Rip Van Winkle as a Personal Biography of Washington Irving
Washington Irving: Seen Through Rip Van Winkle’s Eyes
“Rip Van Winkle” is a fictional American short story, written by Washington Irving under the pseudonym of ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker.’ Perhaps the pseudonym was a product of Irving wanting to maintain his privacy and avoid the societal shame of pursuing an ‘artistic’ career; or, perhaps, the name was an inside joke between Irving and those who knew him. Throughout the short story, we can see Irving’s personality showing through the titular character, Rip. Irving’s own ego, and almost playful confidence, are read in Rip’s character. However, just as the character personifies some of Irving’s more childish attributes, Rip also represents Irving’s own shortcomings and apprehensions. While the story is, by no means, an autobiographical piece, one cannot deny the parallels made throughout the story, whether they were intentional on Irving’s part or not.
To summarize Irving’s masterpiece, “Rip Van Winkle,” one could start by saying that Rip is written an attractive and lively man; well-liked and willing to do anything for the people around him, yet he remains incapable of helping himself or working on his own farm and preforming his patriarchal duties. Rip is described as escaping from family duty under the pretense of feeling as if his work on the puny farm would be futile, no matter how hard he works. Faithful to Irving’s own animosity towards marriage, Rip is written as an unhappily married man. Describing him as ‘henpecked’ –subject to persistent nagging or domination, the wife being the ‘pecker’ and the husband being the ‘pecked’ – we read Rip as trying to be a classic patriarch in a matriarch-dominated environment. However, Rip’s lazy nature impede his journey to fulfilling his own views on ‘ultimate masculinity,’ per se. After disappearing into the woods for twenty years, in search of his stolen possessions and lost dog, Rip finally returns home. After one night in the woods, growing hungry and nervous, Rip decides to return home. As he walks through town, sensing that something is different, Rip discovers that he is confused, he wasn’t in the woods for one evening, rather he was there for twenty years! Rip is now old, fashioning a long, grey beard, and wandering through town, looking for any familiar signs of his old life when he comes across his daughter, and is caught up on the last twenty years. At first, no one believes him; a strange, confused man claims the impossible has happened, believing that the past twenty years for the town seemed as one singular night for him. But after an old member of the village confirms that he is, indeed, Rip Van Winkle, Rip becomes the beloved town patriarch he always longed to be. He becomes the wise voice of the town, the voice of a country before the war. He settles back into his routine, living with his now married daughter, and free from his, now, late wife. Rip’s tale ends with the titular character being a free man, and a legend in his own right. As we analyze this story, we can find similarities between the fictional Rip and his creator, Washington Irving.
Irving, himself, was a bit of a rebel in his own right. Born in New York City in 1783, Irving was named after George Washington, himself, tying him to the classic ‘hero’ image from birth. He didn’t necessarily honor his family name by becoming a writer. From our studies, we understand that Irving faced challenges in the culture of his time. Value was not given to literary pursuits, but to masculine attributes, instead. Not only did his parents not support him, but the financial benefit of being a writer in the 1820s was, essentially, non-existent. Due to the U.S. not having any copyright laws, it was cheaper to make British copies than paying U.S authors. This caused fictional writings to be a rare commodity during the Jacksonian Era Irving lived through. He was a privately educated man, writing under pseudonyms from an early age. Initially using the name Jonathan Oldstyle, he wrote essays for the Morning Chronicle. While his parents didn’t necessarily support his pursuits, the Morning Chronicle was edited by Irving’s older brother, Peter. While in school, Irving was not a diligent student. Although he was a writer in his heart, Irving did attempt to pursue a career that would make his family proud: the practice of law. He barely passed the bar exam in New York in 1806. He went on to indulge in his creative impulses, collaborating with a friend, James Kirke Paulding, as well as Irving’s eldest brother, William. They teamed up to produce and publish a periodical on humorous essays, titled Salamagundi. He ultimately found a job as editor of Analectic Magazine. Furthermore, he participated in the military efforts during the War of 1812. Irving was a great supporter of literary pursuits and the legacy he left behind supports this. He is ultimately considered the first true American writer, and used his legislative knowledge to push for stronger laws to protect American writers from copyright infringement.
