Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories

Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Summary and Analysis of "English Writers on America," "Rural Life in England," "The Broken Heart," and "The Art of Book Making"

“English Writers on America”: English interest in America has risen, and very many travel books on America have been written and sold in London, Crayon reports, but he argues that these books are often full of errors, spreading prejudice and misinformation. When they do not have motives of pride or interest, he thinks, English travelers are the best travelers, forming intelligent and profound views on the societies and lands they visit, but when the country they visit is in any way in competition with theirs, they lose all perspective and form the worst and most unfair judgments.

Perhaps, he thinks, because these travelers are used to being treated as second-class citizens in their home country, the genial welcome that they get in America makes them arrogant, as though they are of an upper class. Thus, they tend to rate themselves higher than the Americans around them. The largest problem with this situation is the offense that Americans take to such snootiness. Nevertheless, Crayon believes, it does not matter, because regardless of all the lies written by the English travelers, they cannot alter the truth, nor can they obscure the great country that America is becoming.

Besides, such writings are more harmful to England, for they foster bitterness and resentment against the British among Americans, and that enmity will grow as America grows stronger. In addition, he argues, what is put in print is quite powerful in America, because universal education means that almost every American can and does read. American writers are tempted to return the disfavor, but Crayon warns against such retaliation, for it would only double the problem instead of fixing it. He argues that America is too young a country to engrain the prejudices that are incumbent in older countries.

“Rural Life in England”: Crayon is convinced that for a foreigner to get a correct understanding of England, he must see not just the cities but also the countryside, and he must do so extensively. This is because England, as opposed to some other countries, uses its cities merely as a gathering place, while the countryside is where society really exists. He believes that the English are especially suited for, and quick to notice, the pleasures of rural life. Crayon believes that a visitor to England must see the country because Englishmen in the city tend to be either absorbed in business or distracted by being over-engaged, and thus they do not show the English character at its best. The country does show England at its best, and it is overwhelmingly magnificent. Even the poorest properties are landscaped to be mini-paradises.

Their fondness for rural life, Crayon believes, makes the English gentlemen the finest race of men. Also, because there is nothing mean and debasing in manual labor in a rural setting, even the lower classes are less vulgar and therefore less distasteful to interact with than the lower classes in the cities. The closeness with nature also shows itself in England’s national poetry and literature, which is infused with natural settings and descriptions.

“The Broken Heart”: Crayon declares that he believes that love is real and that it is possible to die of a broken heart. He perceives that love and broken-heartedness much more often afflicts women than men. This is because man has ambition and interest as his primary focus, with love only a side pursuit, whereas a woman’s whole life is based around affections—that is where her ambition and interest lie—so if her love is lost, everything is lost.

Crayon recalls the story of an unnamed young Irish patriot who was executed for treason, and everyone, even his enemies, found it to be tragic because he was such an honorable young man. Before this time, he had won the affections of a beautiful and intelligent girl who had loved him deeply, more so as his troubles increased and his name was tarnished.

Upon his death, tragic in itself, she had not even the comfort of a final parting scene or a respectable grave at which to visit him. Moreover, her father had exiled her from the family for choosing such a mate, so she could not return to them. Many friends tried to take care of her and distract her, but her pain was such that, no matter where she was, she was always alone.

Her constant devotion to her dead husband won her the admiration of another, who eventually won her hand but not her heart. She married mainly because she was tired of depending on her friends. She was a good and kind wife to him, and she did her best to act happy, but nothing could cure the melancholy deep in her soul. She eventually wasted away and died of a broken heart.

“The Art of Book Making”: One day, while wandering through the British Museum, Crayon notices a closed door that opens every once in a while with a black figure coming out. Curiosity piqued, he tries the door, and it opens. He finds himself in a spacious room surrounded by large cases of books, above which are arranged a great number of portraits of ancient authors. There are also long tables where many pale people sit, studiously reading and taking notes.

