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British Association for American Studies


Issue 16, Spring 2010: Article 2


Issue 16, Spring 2010: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

The Knickerbocker Atlantic: Ritual and Federalism in Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Michael Collins

© Michael Collins. All Rights Reserved.

The relationship of Washington Irving to the genre of the literary sketch has long been established. Seen as a major proponent of the genre in its early manifestation, Irving’s work in The Sketch Book is regarded by many as inaugurating a tradition in American letters of detached, brief and ironic first-person narration with a focus on surface impressions and the visual field. In addition to his achievements in the sketch form, in stories that appeared alongside sketches in The Sketch Book (such as ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle’), Irving pioneered the short story as a distinct genre in nineteenth-century literature. However, owing in part to the disjointed structure of The Sketch Book, critics have tended to treat Irving’s work in each genre as distinct. In this essay I demonstrate how by identifying problems inherent within the form of the literary sketch early in the work Irving precipitated the development of the short story in America. I show how in The Sketch Book, for important political and historical reasons, Irving questions the value of the literary sketch and its techniques of representing the social world. In so doing, Irving creates a new form in the short story, which exhibited a greater capacity for the expression of inter-subjectivity and historical consciousness, and challenged the resistance to the social world present within romanticism’s elevation of individual experience.

Despite the centrality of certain aspects of Irving’s work to American literary history, his reputation has been unstable in relation to issues of an American national literature. In America’s Sketchbook, Kristie Hamilton summarises a common critical approach to the literary sketch work of Washington Irving when she writes, ‘Irving creates the sketch writer as doubly detached—above a scene… and purportedly independent of society’s prejudices as Romantic poets sought to be’.[1] Following this remark Hamilton also states ‘the claim of detachment allied elite educated, Euro-American males with an older, masculine European literary and philosophical tradition that had already been appropriated for the bourgeoisie by, among others, Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson’.[2] In depicting social life through the form of the sketch, Hamilton implies that Irving, Addison and Johnson sought to self-identify as separate from the actions they described; creating themselves as critical, disinterested and ironically detached.

Hamilton’s view of Irving, whom she compares unfavourably to the generation of writers that followed him in political terms, incorporates two common assumptions about the American writer and the literary sketch. Firstly, Hamilton points to Irving’s ‘detached’ manner of narration, marking both an association with a broadly-defined romanticism and with a politically-conservative bourgeois sensibility. Secondly, Hamilton assumes Irving’s experiments in narrative form have an unproblematic relation to British literature, whilst failing to account for the social, temporal and political space that divided Johnson and Addison as much from each other as from the American author.

Hamilton’s perspective emerges from a long tradition in scholarship of Irving’s work that began with Herman Melville’s rejection of him during his early years of association with the ‘Young America’ movement. As Paul Giles remarks in Transatlantic Insurrections, ‘Melville… quickly wrote off Irving’s literary persona Geoffrey Crayon, as an almost plagiaristic extrapolation from the work of Oliver Goldsmith’.[3] In addition to his claims of plagiarism, the Democrat Melville rejected Irving because of his upper-middle-class New York heritage, which was long associated with the earlier, elite, Federalist politics of figures such as Alexander Hamilton. For the young Melville, Irving’s supposed Anglophilia in The Sketch Book did not serve the interests of Young America’s celebration of the Jeffersonian national imaginary with its associated beliefs in natural rights, the ideal of the yeoman farmer and the sublime in nature. Instead, Irving’s literary inheritance came from American Federalism, which, as a political and social system, rejected Jeffersonian anti-urban nationalism in favour of a more positive picture of America’s British mercantile heritage. Alexander Hamilton’s cosmopolitan purview empowered international capitalism at the expense of nationalism, preferring a corporate identity to Jefferson’s sentimental formulation of the nation as a family bound by natural rights and paternalistic bonds of affection.

