"His historical researches, however, did not lie so much among books as among men; for the former are lamentably scanty on his favorite topics; whereas he found the old burghers, and still more their wives, rich in that legendary lore, so invaluable to true history. Whenever, therefore, he happened upon a genuine Dutch family, snugly shut up in its low-roofed farmhouse, under a spreading sycamore, he looked upon it as a little clasped volume of black-letter,' and studied it with the zeal of a book-worm."
Knickerbocker's historian writes at one remove from Knickerbocker himself, relying on Knickerbocker's words and investigations. Knickerbocker himself, however, was a different kind of historian altogether, preferring to go to the original sources of stories to hear them for himself. He passed by the books when he had a chance to talk to the actual people, and he was willing to travel to verify the stories that he heard.
The Dutch, being the elder Europeans in the region and more apt to have stories and to believe the stranger ones, particularly attracted Knickerbocker. If America was to develop a social and cultural history, there was no better place to look than the homes of the old Dutch burghers.
"Poor Rip was at last reduced almost to despair; and his only alternative, to escape from the labor of the farm and clamor of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods. Here he would sometimes seat himself at the foot of a tree, and share the contents of his wallet with Wolf, with whom he sympathized as a fellow-sufferer in persecution. 'Poor Wolf,' he would say, 'thy mistress leads thee a dog's life of it; but never mind, my lad, whilst I live thou shalt never want a friend to stand by thee!'"
This passage reflects some common complaints of husbands and wives: the men complain that their wives henpeck them and that they need an escape from the domestic troubles that are aggravated by their wives' nagging and unnecessary clamor, while the women complain that their husbands do not pay enough attention to their domestic duties. There is a lesson for both in "Rip Van Winkle": the woman who drives away her husband may not see him come back, and the man who takes his temporary escape might end up unable to truly return home. Granted, Dame Van Winkle is painted as uncommonly terrible, but many a man would welcome the chance to avoid 20 years of nagging and heckling. Yet, would they really want to miss out on everything else in life as well? For his part, Rip is uncommonly indolent, for when he escapes to the woods he is not only escaping his wife but also his work. This gives his wife more than the usual reason to be upset with her husband.
Rip's promises to Wolf, his loyal dog, ironically turn out to be false. Rip was not able to stand by his fellow-sufferer because he slept through the remainder of the dog's life; Wolf simply returned home to Dame Van Winkle despite her frequent mistreatment of the dog as well.
“His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched. Surely this was his native village which he had left but the day before. There stood the Kaatskill mountains--there ran the silver Hudson at a distance--there was every hill and dale precisely as it had always ken--Rip was sorely perplexed—‘That flagon last night,’ thought he, ‘has addled my poor head sadly!’”
This passage touches on the theme of imagination versus reality. Rip cannot trust his senses or his memory and cannot figure out why nothing is quite right. He thinks he may be having some kind of dream or that he is still drunk from whatever it was he was given to drink. It is not so much that he would be drunk but that, following the traditional idea of witches in the woods, he has been bewitched.
Nevertheless, although society has changed and some of the features of the natural world have changed, he at least knows he is in the same geographical and physical place as before, for he at least recognizes the Catskill mountains, the Hudson River, and the other hills and dales of the general area. That the major features of the natural world are relatively stable puts into perspective the changing social, cultural, and political aspects of human settlement.
“Methinks I hear the question asked by my graver readers, “To what purpose is all this—how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?” Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens laboring for its improvement?—It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct—to play the companion rather than the preceptor. What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge; or how am I sure that my sagest deduction may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail, the only evil is my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humour with his fellow beings and himself, surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.”
These lines suggest Crayon’s theory of writing, or at least the theory guiding the present work. He does not write with the intent to educate his reader, or really with much of a practical intention except to tell stories and create pleasure in the telling and hearing. This in itself, according to the theory, can bring people to like each other more and get along better. The goal of delight rather than instruction seems to hold true for much of the work, but stories like “Philip of Pokanoket” and “English Writers on America” have clear intentions beyond just bringing pleasure.
