Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Rip Van Winkle”

This new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic forms a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” will explore other Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic. In today’s inaugural post, I cover Irving’s second-most-popular tale, “Rip Van Winkle.”

Published (June 1819) nine months before “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle” prefigures the latter piece in many ways. Both works are framed as found texts of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, and take the same satirical approach to Dutch customs and characteristics. They are both set in the Hudson region of New York (“Rip” is centered north of the Valley, in the Catskills), and their principal event transpires on “a fine autumnal day.” “Rip Van Winkle” even references an absentee schoolmaster (Dutch rather than Connecticut Yankee) said to be serving now “in congress”–anticipating the missing Ichabod Crane at the end of “The Legend,” rumored to be a justice in the Ten Pound Court.

At the start of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker depicts the Catskills as “faery mountains” with “magical hues and shapes.” He might not just be waxing poetic here, though, as the area appears to be the haunt of otherworldly beings. While on a squirrel-hunting (and shrew-wife-avoiding) foray into the mountain wilds, Rip encounters a mysterious group of “grave roysters” playing at ninepins (later in the story, a village elder well-versed in local lore claims the figures were the spirits of Hendrick Hudson and the crew of the Half-Moon). When Rip unwisely partakes of the crew’s strange brew, he ends up as spellbound as any human visitor who samples the fare of the faery realm. Rip falls so deeply comatose, he loses two decades of his life during a seemingly single night’s sleep.

However weird this supernatural forwarding of Rip in time might be, it really serves as little more than a plot device. The true eeriness of the tale develops after Rip awakens from his long slumber. Unable to identify his home, family, or familiar haunts, Rip is struck by an awful sense of the uncanny: “Strange names were over the doors–strange faces at the windows–everything was strange. His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” Rip also suffers an identity crisis when he spies a doppelganger of his younger self (actually his loafing, chip-off-the-old-block son): “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 everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name or who I am!” But Rip’s terrors are gradually assuaged, and the story’s more unsettling notes give way to a comic misogyny: Rip draws comfort from the discovery that he has outlived his henpecking wife, who “broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler.” While the shadow of ambiguity hangs over the conclusion of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (did the frightened Ichabod run off, or was he “spirited away” by the Headless Horseman?), Rip’s liberated fate clearly makes for a light-hearted ending.

Yet, interestingly, Knickerbocker’s Postscript to the tale swings the pendulum back towards supernatural atmosphere, as the Catskills are posited as a perennial “region full of fable” and “the abode of spirits.” Native American superstition is explicitly invoked:

In old times, say the Indian traditions, there was a kind of Manitou or Spirit who kept about the wildest recesses of the Catskill Mountains, and took a mischievous pleasure in wreaking all kinds of evils and vexations upon the red men. Sometimes he would assume the form of a bear, a panther, or a deer, lead the bewildered hunter a weary chase through tangled forests and among ragged rocks, and then spring off with a loud ho! ho! leaving him aghast on the brink of a beetling precipice or raging torrent.

Such mischievous, animal-associated racing calls to mind the equine hijinks of a certain Galloping Hessian (cf. the Headless Horseman’s legendary pranking of old Brouwer: “they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge, when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”). The connection grows even more tantalizing in the final paragraph of the Postscript, which recounts the washing away of a hunter following a mishap involving a gourd(!) in the Manitou’s “favorite abode.”

A look back at “Rip Van Winkle” reminds the reader of the aptness of the tale’s pairing (in subsequent book publications and TV adaptations) with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” over the past two centuries. These are not just Irving’s two most famous stories, but fantastically similar as well.

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