Following Melville, and for numerous historical and political reasons, many American Studies scholars have rejected Irving’s contribution to American letters as the product of an elite, conservative imagination seeking to distance itself from what was deemed unpleasant, uncomfortable or unappealing in his national culture through reliance on the aesthetic conventions of the English literary sketch. As Dana Brand notes in The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, the tradition begun by figures such as Addison and Steele of ‘a spectatorial persona who enjoys a diversity without grossness, randomness without danger, amusing bustle of mild interest rather than terrifying chaos of profound fascination’ sought to make safe the increasing disorder of modern life for the emerging middle classes.[4] For the liberal, British sketch writer the world became a theatre in which their position corresponded to the view from the central tower of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Addison and Steele’s spectator could see all and yet remain respectively unseen.

In this essay I contend that to see Irving as an unproblematic adopter of English literary forms is to fail to historicise his work correctly within the framework of Federalist and anti-Federalist competition over American identity in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In particular, such perspectives have ignored the manner by which earlier Federalist writers and critics used ritual, performance and competing aesthetic theories concerning the political role of literature to challenge the authority of the Jeffersonians. This has unproblematically tied Irving’s literary productions to traditions in English literature, rather than seeing how his work operates within a complex history of transatlantic and national dispute and exchange.

As Douglas Tallack notes, romanticism has often been privileged in histories of the short story through an elevation of the anti-communal, individualistic and visionary qualities of experience. ‘With no significant tradition prior to the early nineteenth century,’ Tallack writes, ‘it is the short story… which more naturally assimilated the Romantic preference for intense lyric effects’.[5] This tendency has resulted in a literary history that emphasises the historical development and continuity of the romantic mode in America, with its emphasis on individual subjectivity, the lyric and epiphany, at the expense of other competing epistemologies and truth-claims.

To see Irving as a product of a complex culture of transatlantic exchange, rather than as an epigone of British romantic poetry or the eighteenth-century English essay, is to highlight how his work often questions the quixotic, romantic search for essence by elevating the theatrical and playful elements of experience. Through the short story, with its emphasis on gesture, ritual, performance and intersubjective experience, and by turning his gaze on Britain, Irving critiques ideas of romantic distance and the ideal neutral space of the imagination rapidly gaining footing in Jefferson’s America. As Paul Giles states:

Irving avoids… any simple sycophancy to English tradition, but more disturbing for American cultural nationalists would have been the author’s implicit denial that any representation of the ‘natural’ could exist outside… [a] framework of intertextual reflection, comparison, and immersion which the prismatic style of The Sketch Book delineates.[6]

Like many in the Early Republic, Irving doubted the validity of an American national character based upon essentialist principles of the sublime and natural rights of man. These principles were often associated with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party, who saw America’s future in an ideology of agrarian individualism and romantic natural rights. Instead, Irving preferred the Federalist purview of the largely urban middle classes, which favoured the possibilities of a cosmopolitan culture and treated the world as an evolving series of performances, spectacles and experiences. The tradition of letters in which Irving was schooled was one quite different from Addison and Steele’s vision of aesthetic distance and detachment as the path to an objective truth. Whilst many English writers thought of literature as providing an ideal, purportedly apolitical space for objective reflection, the prose and reportage of America’s Federalist elites possessed a more immersive relationship with events, rejecting an artificial, discreet frame in favour of a more open, adaptable and ludic interplay of performance and print. As David Waldstreicher remarks in his study of the politics of national celebration in early-republican America, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, American Federalists sought to distinguish themselves from their anti-Federalist and Democratic-Republican opponents by sanctioning:

a repeated move from performance to print and back [that] epitomized a profound, complex set of cultural forms in which traditional festivals were inverted into dirges and reinverted to become celebrations, only to be improved upon in song, in dance, in the streets, in church, and, once again in print.[7]

Whilst anti-Federalists remained sceptical about celebrating a national culture that still included an influential upper-middle-class elite as part of its political landscape, Federalists, in their attempts to ratify the constitution after the War of Independence, favoured a politics of national celebration that saw print as a participant in the same performance of collective feeling as the rituals they described. ‘Reports of celebrations,’ Waldstreicher asserts, ‘helped create the sense that constitutional ratification… was actually a national movement, an inevitable expression of the national popular will’.[8] By colonising print culture and developing aesthetic theories that broke down the distinctions between the printed word and the public world of national celebrations, Federalists developed the logic of unity required for the establishment of a coherent national culture. The public and private realms of performance and writing became mutually interdependent for Federalists in a way that was not true for anti-Federalists, whose interests lay in the private individual’s resistance to the will of national government.