The lighthearted tone and intentions in this passage, nevertheless, match the tone of the book as a whole. Most of the characters in the stories are benevolent and are reasonably decent examples of human beings acting well toward one another. Dame Van Winkle is the key exception, but Crayon looks at people like her with a satirical and humorous eye, such that readers laugh at them and realize that Cryaon is presenting a moral standard after all. Even in dealing with darker themes, such as death or ghosts or war, Crayon does so with a levity that helps “prompt a benevolent view of human nature.”
“But Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle.”
This paragraph elucidates a central theme of Crayon’s wanderings through Europe and his stories of America. America as a country is very young, and its formation comes about so quickly that one of Crayon’s characters literally sleeps through the transition. While this means that America has promise, and Crayon makes it clear in “English Writers on America” that he imagines America’s future will be promising enough to rival England’s, it also means that America has not had much time to develop customs, diverse cultures, or a history, which makes it a much less interesting country, especially for the storyteller and the traveler with anthropological interests, than the European countries are.
Europe’s history, compared to America’s, is vast, and relics of it are everywhere. Even in London, where modern fashion keeps old customs well-hidden, Crayon stumbles upon such antiquities as tombs from the Crusades. Whereas America has luscious scenery, Europe has “a chronicle” in every “mouldering stone,” and for a storyteller, this is just about everything. Nevertheless, the American stories turn out well after all—more often from the rural populations with strong Old World influences.
“As the vine which has long twined its graceful foliage about the oak, and been lifted by it into sunshine, will, when the hardy plant is rifted by the thunderbolt, cling round it with its caressing tendrils, and bind up its shattered boughs; so is it beautifully ordered by providence, that woman, who is the mere dependent and ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace when smitten with sudden calamity, winding herself into the rugged recesses of his nature; tenderly supporting the drooping head, and binding up the broken heart.”
This passage is representative of Crayon’s general sense, so common in his time, that women have subordinate yet important roles in families and in society. Crayon often seems enlightened for his time, dispelling some of the generally held prejudices and stereotypes about women (and about American Indians), although he does not break free from condescension.
Here, for example, he shows that women are often stronger than their husbands in times of hardship, capable of holding the family together when the husband proves himself incapable or in need of assistance. At the same time, he explains that most of the time the roles are reversed and that woman is “the mere dependent and ornament of man.” Thus, the sheltered, subordinate role of the wife gives her the opportunity to show strength when it is needed. Contemporary society is not always comfortable with differentiated male and female roles, even if Crayon is right that the division of labor is best for everyone and represents the loving, intertwined lives of beings who would not be able to live independently, for the two roles do not seem to be equally valued. Here, the vine seems to be subordinated, most of the time, to the tree, which is ultimately responsible for their common growth.
“Notwithstanding the simplicity of these memorials [in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey], I have always observed that the visitors to the abbey remain longest about them. A kinder and fonder feeling takes place of that cold curiosity or vague admiration with which they gaze on the splendid monuments of the great and the heroic. They linger about these as about the tombs of friends and companions; for indeed there is something of companionship between the author and the reader. Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure; but the intercourse between the author and his fellow men is ever new, active and immediate.”
Books, writing, and authors are all motifs for Crayon. He has two different perspectives on books and authors, depending on whether he believes they are valuable or not. Here we see the great value he gives to those authors who show real greatness. He holds these men above kings and warriors and other great historical figures in the sense that poets can be encountered directly through their work, mediated only by their words, producing fellow-feeling and friendship, while those other figures are only encountered indirectly, through other people and the histories that are written. Poets and authors tie past to present with an immediacy; we feel like we know the writers because we have read their actual words, which are immortal in that the poet’s voice still speaks to readers in every generation.
This points stands out especially in this sketch of Westminster Abbey, when Crayon is exploring all of its tombs and monuments. He comes away with a strong feeling of the futility of human ambition, for every man dies, every building crumbles, and every kingdom falls. Only in writing, however, can the author maintain some form of immortality, for the words can be reproduced exactly as they were before.
