Rip Van Winkle and the American Phantasy

The ghosts that haunt the lonely corners of the globe have ever managed to play an uncanny and incalculable role in the rolling course of the world, and might even be considered the goblin guides of human history. Whether by visions or voices from the grave, the disembodied beings beloved by lore are a presence and a power to those yet embodied, though what wisdoms or wiles move them to wail in a churchyard or whisper at a chink can only be approached with wonder and a shudder. If any purpose can be permitted to these shades and sprites, whatever they are, it may be imagined that their motivations are aligned with the effects that their eerie interactions universally produce—namely, the rattling reminder that there is far more than meets the eye of man, and that the fabric of reality is comprised by the upright human warps that walk the earth and the interweaving phantasmal wefts that float and flit over and under, above and below, through and throughout, binding all together—and few pages bind this mystery of being together as famously and fetchingly as Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving.

The story of Rip Van Winkle, 1819 is a legendary account of an unproductive, ineffectual, unambitious, yet dear and bumbling farmer whose fields lay wasted in the sun, whose house groaned for repair, and whose wife nagged and henpecked (to say nothing of that veritable gorgon of a shrew). Regarding the more positive of Rip’s possessions, he had a good dog, a good gun, and a good temper. Rip was a meek man who stumbled charmingly in a wide berth around the labors of life, taking every shortcut available to share grave gossip with the old men at the old King George inn; or to make, mend, and fly the kites of local urchins, in whose playful, simple souls he found kindred. Rip was a mild man who sought some childish, fantastical escape from the workaday world, and he found it—or it found him—during a lonesome, daydreaming hunt up in the wild Kaatskill Mountains that loom and lower to the west of the Hudson. Overtaken now by one, now by a host of curiously ancient gnomes of curiously ancient dress whose silent and somber play at ninepins made thunder bellow in the gorges below, Rip Van Winkle was given a flagon of curiously intoxicating liquor which sent him into a deep sleep.

Upon waking utterly alone under bleak sky and bleaker circumstances, and immediately fearing the fury of Dame Van Winkle, Rip Van Winkle creaked his crooked way back down the mountainside to the village—only to find the whole world changed. The people were strange and more numerous. The children chased and chided. The buildings were stark and straggling. The dogs were unfamiliar and fierce. The old King George III had become the old General George Washington. The idleness and inactivity and gossip had shifted to industry, action, and politics. Blinking though his wild, white beard and wringing his rusted, rotted gun, Rip Van Winkle called for his lost king and country only to be suspected of being a spy. Progress and prosperity had finally caught up with Rip and flung him like an impish ninepin ball out of his world of laziness where labor was heavy and into a world of liberty where labor was light—and where he might find the leisure he had longed for all his life.

Rip Van Winkle had slumbered for twenty lumbering years clear through the Revolution, and had been given a different world by the knowing and oddly obliging goblins—a world in which Rip appeared as strange as one of those same goblins. He had slept sweetly into the dawn of a fresh-faced freedom from tyranny—especially with his wife six feet under—and an age where he could with license at last be a cracker-barrel elder and a tale-teller to the young. The motions of the invisible powers that play ninepins throughout the world and light upon the lives of men cast shimmers and shadows that shiver like autumn leaves with all the glorious and dull shades that bring both blessings and curses. Ghosts may be dead and gone, but they affect the living here and now in ways beyond the ken of men as deserts and desires and destinies are doled, often showing that the progress of the world can be as inconsequential to a man who loves a good nap as a good nap. In this vein, the lives of men can become haunted by their very own lives, rendering them drifting representatives of bygone days and ghosts before their time.

Though brief, Rip Van Winkle is a long-striding giant of American literature and folklore. Rip Van Winkle himself is often viewed as a type of American anti-hero, being the lazy, lovable fool who slept through the country’s awakening only to wake up himself after the fact and the factions, and shrugged the whole thing off. Whatever Rip Van Winkle was dreaming, it was not the American Dream. His was a dream that dreamed hard work, determination, initiative, success, house and family and dog into oblivion rather than into existence. But such are some dreamers. The world may rise and fall and rise again all it likes, the Old World will ever retain its lingering, languid ghosts. Rip Van Winkle is a story that defies the tests of time even as its hero did because it presents a wide and independent worldview. It offers a pleasant, pastoral portrayal of humanity and illustrates its relations with the natural and the supernatural in mysterious yet down-to-earth terms. This is a typical function of mythic tradition, and Irving’s record of this old legend provides a taste for the way America’s forefathers viewed the land, the landowners, and the outlandish. It is a ghost story that conjures up one of the many ghosts of America, giving readers a sense of life and living in the great State of New York for the descendants of the early Dutch settlers and the spirits that thundered in the mountains.

Rip Van Winkle is a ghostly reminder that the other-worldly can, in one way or another, change the world by changing the world’s aspect and attitude. It can also doom some to remain imbrued in the past like nostalgic tombstones of themselves. It can also startle folks to face fairy miracles and mysteries. The tales that tell of such stirrings lie buried and ready to rise in many a dusty tome of terror. But they are also to be readily heard from the mouths of old wives, which, though perhaps no less dusty, are certainly far less terrifying. These are the watchful keepers of the weird secrets of the world, and their yarns and hearsays reunite the facts of life to the faeries of life. These are the stories and storytellers that awaken men from secular slumber to truths that that are forgotten or out of fashion or even fearful, and Washington Irving and his Rip Van Winkle are members of this homely, happily haunted company.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

The Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture is a project of The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

Phone: (603) 880-8308
Fax: (603) 880-9280
Contact via email

Copyright © 2024 Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. All rights reserved.