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American Literature 101: Awakening to the New Nation, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving


The main aim of the American Literature 101 series is to offer readers prominent authors and their impacts on their time. With their distinctive powers and values, American Literature brought a new impact to world literature. Consisting of different races and identities from all around the world, the United States of America both culturally and literarily has an important place in the world. Key elements are individuality and uniqueness, hence the reader can understand the hidden part of human nature. The huge divergent identical background of the United States of America shows the exceptional nation’s culture and literature. With the corresponding texts, the reader can understand the core of the American culture better. Writers of the United States of America have been gathering striking issues throughout centuries.

American Literature series consist of five main articles:

1. American Literature 101: Awakening to the New Nation, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

2. American Literature 101: New American Hero Natty Bumppo, The Pioneers by James Cooper

3. American Literature 101: Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4. American Literature 101: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville

5. American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James

American Literature 101: Awakening to the New Nation, Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

The most important thing that makes the nation permanent is literature. The key of every country throughout history is to make a difference. Because of that, since the beginning of humanity, every nation has been producing its literature to introduce their culture all around the world. There is an undeniable truth that one nation can maintain its influence with help of literature. As mentions in The North-American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, ‘’National literature seems to be the product, the legitimate product, of a national language.’’ Aiming to become one of the greatest nations in the world, America questioned, ‘What is the lacking in America?’ and the answer was quite explicit: written account. They needed both historical and literary elements to contribute to the creation of this ‘new nation’.

Washington Irving

Born in 1783 in New York City, Washington Irving came from a Scottish-English family and according to Edwin W. Bowen, ‘’Washington Irving [was] properly accorded the first place among the pioneers in American literature.’’ He moved to England in 1815; however, after the company that he worked became bankrupt, he turned his attention into writing. He was a great observer of European literature, hence he was impacted while writing Rip Van Winkle. As Irving said, ‘’We are young people, necessarily an imitative one, and must take our examples and models, in a great degree, from the existing nations of Europe.’’ Therefore, he borrowed the origin of Rip Van Winkle from a German folk tale titled "Karl Katz." and published it in 1819. The reason for borrowing was the lack of specific American themes and issues at the time. However, Washington Irving strewed American features into Rip Van Winkle and made the story belonged to the American Nation. He became the first person to use the short story form of fiction and gained international respect for American Literature, noted for his contributions to a burgeoning national literature.

The opening of the story begins with the assertions made by historian Diedrich Knickerbocker, who is asserting the truth of Rip Van Winkle. His goal is to pursue ‘true history,’ and after he's dead, the story of Rip Van Winkle is found in his documentary. The timeline of the story starts before the American Revolution arose between British rule and the 13 American colonies, resulting in the triumph of the colonies. The story takes place in the village that remains between the Catskill mountains, discovered by Dutch settlers. Living in Pre-Revolution America, Rip Van Winkle is a character idling around his village and refuses to complete his responsibilities. He drifts through in life without any mission and contribution. Even though Rip is good-tempered and friendly with himself, he refuses Puritan work ethic, and he can not determine any justification for working constantly. However, he is generous about helping his neighbors and friends in the field; he makes uselessness only towards his own family. He runs away from his wife’s scolding and prefers to talk with his friends in the Inn where individuals gather for conversation about a wide range of staff. As Irving mentions in the story, ‘’ [Rip consoled] himself ... [at] a kind of perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle[rs] of the village ... on a bench [by] a small inn.’’ Yet, Dame Van Winkle finds Rip in the Inn and disturbs both Rip and his friends. After witnessing Dame’s huge wrath, Rip decides to abandon his town and with his dog Wolf. He takes his gun then departs to the mountains. The ‘errant man’ goes to the woods and Rip explores ‘sublime nature’ that is, according to Edmund Burke, ‘’ the void, darkness, solitude, and silence” atmosphere.

Rip Van Winkle’s scolding wife by Thomas Nast

While Rip rambles around into the woods of Catskills, he encounters a stranger who demands help from Rip to carry his beer barrel, and Rip accepts stranger request. Once Rip and stranger reach the top of the mountain, they see a group of strangers who drink beers and play a game of ninepin, which is similar to bowling. This group, wearing Dutch-style clothing, offer Rip a beer, although first they seem aloof to him. With a tasting of beer, Rip starts to content the situation he is in and finds the beer delicious. He consumes it until he is drunk, and then he falls asleep for twenty years. When he wakes up, he thinks he spent only the night sleeping. Yet, when he seeks the Dutch crew, he can not find them. Wolf is also missing. Elements that have changed are not restricted to the two of them: Rip's beard is too long and his gun is nothing more than an old and useless device. But, Rip does not believe that this gun belongs to him and decides to go back village to solve the misunderstanding in his mind.