“There is a sad dreariness in this magnificence; this strange mixture of tombs and trophies; these emblems of living and aspiring ambition, close beside mementos which show the dust and oblivion in which all must sooner or later terminate. Nothing impresses the mind with a deeper feeling of loneliness, than to tread the silent and deserted scene of former throng and pageant.”
This passage contrasts the poets’ immortality with the acknowledgment that most human things pass away. Whereas the Poets’ Corner reminded Crayon of the close tie between author and reader even after hundreds of years, seeing the tombs of kings and knights reminds him of the ubiquity of death. Here every symbol of accomplishment is shown up as merely temporal because it all too soon becomes dusty and forgotten; today’s ambitions, today’s shiny plaques, are tomorrow’s grimy has-beens. Hundreds of years full of pomp and circumstance are gone from the building. They live only in imagination, immediately contrasted with the desolate rooms of today.
Crayon’s pervasive interest in the past and history makes this scene even more painful, for not only does it force him to reflect on his own mortality, but it also reminds him that the stories of the past, which mean so much to him, are fading quickly from memory. The poet or historian can record them, but this does not alleviate the fact that all the major players are dead and that the historian can only provide a second-hand encounter with the past. The past, too, is dead, and revisiting it cannot bring back what is gone.
“‘The nation,’ continued he, ‘is altered; we have almost lost our simple, true hearted peasantry. They have broken asunder from the higher classes, and seem to think their interests are separate. They have become too knowing, and begin to read newspapers, listen to ale house politicians, and talk of reform. I think one mode to keep them in good humour in these hard times, would be for the nobility and gentry to pass more time on their estates, mingle more among the country people, and set the merry old English games going again.’”
These lines are spoken by the Squire, who is the most conservative—indeed, reactionary—character in all the sketches. He has an eccentric love for all things old-fashioned, to the point of maintaining his estate as much in the old ways as he possibly can. He is generally portrayed as kind and, if a little odd, at least well-meaning, but this passage shows the dangers to individualism and class mobility if one is too set in the old hierarchies and merely wants to reproduce them. The Squire appears to think that the common folk should be distracted from the idea that they should feel antagonistic toward the upper classes, for to him the different classes are cooperative elements in a good society. He seems to think that too much inferior education and half-knowledge will give the lower classes half-baked ideas for reform that would disrupt the good order of society, for the newspapers and the pubs are not the places to get the better political and social wisdom held by the upper classes.
This passage reflects on Crayon too to some degree, for Crayon respects the Squire and appreciates the chance to see some of the old English holiday customs return. He earlier lamented their passing. Crayon’s interest in these customs tends to be more about curiosity, but he also shows a tendency towards conservatism. Whether we can say, on the basis of the sketches, that these views are also shared by Irving is a much harder question.
“Perhaps, through mistaken, or ill directed hospitality, or from the prompt disposition to cheer and countenance the stranger, prevalent among my countrymen, they may have been treated with unwonted respect in America; and having been accustomed all their lives to consider themselves below the surface of good society; and brought up in a servile feeling of inferiority; they become arrogant on the common boon of civility; they attribute to the lowliness of others, their own elevation; and under rate a society, where there are no artificial distinctions, and where, by any chance, such individuals as themselves can rise to consequence.”
“English Writers on America” is the only sketch takes primarily a negative view of British culture. It is focused, however, not on England itself, but on the tendency of British travelers in America to misjudge that country and its people. This passage thus elucidates the great social difference between America and England—the flexibility of class in America compared with its rigidity in England.
In this passage, Crayon shows distaste for the ways that the English system makes British visitors look down on a relatively classless society. This fits with Crayon’s later assertion that it is those who are the least comfortable with their place in society who are the most obsessed with class distinctions and rules. In contrast, he paints America as commonly a place where people are civil and hospitable to strangers.
Rip Van Winkle and Other Stories Questions and Answers
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The Rip Van Winkle study guide contains a biography of author Washington Irving, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis of his major short stories including Rip Van Winkle.