Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories is a collection of stories and sketches written by the fictional Geoffrey Crayon, a gentleman with a great interest in history and culture. He spends a long time traveling in Europe, especially in rural England, and most of the sketches deal with these travels. Crayon’s fondness for history and old customs leads him to many of the most rural areas of England, where these customs still flourish. He also enjoys hunting for antiquities in London and stumbles upon many relics of times past.
A few of the sketches deal with stories that Crayon hears on his travels. For example, in the legend of the dead bridegroom, a Bavarian nobleman is betrothed to a German woman he has never met and is killed on his way to their wedding. His friend is taken for the groom, and when he says he must leave for his own funeral, the others think he was a ghost, but everything turns out right in the end.
A few of the sketches--the most famous of them--are set in America, though they are retellings of old European folktales in the New World. “Rip Van Winkle” is the story of a very unhappily henpecked husband who, while wandering through the Catskills, is led toward a strange group of men bowling. He drinks some of their ale and wakes up the next morning to find that twenty years have passed: America is no longer a colony of England, and his wife is dead. He lives much more happily now with his daughter and her kind husband.
The sketches generally show fondness and respect for Europe and its long histories, but also excitement for the possibility for the growth of new traditions in America. Here is a quick review of the sketches for easy reference.
“The Author’s Account of Himself”: Geoffrey Crayon introduces himself as a traveler and observer. He prefers to observe people and their histories and ends up seeing a lot of small particulars instead of grand historic sites.
“The Voyage”: Crayon enjoys a long sea voyage from America to Europe, imagining the startling transition once he gets off the boat. The people aboard sometimes tell stories, and the captain tells of a time when the fog near Newfoundland made it impossible to avoid sailing over the top of a small ship, killing everyone on it.
“Roscoe”: Crayon meets a famous historian named Roscoe when he visits the Athaneum. Roscoe has many virtues and has helped his city, Liverpool, develop academic and literary pursuits, but he has been a failure in business and must sell his valuable library.
“The Wife”: Crayon’s good friend Leslie was rich and married Mary, but when he becomes poor he is not sure he should tell his wife. Crayon advises him to reveal the truth and see if she really loves him. She bears the news, and they move to a rural home that she makes into a paradise for Leslie.
“English Writers on America”: Crayon writes that English travelers usually are perceptive, deep observers, but they have trouble understanding America because of its relatively classless society. They tend to badmouth America as a competitor, but Crayon thinks this is poisoning Americans against England.
“Rural Life in England”: Crayon argues that English culture resides in the countryside, not the cities. English rural life makes English gentlemen the finest of men. Their closeness with nature also is reflected in British literature.
“The Broken Heart”: Crayon argues that it is possible to die of a broken heart and that it happens more often to women, who less often have their own ambition to distract them like men have. For example, an honorable Irishman was executed for treason, and the girl who loved him felt intense pain, eventually married another for convenience, but could not shake her melancholy and died of a broken heart.
“The Art of Book Making”: Crayon comes upon the reading room of the British Library, where mediocre authors merely recast others’ work. He dreams that the authors have stolen a piece of clothing here and there from the various portraits of the library, creating horrible patchworks instead of original items—an obvious metaphor for poor academic writing.
“A Royal Poet”: Crayon visits Windsor Castle and tells the story of James I of Scotland, who was kept captive by the English during his youth. James received a full education and used his captivity to write great poetry. His hardships gave him unusual honesty and respect for the rule of law, which did not save him from unscrupulous, murderous noblemen.
“The Country Church”: At an old country church, those worthy of respect are humble, while those with new money are snobbish. He has noticed this pattern a lot in England.
“The Widow and Her Son”: A poor widow’s son dies, and Crayon deeply pities her in her extreme grief. From another woman he learns that the son, loved in the village, was carried off to sea unwillingly by a gang. The father died from grief, and the mother, highly respected in the village, became poor. Recently the son returned, very ill, and although everyone in the village tried to help, he died. She dies in her grief a few weeks later.
“A Sunday in London”: Crayon enjoys London Sundays. The people’s leisure apparently reminds him of the rural life he prefers.
