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«Early American Literature, Volume 40, Number 3, 2005, pp. 529-544 (Article) Published by The University of North Carolina Press DOI: ...»

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Rip Van Winkle and the Generational Divide in American Culture

Ferguson, Robert A., 1942-

Early American Literature, Volume 40, Number 3, 2005, pp. 529-544


Published by The University of North Carolina Press

DOI: 10.1353/eal.2005.0051

For additional information about this article


Access Provided by University of Athens (or National and Kapodistrian Univ. of Athens) at 05/30/12 2:10PM GMT

robert a. ferguson Columbia University Rip Van Winkle and the Generational Divide in American Culture Rip Van Winkle prospers as an American literary hero and an international favorite from the moment he appears in Washington Irving’s Sketch Book from 1819. Leading critics do not exaggerate by much when they claim that Rip ‘‘presides over the birth of the American imagination’’ (Fiedler 6) as the ‘‘guardian angel’’ and ‘‘symbol of the mythic American’’ (Leary 22–23).1 These phrases do more than praise. The imagination is the seat of low thoughts as well as high. Guardian angels protect the unwary from ruin and evil. Myths explore alternative sides of a mystery. We con- tinue to hold Rip in such high esteem because he is a failure that succeeds and because his failure indicates something about us that we can face only indirectly. That he gets away with failure is a great relief.

Everyone knows the story of the henpecked but lovable and comic vaga- bond who wanders away from Sleepy Hollow into the Kaatskill Mountains to return 20 years later with the excuse that he has just awakened after drinking out of the flagon of Hendrick Hudson. The fantasy involved is clear enough, but it is told from the irascible point of view of a highly suspect historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Elaborately qualified in three addenda to the body of the tale (a preamble, an added note, and a postscript), Knickerbocker operates as one of the first exercises in ambi- guity of American fiction. The device forces the reader into a game of levels—levels that confuse but also protect us from our worst fears and thoughts.2 For although Rip’s failures are evident, he manages to solve problems that we cannot solve. Moreover, the remaining problem that his solution leaves us with is one that tells us more about ourselves than it does about either Rip or Diedrich Knickerbocker, or Washington Irving. ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ unfolds as a story of many meanings, and it speaks through them to every new generation of readers.

The man who wanders into the hills has refused to accept adult respon- sibility in his community. He plays at work instead of working. Rip has { 529 early american literature: volume 40, number 3 530 } allowed his farm to fall into wrack and ruin, and he does little to provide for a large and growing family, which explains at least some of the shrewish behavior assigned to his wife. As the imputed explanation of Rip’s flight, Dame Van Winkle never receives so much as the courtesy of her full name.

The only other trait ascribed to her comes late in the story after she is dead:

we enter with Rip on his return into her deserted house, ‘‘which, to tell the truth, Dame Van Winkle always kept in neat order.’’ 3 The familial discrepancy noted here is a significant one. Rip is the one who has failed to hold up his end.4 A symbol of American infancy and misplaced innocence, he is the adolescent who refuses to grow up and gets away with it. The success of the story that he tells on his return to Sleepy Hollow allows him to pass conveniently from childhood to second childhood without assuming the obligations of maturity in between. Rip, at this superficial level, embodies an escapist mentality. He is the dreamy alternative in a culture driven by mundane prosperity and social conformity.5 All of these matters have been noted at length by readers over the years, but surprisingly little attention has been given to the device that allows Rip to remain a comic hero. Lovable Rip trumps irresponsible Rip only because he is taken care of. Vulnerable and out of control on his return, he needs help. All ends well because other people decide to come to his aid, but their decision is notably complex and a close call. Exactly how Rip comes to be taken care of will be our main subject here. Consider, for the moment, an alternative ending that is hinted at in Irving’s story. As before, the preternaturally old and bewildered Rip returns to a bustling republican town instead of the quiet colonial village of Sleepy Hollow. He wears tattered out-of-date clothes, sports a grisly unkempt beard, and carries a rusty flintlock. He is clearly a homeless person and possibly a dangerous one. Again the once friendly children and dogs hoot and snarl at him, and again he angers the villagers by failing to understand the Revolution that has taken place during his absence. But in this darker version, the villagers, ‘‘a mob at his heels,’’ do not wait for explanations and follow their original inclinations. They ‘‘hustle him’’ out of town.

