Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving, 1820

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by Washington Irving, 1820

"Rip Van Winkle" may be the most important short story ever written. Though the text is routinely misread—books seldom reprint the story as Washington Irving wrote it—and though the story's comic tone tends to deflect serious criticism, it remains one of the world's great short stories, a peer of Gogol's "The Overcoat" and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."

Historically, "Rip Van Winkle" sparked the success of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which assured the reputation of Irving and for the first time in history made American literature worthy of international esteem. Never has a single short story been more responsible for establishing a rising culture's literary respectability. Since 1820 virtually no American has been able to write in ignorance of "Rip Van Winkle." Irving's story sowed literary seed reaped in future decades, for the pattern of Rip's tall tale swallowed whole by the overeducated, outsider Knickerbocker helped ground frontier humor, a literary mode that began to flourish in the 1830s and that reached a climax in Rip's illegitimate offspring, Huckleberry Finn. The local color movement that dominated American literature after the Civil War followed the example "Rip Van Winkle" had set in highlighting peculiarities of local mores, fashions, geography, and folklore.

Since Joseph Jefferson first staged the story as an immensely popular play late in the nineteenth century, "Rip Van Winkle" has metamorphosed into films, television programs, cartoons, child-ren's books, and songs, appearing in virtually every conceivable medium. Within a century the story's central motif—Rip's startled waking to a changed world after 20 years—has entered world folklore, and only a tiny number of stories can claim a similar grip on the global imagination.

More important from a literary perspective, before "Rip Van Winkle" the short story as a genre did not really exist in Western literature. Tales abounded, as did countless other versions of brief narrative, but before 1820 short stories in the modern sense appeared as rarely and with as little impact as European visitors to America before Christopher Columbus. Irving created the modern short story by marking Western literature's first cross-fertilization of the tale tradition and the essay-sketch tradition.

From the tale tradition Irving borrowed dramatic incident, the long sleep and astonished waking, as the formal skeleton. In the story's ultimate note the muddleminded Knickerbocker denies, thus encouraging us to believe, that the story actually originated in Teutonic folklore. (H. A. Pochman names an old German tale, "Peter Klaus the Goatherd.") Historically, similar strong patterns of incidents dominated the tale tradition and most short fiction before "Rip Van Winkle."

From the essay-sketch tradition, specifically the scenic sketch, Irving borrowed the subtly detailed descriptions of place that dominate the first two paragraphs following the opening headnote. In fact, the story at first almost masquerades as a travel sketch: "Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember." A second category of sketch, the character sketch, dominates the next few paragraphs. Tellers of tales habitually rushed from incident to incident, but Irving seems to value characterization for its own sake, his phrasing graceful, sophisticated, and unhurried. Such detailed observation of places and people had virtually no place in the tradition of the tale before "Rip Van Winkle."

Perhaps the element from the essay-sketch tradition Irving adapted most fruitfully was the narrative persona. In the romantic period the familiar, or personal, essay peaked in popularity, the central feature being an intimate sense of voice, the experience of a psychologically rich personality revealing deeply personal thoughts and feelings to the reader. The close analysis of self that familiar essayists exploited, Irving diverted toward his central character, Rip. More than any other, this technical shift transformed the tale into the modern short story.

We see the technique most clearly from the point at which Rip wakes. Earlier the story largely focuses on the world Rip experiences; afterward the story highlights Rip's experience of that world. Rip's first perceptions of difference, which are closely described, tend to be external, relatively unimportant, and easily explained: a rusty old gun in place of a new, the disappearance of his dog, stiffness in his joints, and a stream flowing in a previously dry gully. Rip grows increasingly disturbed to discover social differences—a crowd of new faces in the village and unaccustomed fashions in clothing—and astonished to discover a beard on his own chin. He then observes more momentous changes. The village's buildings have altered, as have the names on the houses, and his own home has utterly decayed. Despite never deserting his comic tone, Irving subtly guides the story toward profound darkness when Rip discovers that his family has disappeared. The ultimate shock occurs when Rip tries to reclaim his name and identity; skeptical villagers point to an apparent double of Rip himself as he looked when he disappeared 20 years before. His confused despair climaxing in a moment of profound psychic horror, Rip fears himself lost in madness: "I'm not myself … I can't tell what's my name, or who I am!" Lear could sympathize.

The story's beneficent comic tone refuses to desert Rip, however, and the pattern of graduated losses reverses to one of dramatic gains. Rip's now grown daughter appears, the apparent double turns out to be Rip's son, and in a crowning bit of luck Rip learns that his shrewish wife recently died when she "broke a blood-vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler." Rip ultimately claims a post of honor at the inn, surrounded by a few old cronies and making a career of weaving his yarn.

The description above outlines the core story most readers recognize, but Irving's frame—headnote, endnote, and postscript—identify the story's putative author, Diedrich Knickerbocker, as a naive dunderhead who has swallowed hook, line, and sinker a fantastic tale that locals themselves are sensible enough to discredit. The core story's last line asserts that the neighborhood's henpecked husbands often yearn for a drink of the flagon that released Rip from his nagging wife. Read in the version Irving published, the story leaves little room for doubt that Rip simply ran away from home, returned on his shrewish wife's death 20 years later, and invented a preposterous story to explain his absence.

If we read "Rip Van Winkle" without the headnote, endnote, and postscript, we seem to have an omniscient narrator's endorsement of the six paragraphs that deal with the supernatural crew and magic draught of wine. If we read the full story, we understand that the only narrative authority for the supernatural events is the knuckleheaded Knickerbocker. The skillful metafictional play helps make "Rip Van Winkle" more than Western civilization's first significant short story and more than one of the best ever written. After generations of readers the story still seems to be one of the most modern.

—Walter Evans