“The Boar’s Head Tavern, East Cheap”: Crayon travels to the Boar’s Head after reading about it in Henry IV. It is gone, but a woman tells him about its history. He investigates further and finds a few institutions that have kept relics of the old tavern, especially a goblet that reminds him of the one with which Falstaff made his vow to Dame Quickly.
“The Mutability of Literature”: At the library at Westminster Abbey, Crayon feels like he is in a tomb; books die after all. A book that has not been opened for 200 years speaks to him (it seems), complaining of neglect. Crayon observes that even English changes, making a book’s immortality nearly impossible, which at least leaves room for new genius in new generations. The problem is that most books are mediocre, which means that it is a good thing that most of them pass away. Only writers like Shakespeare, displaying the unchanging principles of human nature, stay relevant, and such great works keep a particular moment of English alive.
“Rural Funerals”: Funeral customs in rural areas, Crayon notes, help people remember the deceased, and it is disappointing that these customs have been passing away.
“The Inn Kitchen”: At a Flemish inn, Crayon passes up on books in order to share in the fun stories of the locals. He hears many tales and remembers the one about the specter bridegroom.
“The Spectre Bridegroom”: Baron Von Landshort is poor but tries to maintain himself in his castle. Count Von Altenburg, a man nobody there has seen before, is to marry his daughter, but on the day he is scheduled to arrive, he does not show up. Van Alternburg was on his way, but he was attacked and killed by robbers. He persuades his companion, a man who had been in a feud with Von Landshort, to deliver the news of his death. When the man arrives, however, he is taken by Von Landshort’s family as the groom, and he plays along, swept up in the bride’s beauty. He soon says that he must attend his own funeral and rides away, leading everyone to think he was a ghost. Later, he returns and reveal himself as the friend of Van Alternburg, and the marriage proceeds happily.
“Westminster Abbey”: At Westminster Abbey, Crayon reflects on Poets’ Corner, the best part because it reminds people of their encounters with living literature and poetry. Yet, the tombs and chapels there overwhelm him with the sense of the futility of human pursuits.
“Christmas”: Crayon regrets the loss of the old holiday customs in the bustle of modern life, although Christmas remains a fun season of hospitality, cheer, and charity.
“The Stage Coach”: On Christmas Eve, Crayon observes people riding in a coach in Yorkshire. Everyone seems happy about the season. Crayon runs into his friend Frank Bracebridge, who invites Crayon to join him at his father’s house for Christmas.
“Christmas Eve”: Frank’s father strongly maintains the old, rural traditions and is respected as “The Squire” despite his eccentricities. The good humor of the gathering over dinner and dancing is further increased by Master Simon, the wit of the family.
“Christmas Day”: Everything is quite traditional at the Squire’s. There is a breakfast, a set of church services, and a nice walk. The choir does badly, and the Squire is generous to the poor.
“The Christmas Dinner”: At the Squire’s home, the ancient traditions are followed as closely as possible, and everyone enjoys the happenings that now seem so unusual. There is drinking and good conversation, including a lot of inside information about the family. Once the women leave, the conversation turns a bit bawdy, and the Squire tells about his pranks while at Oxford. Later that night, the parson tells stories of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, including ghost stories about a crusader who stands in effigy in the Squire’s house. The party ends with a masque performance engineered by Master Simon.
“London Antiques”: Crayon avoids the London crowds and finds little-known locations, such as the chapel of the Knights Templar and a strange place called the Charter House, an old monastery that has become an asylum for elderly men, which is also connected to a school for boys. The man in charge, John Hallum, collects curiosities—curious things as well as curious men.
“Little Britain”: The old neighborhood where the Dukes of Britany lived is called Little Britain. It is becoming decrepit but maintains old traditions. The residents share superstitions and ghost stories. Wagstaff, the pub owner, retells many songs and jokes. Recently, however, the Lamb family has been putting on airs. Although they have been ostracized by the rest of the community, the community has been taking up the newer fashions after all, especially the girls of the Trotter family, who are trying to rival the Lambs. The town splits into factions on behalf of either the Lambs or the Trotters, and all the old customs and traditions are lost in attempts to keep up with the rivalry and the fashions.