As soon as he arrived to the village, he witnesses considerable changes to his old home. Firstly, Rip’s wife, children and friends are absent, and the Inn has turned into a Union Hotel where important meetings, commercial activity and political discussions take place. Also, the picture of King George III has been replaced by General George Washington, who is the first president of the United States. Rip is no longer a citizen of Great Britain; he is an American citizen now. As Irving mentions, ‘’The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.’’ The changes that Rip observes make him baffled and the old traditions that Rip knew notably is altered. The village is more crowded now, and people are in a hurry, making noise and carrying a grumpier demeanor. His surrounding get fitted up with a lot of buildings and unknown fretfully people; the townspeople have become a citizen of a republic and the participants in a democracy. When the townspeople ask him which party he is going to vote for, he is astonished and answers he still thinks that they are under the rule of King George. ‘’I am simple man and a loyal subject of the king.’’ Once he explains his support to the king, the town blames him as a spy and partisan of kingship. As an ‘un-American’ man, Rip Van Winkle seeks anybody to convince the authenticity story he has, as no one believes the reality of Rip’s assertions.

Joseph Jefferson played Rip Van Winkle in theatrical productions and short films in the late 1890’s.

When he asks the townspeople if anyone knew a person named ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ his little son appears as a grown man. Also his daughter Judith finds him when she heard that her father came into the town after a long absence. With the help of Judith's explanations, Rip finds out what happened to his wife, who passed away many years ago. The townspeople query why Rip was gone so many years and never came back. They decide to consult Peter Vanderdonk, who is the oldest person in the town, and once Peter sees Rip, he engrosses all his interest in the story of Rip. To Peter, the reason for Rip disappearance is that Rip came across the ghost of Henry Hudson, who was the first discoverer of the territory, and every twenty years Henry Hudson and his crew gather in the Catskill Mountains and watch the land that bear his name. After hearing this, townspeople believe the story of Rip, and with the aid of Judith, they begin to warm towards Rip again. Knickerbocker closes up the story by asserting the authenticity of the story because Dutch folk who live in Catskills agree on the existence of the story where Knickerbocker meets Rip Van Winkle as well.

John Quidor - Rip Van Winkle - 1982.765 - Art Institute of Chicago

As Steven Blakemore says, ‘’While the tale was once read as a mythic escape from the history, it is now being read as the irrevocable presence of history in America.’’ Combining both mythical and historical facts, Irving innovates a new heritage and tradition for the American Nation; in this way Rip becomes a history. Irving draws a concept about how Dame Van Winkle is the representation of the opposite American character and evokes the British colonies, which is loading and expecting all of the responsibilities from the people who live in American land and not making any effort to contribute for the sake of these people. On the other hand, Rip resists fulfilling her demands and leads to the Revolutionary War. Rip Van Winkle is the symbol of the sleepy old ways of Americans, and Irving's story shows that the Revolutionary War and democracy bring enlightenment and rouse the American people from the deep sleep which they had been living under British governance.


The North-American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, Essay on American Language and Literature, University of Northern Iowa, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep. 1815), pp. 307-314 (8 pages) retrieved (September 20, 2021)

Blakemore, Steven, Family Resemblances: The Texts and Contexts of "Rip Van Winkle", University of North Carolina Press, Vol. 35, No. 2 (2000), pp. 187-212, retrieved (September 21, 2021)

Bowen, Edwin W. Washington Irving's Place in American Literature Author(s), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Apr. 1906, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Apr. 1906), pp. 171-183, retrieved (September 21, 2021)

‘’Revolutionary War’’, History, retrieved (September 20, 2021)

‘’ Washington Irving’’, Biography, retrieved (September 20, 2021)

‘’ Transcendence and Sublime Experience in Nature: Awe and Inspiring Energy’’, Frontiers in Psychology, retrieved (September 20, 2021)

Irving, Washington, English writers on America: 1819-20, Virginia Tech., 2001

Image Resources

Rip Van Winkle’s scolding wife by Thomas Nast, [Illustration],

1 Comment

gouri deb
gouri deb
Feb 13, 2022

Short Bedtime English Stories is a free app that gathers a lot of free english stories collection, and the interface design is simple. After opening, you can select the storybook you want to read, quickly scan at least more than 30 categories,

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