Due to the unique challenges Irving faced as a pioneer in American fictional prose, his style is equally unique and fascinating to analyze. According to Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky, Irving suffered from intense personal trauma, as explained by the following quote from Dorsky’s research on Irving and his fictional work:
… plagued by deep personal problems, Irving saw that as he adopted the form he could simultaneously adapt it to his own psychological purposes. Although consecutive losses of loved ones and the failure of the family business traumatized him, they were also responsible for the personal resonance of his sketch, … his famous miscellany were attempts at self-discovery and evaluation, taking for their substance his actual physical and emotional experiences…
In other words, Irving was one of the early fictional authors to successfully use his own personal tragedies and psychological traumas in his favor. He was able to direct his feelings of anxiety and such into his work, producing powerful pieces of fiction such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and, of course, “Rip Van Winkle.” With this information, one could justly conclude that Irving’s style opened the door for American writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, to use their damaged psyche as material for their art. This phenomenon can also be attributed to the different pseudonyms Irving adopts throughout his career as a writer. He is hiding his identity, yet finding a way to express his own reflections on life, politics, family, etc. According to Rubin-Dorsky, one of Irving’s pseudonyms, like Geoffrey Crayon or Diedrich Knickerbocker, allowed Irving to document his own emotions within a narrative framework, often mirroring his own experiences, thoughts and beliefs through a ‘safety-net’ of sorts.
The quick summary above on Washington Irving’s life, career, and writing style are important to keep in mind when reading his stories. In this case, we will be focusing on of “Rip Van Winkle.” Rip is introduced to the reader with a deliciously descriptive presentation of Rip’s home, Catskill Mountains. Here, we immediately isolate the characteristics of American Romanticism. Irving’s almost flowery writing style sets the tone for this folky tale of a Dutch legend, Rip Van Winkle. We can tell that Irving put much thought and passion into his word choice. Take the following sentence, for example: “At the foot of these fairy mountains the voyager may have descried the light smoke curling up from a village whose shingle roofs gleam among the trees, just where the blue tints of upland melt away into the fresh green of the nearer landscape.” Note the descriptive language in the sentence; we can clearly project an image of these magical mountains, housing a smoky haze at its base, due to the village below; we can see in the distance the promise of greenery and pastoral beauty. And the story is littered with sentences like this, making it no secret that Irving had an affinity for a romantic description of the pastoral and legendary, alike.
Perhaps just as telling as his language choice, the character of Rip and his development throughout the story, too, serve as a tell-all about Irving and his inner self. Rip is a well-like member of his town, always putting others and their requests above his own responsibilities at home. He is victimized by the narrator, as it is emphasized that he is suffering from the nagging of his wife and the fruitless bounty of his land. No matter how hard he works, according to the tale, Rip considers it useless and futile to work on his farm, claiming it to be “the most pestilent little piece of ground in the whole country.” This ‘too-hard-to-try” attitude can be considered childish and immature on Rip’s part. While we don’t necessarily attribute these characteristics with Irving, it could be possible that Irving was showing a small part of himself through Rip’s personality. After all, we are our own worst critic; it is then fair to say that Irving might be poking fun at himself, in a way, for not being a very good student and his close-call with the bar exam. This is not Rip’s only flaw, however. He is also described as “meek” in spirit, showing cowardice in the face of danger, like when he is robbed by natives. This ‘meekness’ is not Rip’s fault, per the text. Just like he creates excuses for the barren land he can’t possibly work on, and the home and family duties he can’t possibly fulfill, his impressionability and underwhelming confidence can be blamed on his nagging wife. Matrimony is a noteworthy theme in the story, and is painted in a negative light.
