“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.