A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and John Neal’s “Idiosyncrasies”

The second installment of a new feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:


“Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving

Irving (as an end note to this 1819 story reveals) adapts a tale of “German superstition” and gives it a New World setting–the Dutch villages of the Hudson region, which (as in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) are frequently “subject to marvellous [sic] events and appearances.” The title character makes an archetypal journey into the American wilderness, stumbling upon a “deep mountain glen” in the Catskills, “wild, lonely and shagged.” He also encounters the ghosts (as they are later identified) of Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon, whose supernatural potables knock Rip into a two-decade-long blackout.

Rip’s fantastic siesta has since become a part of American pop culture, and most people can recount the bare bones of his story. What might have been forgotten by those who have not read Irving’s actual text recently is its darker elements–the uncanny effects of Rip’s belated awakening. Returning to the village he believes he left just one day earlier, Rip finds strange new homes with unfamiliar inhabitants and begins “to wonder whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” His own longtime abode has been reduced to a sudden Gothic ruin–“the roof fallen in, the windows shattered and the doors off the hinges.” Perhaps most disorienting of all is Rip’s encounter with his seeming doppelganger, a younger-looking version of himself dressed in his old clothes and referred to by the same name. Before realizing that this figure is his own son, a frazzled Rip suffers an instant identity crisis (“I’m not myself,–I’m somebody else–that’s me yonder–no–that’s somebody else got into my shoes–I was myself last night; but I fell asleep on the mountain–and they’ve changed my gun–and every thing’s changed–and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!”). For all the lighthearted humor of Irving’s piece (e.g. the genteel misogyny directed at Rip’s hen-pecking wife), there is also an undeniably terrifying aspect to the scenario it presents.


“Idiosyncrasies” by John Neal

This 1843 story makes for an apt pairing with the preceding Irving piece, featuring a tyrannical husband to counter the shrewish wife of “Rip Van Winkle.” But Neal tells a much darker and more psychologically complex tale, one reminiscent (as Crow identifies in the editorial headnote) of his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe. Like the typical Poe narrator, William Southard Lee (“a mono-maniac and perhaps a murderer”) grows more suspect the more he insists that he is not mad. Recounting his personal history to a visitor to his asylum room, Lee reveals himself as someone who lorded over the very family he claims to have loved dearly. He also appears to have precipitated the disaster that befalls his alleged loved ones. When his son Willy stands upon the precipice of a cave-in on a snowy mountain, Lee–irritated by his frightened wife’s hysterics–decides to “punish her for such untimely interference,” and instead of moving to rescue Willy gives the perverse command to the boy to venture forth and fetch his fallen cap. Willy never recovers from his subsequent plunge beneath the frozen surface, and his grief-stricken mother (whom Lee actually blames for Willy’s death) drowns herself years later.

Again recalling Poe, Neal is indistinct in his geography; the story’s wintry setting could just easily be European as American. Nevertheless, the natural scene depicted is quite sublime, and the plot centers on a wilderness trek fraught with danger (cave-ins, avalanches, maybe even a she-bear). Much like its mountainous locale, the lines of Neal’s tale make for rough traveling, as the idiosyncrasies (nested narratives, lack of quotation marks to distinguish speakers) extend to a structural level. For those willing to brave Neal’s narrative labyrinth, though, the story offers some fine chills, including a climax where Lee proves that his madness (employed to avoid a death sentence when he’s suspected of murdering his wife) is hardly counterfeit as he lunges at his interlocutor with a drawn knife.

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