As before, Rip has alarmed the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow. He is an uncouth stranger bearing a gun on a controversial election day, an unwelcome vagrant with no visible means of support, and he turns alarm into open hostility as ‘‘a tory’’ and ‘‘a spy’’ when he unwittingly declares loyalty to King George against ‘‘the spirit of 76.’’ What if these same villagers Rip Van Winkle { 531 act upon their first fears and spurn their former neighbor as ‘‘a Refugee’’?

Irving has told us that Rip is ‘‘famished.’’ He has returned because ‘‘it would not do to starve among the mountains.’’ Forced out of town to beg for his bread and perhaps to die of hunger and exposure, this less fortunate adaptation of Rip paints a decidedly uncomic figure, and Irving means for his readers to see the possibility. An opportune village leader keeps the mob from acting but only ‘‘with great difficulty.’’ In Irving’s words, ‘‘[T]he selfimportant man in the cocked hat restored order, and having assumed a ten fold austerity of brow demanded again of the unknown culprit, what he came there for and whom he was seeking.’’ The pompous interrogator’s questions are hostile, even cowardly, ones, but they hold the mob at bay just long enough for Irving’s happy ending to unfurl.

The ending, in effect, is doubly fortuitous. First, it requires the right individuals to show up in proper order for the bewildered Rip to find his way in a community that has dismissed all thought of him. Second, the same chance chronology of appearance, all in minor characters, encourages the unreceptive villagers to believe Rip’s outlandish tale of hibernation even though it runs against every probability known to human existence.

Never a realist, Washington Irving always keeps the practical explanations for behavior lurking in the shadows as part of the twist in his humor, and for that reason, it does not destroy the comic effect to ask what a realist would have understood about Rip’s situation. Indeed, there is considerable craft in Irving’s constant juxtaposition of the fantastic against the real in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’—a craft that stages Rip’s communal metamorphosis from shunned pariah into an instant hero ‘‘reverenced as one of the patriarchs.’’ The best example of the way in which Irving layers meaning between the imaginary and the actual is also the most important. It comes in the tag to his story. For even though some inhabitants continue to ‘‘doubt the reality’’ of Rip’s explanation, they all note ‘‘a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.’’ A humdrum certainty competes with whimsy in this final quip. The truth of the matter is that Rip has been an alcoholic on a 20-year binge, and many aspects of the story lend themselves to that explanation. In the end, the knowing villagers assign the flagon to Rip, not to Hendrick Hudson, and their identification raises a factual basis within the fairy tale.

