach through example. They thrive, “especially in America, [because] it was morality that was important, not facts” (Commager, 19). The romantics, in particular, “thought of history not as we customarily think of it, as the reconstruction of the past, but as a moral enterprise” (19). Who is to say then that Irving’s (or should I say Knickerbocker’s) myth cannot be considered history for “history is [just] philosophy teaching by examples” (19). America was desperately in need of a past after all. And of course, there was a very distinct reason why Americans needed a past, and that was because they were engaged in creating a new nation. Nationalism is, needless to observe, the political equivalent of romanticism. The romantics took it upon themselves to create a past, real or unreal, in order to provide the nation with an appropriate cultural and psychological foundation such as what we get in “Rip Van Winkle.”
All in all, though, it would seem that “Rip Van Winkle” is a myth about a myth written by a myth. And where is Irving in this mess? He is at the top of it all, telling us to forget about what’s true and what’s not, for the historical identity of the nation is at stake. Moreover, as a nation, we must ask ourselves the question of how do we want to remember our American predecessors. Not as failures, but as winners of course. Robert Ferguson notes that we “continue to hold Rip in such high esteem because he is a failure that succeeds” (Ferguson, 529). In that sense, Rip Van Winkle is a winner and so it can be said that myths such as this one, as well as the many others (like the myth of the Wild West for instance), “formed our [American] character as winners” (Christensen, 313). And so it can ultimately be said that Washington Irving and his utterly confusing framework and artistic methods have all helped in creating an American “history” that benefited both the people and the nation and, consequentially, has left us, as readers and critics, utterly perplexed and lost. The question of whether the story of “Rip Van Winkle” is history or myth is indecipherable for the falsehoods are as indistinguishable from the certainties as the certainties are from the falsehoods.