The reader of “Rip Van Winkle” never gets to meet the nagging wife described throughout the story. However, she is mentioned in passing many times, and always in a negative light. The narrator even explains how Rip must often seek refuge from her and her henpecking. Observe the following quote from our subject piece – pay close attention to the language choice, again – “For a long while he used to console himself, when driven from home, by frequenting a kind of perpetual club of sages, philosophers and other idle personages of the village …” Take note of the phrases used, like ‘driven from home’ and the escapist quality of Rip seeking happiness and comfort in others, away from his home and family – home and family being the usual place in which one finds solace. We might say that this detail of the short story might be reflective of Irving and his own views on marriage. Sources confirm that after the death of his fiancé, Matilda Hoffmann, Irving never became engaged again and never married. Perhaps this tragedy in Irving’s romantic life was treated therapeutically by his writing of an extremely dislikable character, Dame Van Winkle, belittling the marital institution he would never participate in. Whatever his motivation, it is clear from his writing that Irving never planned to get married again and had no problem exposing the problems of marital relations, however one-sided they may be.
An interesting point to make, as we move forward in our analysis of Irving and “Rip Van Winkle,” is the theme of masculinity and patriarchal power in the self and in the community. An important character to keep in mind is Nicholas Vedder, a confirmed patriarch in Rip’s village. Nicholas is the landlord of the inn Rip and his colleagues meet at, when Rip wants to escape his wife and own patriarchal duties at home. Nicholas is a constant in the village; it is even mentioned that “the neighbors could tell the hour by his movements as accurately as by a sun-dial.” He had a great following in the village of people who ‘perfectly understood him’ and essentially held on to his every word. Even as Nicholas is described as a man of few words, his followers could tell his opinion through his gestures while smoking from his pipe. So important is Nicholas Vedder and the meetings at his inn, that when Rip’s wife takes away his freedom to engage in this activity, we come to the turning point of the story.
“Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative, to escape from the labor of the farm and clamor of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods.” This quote from the story marks the shift in Rip’s tale. Here, the narrator is telling us that Rip has reached his breaking point, after his wife forbids him from going to the inn and joining in the communal activity of meeting there and discussing gossip amongst colleagues. In order to maintain some sense of masculinity and freedom, Rip convinces himself that the ‘manliest’ route to pursue would be to take his dog, named Wolf, and his gun into the woods and living off the land for a while. While Rip would like to believe that this is the beginning of personal growth – an act of defiance against his controlling wife – it is still uniquely immature and irresponsible for a father and husband to abandon his family indefinitely, going off to seek some sort of self-fulfillment. Not to mention that this escape from his responsibilities does not work out the way he hoped. Even after twenty years (although, it felt like one night to Rip), he remains in constant fear of his wife, fearing that she mill show up and he will again hear “the shrill voice of Dame Van Winkle.” Here we can again draw a parallel between Rip and Irving. We can recall that Irving’s profession as a writer was not a well-respected career during his lifetime. Perhaps these feelings of not being professional enough, or respected enough by his society, encouraged Irving to write about a man in a similar position; also trapped in a non-nurturing environment. Irving, like Rip, wanted to be successful and felt as though he deserved the title of a capable gentleman, but existed in a society in which his particular personality and set of skills were not deemed respectable. As popular as Rip may be considered in his village, he is still not the ‘alpha-male’ he longs to be. To understand how Rip’s only sources of approval is not a reliable one, we must further dissect the characters in his tale, and the personal message Irving may be trying to send as the author.
While Rip is well-liked by the town, it is almost exclusively by children and his dog, Wolf. What can be said about a man who’s actions are praised, exclusively, by children and dogs? It can be observed that Rip, like Irving, did not have support from the authoritative figures in his life. Recurring themes in Rip’s story are, again, evident here: immaturity and escapism. Rip is looking for any sort of approval, so much so that it is enough for a grown man to feel the praise of children, and be satisfied with this as a valid form of approval for his way of life. Escapism is also a present theme; the presence of children, in this context, can project feelings of whimsical expression and a childish understanding of what it is to be a village patriarch and respected ‘man,’ in the traditional sense. Taking into consideration what we understand about Irving, we can infer that perhaps Irving is making a satirical comment here. By choosing to be a writer in his era, Irving failed to honor his family with a sensible career to provide for himself and his family. By creating a character who is only capable of receiving approval from naïve children, perhaps this Irving is telling the reader that the entire concept of traditional masculinity is childish, from his unique stand point. To simplify, Rip going off into the woods alone, with his dog and his gun in hand, is the manliest action to take, from Rip’s viewpoint. However, Irving pokes holes in this theory, subtly telling his audience that Rip is an untrustworthy source when studying how to be an ‘alpha male’. The topic of approval from a higher power is repeated throughout the story, from Nicholas Vedder, to Peter Vanderdonk – two important men when it comes to Rip and his patriarchal hierarchy.
