Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Rip Van Winkle"

Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for his ambiguous fiction:  Will Robin “rise in the world” without help from his Kinsman Major Molineux? “Had Young Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?”  Was it guilt, sorrow, or allegory that led Rev. Hooper to wear a black veil? Did Dimmesdale really confess to being the father of Pearl?  (See previous post on The Scarlet Letter, Oct. 2012)  However, the device of alternative explanations was not his invention. Hawthorne had to look no further than his own predecessor in American fiction, Washington Irving, perhaps our best early satirist.

Like Irving, Hawthorne was an ironist, but, unlike Irving, he was also a strong moralist.  Though a product of the Enlightenment, Hawthorne could not quite shake the influence of his Puritan upbringing.  Thus he was both a romanticist and a mock-romanticist.  Irving’s satire is more pronounced, but his famous sketches, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“ (see next post) and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819/20) are more often adapted as straight gothic tales without much hint of satire.  The alternative explanations of Irving’s original versions are often left out.  The character of Rip Van Winkle, for example, usually emerges as a poor, hen-pecked husband, whose encounter with the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew playing nine pins in the Catskills conveniently and quite innocently saves him from the “yoke of matrimony” and “petticoat government.”  Irving’s references to those who winked and smirked at Van Winkle’s story and those who “insisted that Rip had been out of his head” are frequently omitted.

Based on German folktales, such as “Peter Klaus,” and the tradition of the magic mountain, Irving’s story, like the original, could also be read as a 19th century update of an ancient mythic theme, that of identity, the loss of selfhood, and its rediscovery or reinvention.  Having slept for twenty years, Rip awakes to an unfamiliar world, no longer certain of who he is.  Conveniently, his “termagant wife” has died, and, reunited with his now married daughter, he is free to live out his days as a doting grandfather and village patriarch, spinning stories of olden days and, of course, his mountain adventure and long sleep.

Similarly, it fits the pattern of the gothic tale, as ordinary reality collides with an irrational world of ghosts, phantom bowlers on the mountain, a magic potion, and a twenty-year nap.  Part of Rip’s life is lost, but ultimately he escapes the burdens and pains of his previous life and is reborn, so to speak, into a new life of idleness and ease.

It is difficult to take the story too seriously, however, given the introduction, the Note, and the Postscript that Irving appends to the tale, in which he cites his source, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a “historian” who primarily researches local legends and reports them as “absolute fact.”  Irving acknowledges a possible source for “Rip Van Winkle” as the German “superstition about the Emperor Frederick der Rothbart, and the Kypphauser mountain,” but insists Knickerbocker is a reliable source for the truth of the story.  It is not hard to detect that Irving’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. 

The effect is to mock the naïve believers in myth, legend, folklore, and superstition and satirize “romance” as a literary style that allows too much license with reality and truth. 

Nevertheless, Irving is able to tap into the popular appeal of local fables and gothic tales to enhance his own literary reputation and line his own pockets, at the expense of the gullible and to the great entertainment of his more sophisticated, urbane, and enlightened readers.

Those more educated and rational readers would also have noticed the political allegory that Irving embeds in the story.  It seems that Rip has slept through the Revolutionary War.  The portrait of King George III at the local inn has been replaced by one of George Washington.  When Rip returns, not only is he free of Dame Van Winkle’s “petticoat government, “  but the country is free of British rule.  Rip is clueless of his own history but easily adjusts to his new life.  Allegorically, Rip stands for the American colonies and Dame Van Winkle for the British tyrant.  We could dismiss this as Irving’s 19th century sexism: how ridiculous to compare a nagging wife, dependent for her well-being on an irresponsible husband, to King George III!  However, it is also possible that Irving is a Tory sympathizer, depicting the colonies as backward, clueless, gullible hicks, who had their freedom dumped in their laps, not really knowing what to do with it, and occupying themselves by telling fantastic tales of revolutionary glory.

Just as “Loyalists” and “Patriots” disagreed about British rule before the Revolution, they no doubt disagreed afterwards.  Thus while British sympathizers are enjoying Irving’s satire on newly independent Americans, patriotic Americans are delighting in the “heroic” story of Rip achieving his freedom from domestic oppression.  Similarly, while educated city-dwellers are appreciating the mockery of gullible rural folks, villagers and townspeople are enjoying a romantic fable.  And Irving benefits by receiving accolades from both audiences. 

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