“Stratford-on-Avon”: Crayon’s pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s hometown includes the poet’s home and his grave. Shakespeare apparently escaped to London after writing a harsh poem about Sir Lucy, who imprisoned him for stealing deer. Crayon visits the scene of the crime, where the Lucy family still lives, and imagines Shakespeare and his characters there. Crayon revels in this imaginary vision.
“Traits of Indian Character”: Crayon finds Indians and their environment sublime and striking. While other writers libel their character, Crayon explains that they flourish hidden in the wilderness but do not function well in civilization, so Americans more often see them at their worst. He blames their hostility and violence on American distrust and disdain. They fight more like guerrillas than like the Americans, who rush headstrong into battle. This does not take anything away from the Indians’ bravery. For example, after a few members of Pequod tribe escaped a total rout by the Americans, they showed their bravery by refusing to surrender or beg for mercy, even though they were then shot to death.
“Philip of Pokanoket”: When the settlers first arrived and faced severe hardships, Massasoit, chief Sagamore of the Wampanoags, offered them hospitality and friendship. He tried to ensure a lasting peace, but his son, Alexander, had strong pride in his hereditary rights and feared the colonists’ extermination of nearby tribes. He was caught plotting a takeover. Massasoit and then Alexander were succeeded by Metamocet, known as King Philip, an Indian warrior infamous throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. Philip renewed the peace treaty, but his great energy and enterprise raised suspicions that he was plotting violence. Once the hostility turned into a war, Philip became a daunting, vigorous, intelligent foe.
The war diminishes his resources, however, and after the Narrhagansets take in Philip and his people, the settlers decide to wipe out both tribes at once. Philip and the Narrhagansets withdraw to a well-protected fort, but a traitorous Indian leads the settlers there, enabling a surprise attack. The long and bloody battle leaves only Philip and a few other survivors to retreat into the forest. Meanwhile, the settlers set fire to their fort and their village, killing many innocents. The Narrhaganset chief much later is captured and refuses to give up Philip in exchange for his own life. Philip’s situation becomes progressively worse, with many of his followers dying or changing alliances for self protection. Finally, another traitor leads the settlers to him, and his remaining followers are killed. He is shot through the heart in his last attempt to escape.
“John Bull”: This caricature is used by the British to make fun of themselves. Crayon believes that people use their John Bullishness to excuse their foibles as national virtues. John Bull is traditionally a plain, matter-of-fact person with little of art or romance but a lot of natural feeling. He is good-hearted and good-natured but enjoys being in the middle of contention and worrying about his neighbors. He is generous but has trouble paying the bills. Crayon wishes the man would instead focus on self-improvement in order to have a long and peaceful old age.
“The Pride of the Village”: In a remote village, Crayon witnesses the funeral of a young, unmarried woman, the beauty and pride of the village for her kindness, the daughter of a rather successful farmer. As the story goes, she was courted by a young officer who was looking for a “village conquest.” They fall genuinely in love, but he realizes he cannot actually marry someone of her lower station. On the night before his regiment must leave, he finally tells her he is simply going. She bursts into tears, so he asks her to leave with him and be his companion—but not his wife. At this prospect she becomes appalled and runs away. He manages to move on, but she starts dying of a broken heart. She writes him to say she wants him to know she forgives him before she dies. He eventually comes to see her, and she smiles at him tenderly, then dies.
“The Angler”: After reading a book about fishing, Crayon and some of his friends try it on the Hudson River in America. The reality is not as good as the fiction, and after half an hour he gives up and reads by the water. His friends try all day with no success, but a young child comes by with what seems to be inferior equipment and then quickly catches many fish. Later, in Wales, Crayon gets into conversation with a veteran fisherman and enjoys spending the whole day with the man, under the pretence of receiving a fishing lesson. The man lost his leg to a cannonball in the navy. This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, because it earned him a nice pension that let him spend the rest of his life mastering the sport of fishing. Despite his many troubles, he managed to focus only on the good and to have kind things to say about everywhere he visited.