He learns that he has stumbled into the reading room of the British Library, and these men are all authors in the very act of writing their books. They appear to be writing by pilfering from the old books and writers surrounding them. This gives him the answer to a mystery he had always wondered about—where all the volumes and volumes of mediocre work that are published come from.

Crayon dozes off and dreams that he is still in the same room, but the authors have all started stealing clothes from the portraits. While a few only borrow a gem or two, which does not overwhelm their own clothing, the great majority take a little piece from each portrait and create a horrifying patchwork. Crayon awakens laughing, and he is promptly kicked out of the library.


This section of sketches, like the opening set, bring forward the common themes in the Sketchbook. “English Writers on America” is a little unusual in that it deals so negatively with England. It essentially accuses English writers of the sin of pride, which at this time was certainly correct—English critics had as yet given not the slightest respect to an American author. Crayon does make sure, however, to emphasize that Americans should not use this as an excuse to insult England in their writing, even though this piece itself skirts the edge of insult, and other sketches, like the one in the British Library, take mediocre British writers to task. Irving largely follows this prescription, however, being known for especially pro-England themes in his works.

“Rural Life in England” sets up many of the sketches that will follow, explaining why the English countryside is really the heart of the country. Throughout the rest of the book, Crayon emphasizes the rural over the urban, and this sketch gives him his justification for that choice. It also begins to show his somewhat conservative frame of mind, for the old traditions of the countryside, the long-held class distinctions, and the slower pace of life are quite appealing to him. Note, however, that this is not necessarily Irving’s point of view.

The focus on individuals and their stories comes strongly into view in “The Broken Heart.” This focus permits many of the sketches to take on a mythic quality, with individual stories of lovers permitting the writer to express general perspectives on abstract concepts. This tale also returns to gender differences dealt with in “The Wife” and touched on in “Rip Van Winkle.”

The story opens with Crayon explaining that he believes it is truly possible to die of a broken heart, but that it is much more likely for a woman than for a man. This is because of the great differences in their tasks and interests. Crayon perceives that a man has ambition and work to distract him, and these things define him more than his love life. In contrasting, a woman makes her task to find love and to marry well, so the dissolution of a relationship or loss of love is devastating to her, and she has nothing to distract herself from this pain. Rip Van Winkle is no exception, for although he has no ambition and little work that interests him, he would rather spend time with his male companions in conversation than try to make things better in his relationship with his wife. When he finds that his wife is dead, he is relieved; he is more troubled by the loss of his dog.

Crayon’s belief in the broken heart is also a defense of romanticism. He admires the story of a young girl who is incapable of ever finding happiness again after her first husband is executed, because it is pure in its romanticism. Her story may be grim, but it is uncomplicated by realism, and Crayon finds something to admire in this mythic story, just as he admires what he imagines to be the purity of rural life.

“The Art of Book Making” returns to the theme of literature that is so prevalent in the Sketchbook. Here we see Crayon’s disdain for bad writing, which he visualizes here as modern authors stealing a mishmash of clothing patches from their much more talented predecessors. The symbol is obvious, each patch representing an idea or historical tidbit that is recycled by the later bookmakers. He acknowledges that some contemporary authors are capable of using their knowledge of their predecessors to adorn but not overshadow their own work, as for those who select only a few of the best gems from the other writers. For the most part, however, it seems like copying without skill or discernment. These are not books that are likely to survive or that have much reason to survive. While we will later see Crayon’s deep regard for truly talented authors, this sketch underscores how few people truly deserve that regard.

In addition, this sketch emphasizes the romantic use of the imagination. Crayon’s point is reinforced by means of a dream that symbolizes the reality he is presenting. In this case, the symbol in the dream is more concrete than the reality, for the clothing can be actually torn up and sewn in new, patchy patterns, while words and ideas are only copied and pasted metaphorically by the writers in the library. When Crayon awakens laughing and then is kicked out, it becomes clear that he is not the kind of writer represented by the men in the library. In contrast, he is a writer who gets his material directly from the people he meets, being a much more imaginative writer than the black figures who dart in and out of the room.