Nicholas Vedder, as we’ve discussed, is a village patriarch in Catskill Mountains, and we get the sense that he may be someone Rip admires. The way that Nicholas is painted in the story is important when understanding why he could be considered one of Rip’s role models. To someone like Rip, seeking approval and attempting to achieve his definition of masculinity, Nicholas Vedder would be a great role model. Nicholas is an important figure in the village, per the text. He is deemed as one of the village patriarchs and is always present and attentive at the inn meetings he hosts. Not only does Nicholas’ character serve as a goal, of sorts, to Rip, but he is also used to emphasize Rip’s lack of masculinity and importance. This point is supported by the presence and actions of another character in the story, Peter Vanderdonk. Peter appears after Rip’s twenty-year sojourn into the woods. He is brought in to confirm that Rip is who he claims to be. We can take the following text into consideration, to understand how Peter’s presence in the story further serves to discredit Rip as a trustworthy man:
It was determined, however to take the opinion of old Peter Vanderdonk… He was a descendant of the historian of that name, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the province. Peter was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood… He recollected Rip at once, and corroborated his story in the most satisfactory manner.
Once again, Rip is emasculated, in a way, when his own daughter and the village inhabitants do not take him at his word. He is told that his wife has passed, and is jubilated enough to tell his story and explain that he is, in fact, Rip Van Winkle. While his tale is a fantastic one and admittedly hard to believe, it is no coincidence that another man, with much more credentials than Rip, and obviously, a high member of society in the village, was sought out to ‘approve’ Rip and confirm that he can be welcomed back into the village. As far as understand these events from Irving’s point of view, we can say that he just wanted to emphasize the point that Rip is not in the hierarchy of patriarch in his village, or perhaps Nicholas and Peter are surrogates for Irving’s own father.
Irving’s own father was a ‘man’s man.’ Having served in the revolutionary war, it is understandable that he was not elated to discover one of his sons had decided to be an artist. Not only did his youngest son not go to college, but he gave up a career in law when his publications began to take off. Irving, as a writer, could understandably choose to create a character in “Rip Van Winkle” who served the traditional “father” or “patriarch” role to an entire village. Not to mention that Rip is subject to both, Nicholas’ and Peter’s approval, as Irving was subject to his father’s. The final point to make here would be, although both Rip and Irving fulfilled their dreams of patriarchal hierarchy and a successful career, respectively, it can be considered that this was only a superficial triumph, for both. Rip’s story makes him a village legend, and his knowledge of a prewar era was valued among the villages. However, the text informs us that, even after Peter’s approval, many continued to question Rip and his tale. Following the idea that Irving is showing himself through Rip, we may conclude that Irving never felt as though he truly succeeded in living as both an artist, and a patriarchal figure in his society. He never received the approval he so craved.
To conclude, “Rip Van Winkle” is a tale about a man trying to be more than that. But even when the men in the village begin to seek out Rip’s company, after being henpecked by their own wives and seeking kindred spirits, Rip is still thought of as a sort of ‘village nut.’ Always changing his story and varying on different points, as he retells it, again and again, Rip is forever mistrusted by his fellow villagers. He remains obsessed with the one thing that makes him interesting to others, whether they believe him or not; telling “his story to every stranger that arrived at Dr. Doolittle’s hotel,” Rip now sits where Nicholas Vedder would, in the same inn, achieving a small piece of the masculine and patriarchal role he always romanticized. The writer of the piece, Washington Irving, has many attributes similar Rip, and is known for using his writing as a form of expression for his own thoughts and emotions. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for us to conclude that Irving used Rip as a vessel for communicating his own opinions on marriage, masculinity, and the traditional roles of the patriarch.
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