early american literature: volume 40, number 3 532 } Studies of the use of alcohol in the United States calculate that consumption per capita reaches its highest point during the first third of the nineteenth century, the same years in which Irving wrote his most important fiction, including ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’ Endemic drinking, to be sure, is a natural source of humor everywhere, and it should surprise no one to find it a prominent subject in Irving’s satires between 1807 and 1819. Nor was the writer alone in identifying the phenomenon. Irving’s contemporaries saw intemperance as ‘‘the fashionable vice of the day.’’ Visitors from Europe claimed ‘‘no other people ever indulged, so universally.’’ The early republic, said some, ‘‘was fast becoming a nation of drunkards.’’ Of course, male citizens, like Rip, were not the only imbibers, but they made up the population that most frequently drank to excess in public. ‘‘White males were taught to drink as children, even as babies,’’ and a ‘‘male drinking cult pervaded all social and occupational groups.’’ The same studies of early American drinking habits replicate the male drinking cult as it appears in ‘‘Rip Van Winkle.’’ The typical village inn of the day did accept guests, but the lion’s share of its business came through local regulars who gathered to share their purchases of liquor on the spot, a convivial practice in which ‘‘every man was expected to treat in turn’’ (Rorabaugh 5–16, 225–30).6 It is not hard to place Rip Van Winkle within this early republican cult of drink. Rip frequents the local inn whenever possible along with ‘‘other idle personages’’ who tell ‘‘endless sleepy stories about nothing.’’ The ‘‘habits of idleness’’ that he enjoys at the village tavern would have included his share of drink until he is routed from ‘‘the assemblage’’ by his wife, who thereby breaks the custom of each drinker treating in turn. Dame Van Winkle’s interruption would also have left an imbalance in accountable shares that could only have added to Rip’s public embarrassment—perhaps explaining why he does not return. Along the way, the reader also learns that Rip is ‘‘foremost man in all country frolicks,’’ that he attends to ‘‘any body’s business but his own,’’ that his patrimonial estate, once considerable, has ‘‘dwindled away under his management, acre by acre,’’ that what remains is ‘‘the worst conditioned farm in the neighbourhood,’’ that his children become ‘‘as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody,’’ that times in general ‘‘grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle,’’ and that Rip lives every aspect of his life carelessly as ‘‘one of those happy mortals of foolish, well oiled dispositions.’’ The code words of drink and its consequences are everywhere in these descriptions, and they provide an explanation for Rip’s Rip Van Winkle { 533 mysterious lack of success. Habitual drinking keeps him from the steady application that every good farm requires. Similar accounts are familiar fodder in the temperance narratives of the period.

Rip’s propensities are important because they explain his confrontation with drink in the Kaatskills. Hesitant when first summoned up the hill at twilight by an ominous-looking stranger dressed in ‘‘antique Dutch fashion,’’ Rip joins anyway when he notes that the stranger ‘‘bore on his shoulder a stout keg that seemed full of liquor.’’ In the ensuing ‘‘frolick’’ or ‘‘evening’s gambol,’’ phrases that suggest regular experience, he lives in the exaggeration of the moment that his drinking companions provide: ‘‘One had a large head, broad face and small piggish eyes. The face of another seemed to consist entirely of nose.’’ These distortions merge in the fog of

Rip’s own drunkenness:

He was naturally a thirsty soul and was soon tempted to repeat the draught. One taste provoked another, and he reiterated his visits to the flagon so often that at length his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head—his head gradually declined and he fell into a deep sleep.

Rip, like many drunks with a hangover, wakes to blame his difficulties on ‘‘that flagon! That wicked flagon!’’ Everything else is the fault of the companions who ‘‘dosed him with liquor’’ before cheating him. Similar to other married men on an extended spree, he then worries about how he will explain himself and his condition to the person that he has let down and ignored. ‘‘I shall have a blessed time,’’ he moans, ‘‘with Dame Van Winkle.’’ Irving arranges these classic rationalizations of the drinker to correspond with Rip’s descent from the magic of the night into the light of day.

Exposing Rip as a problem drinker tramples on some of the fun in Irving’s lightly styled and subtly rendered fairy tale. Yet, in a deeper sense, the real fun, as well as the power of the underlying story, lies here in the writer’s conflation of fantastic and realistic explanations. The synergy between lovable Rip and alcoholic Rip resonates within other contrasts. The mythic extension in the figure, as well as the timeless appeal of the story, flows from the play between perspectives even as they carry us beyond the humor of the plot. We value Rip most of all because we find something of our own foibles in him, not because we worry about drink or because we fear an encounter with Hendrick Hudson when we enter the Kaatskill 534 } early american literature: volume 40, number 3 Mountains. Rip’s faults—his laziness, his unconcern, his ability to rationalize away every trouble—are our own bad habits carried to extremes.

Irving keeps to the lighter side of these extremes. He isolates Rip from the problems that his faults create. With each difficulty minimized, Rip’s decision to opt out, his stubborn capacity to live life on his own terms, and his ability to win out over the system turn into attractive traits.

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