For Federalists, rituals, performances and festivals were simultaneously a way of displaying their elite power and presence within late-eighteenth-century American politics, and demonstrating the assent of the masses to that presence. Unlike anti-Federalists (most of whom would later turn to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party), whose literature adopted a dissenting attitude and favoured romantic assertions of essential laws, sublime truths and the power of nature, Irving’s Federalist leanings led him to envision the world as a series of performances and playful constructions of identity. Furthermore, the pro-urban, commercially speculative sensibility of the Federalist mind engendered an understanding that people were incapable of self-reliant individualism, bound through ritual to a common culture, and that they should yield power to their social betters in questions of politics. For this to work the Federalists had to be seen in the public sphere, not remain unverifiable and critical. As a metaphor for the social world, theatre had greater meaning to Irving and the New York mercantile middle classes than it did to their Jeffersonian opponents. Unlike Addison, Steele, Johnson and Hunt in Britain, whose spectatorial position sought to fashion them as invisible in order to provide a means of critique, Irving’s sketches in The Sketch Book rely upon an American Federalist logic of visibility: to be seen is as important as seeing.

In the following section I read the early chapters of The Sketch Book alongside this tradition of Federalist performance to demonstrate how the progress of Geoffrey Crayon’s narrative functions as a satire of romantic detachment through which Irving questions an essentialised vision of experience. Across The Sketch Book Irving demonstrates a gradual resistance to the detachment of the sketch form that had become associated with expressions of romantic subjectivity, finally settling on the short story with its emphasis on the body, gesture and ritual to articulate his vision of the importance of performance to social identity. In the first essay of The Sketch Book, ‘The Author’s Account of Himself’, Irving opens with an epigraph from John Lyly’s Eupheus that is worth quoting in full.

I am of this mind with Homer, that as the snaile that crept out of her shel was turned eftsoones into a Toad, and thereby was forced to make a stoole to sit on; so the traveller that stragleth from his owne country is in a short time transformed into so monstrous a shape that he is faine to alter his mansion with his manners and to live where he can, not where he would.[9]

Thus, before Crayon has introduced himself in his own words, Irving presents a comic vision of the traveller that alludes at once to the transformative potential of travel and the danger such a process poses to an easy nationalism based upon settled manners and conventions. Lyly’s epigraph suggests that the traveller becomes something unrecognisable or ‘monstrous’ because of his experiences, a figure peculiarly at odds with the polite, ‘rambling’ sentimentalist that we subsequently see Crayon imagine himself to be. Context, the epigraph suggests, is the originary element of character, not inner drives or personal psychology.

A tension therefore exists between the narrative-framing device and Geoffrey Crayon’s own first–person narration. Crayon opens his interventions into The Sketch Book with the statement ‘I was always fond of visiting new scenes and observing strange characters and manners’ before providing a potted history of his life in America that generates an image of constancy.[10] Juxtaposed to the metamorphic Renaissance vision of John Lyly, Crayon sees his life as marked by a consistency typified by phrases such as ‘I was always’ and ‘this rambling propensity strengthened with my years’.[11] In addition, the focus on observation, as opposed to contact or relationship with history suggested by the epigraph, casts Crayon as a detached spectator. Irving begins The Sketch Book playfully by exposing the discontinuities that exist between the narrator’s sense of himself and the transformative capacities engendered by a life of motion and experience.

Crayon alludes to the tradition of spectatorship in which he seeks to establish himself in the final paragraph of the piece when he states, ‘I cannot say that I have studied… with the eye of a philosopher, but rather the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another’.[12] Crayon’s gaze is fleeting, ‘caught sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape’.[13] The incapacity of Crayon to maintain coherence in the face of experience casts doubt on the authority of his proceeding narrative. The tradition of spectatorship inaugurated by Addison and Steele, and in which Crayon seeks to place himself, is questioned through his inability to impose order upon events. As Martin Roth notes of Irving’s earlier persona Dietrich Knickerbocker:

Knickerbocker is the first narrative voice in American literature that rings true… unable to order the story in his mind, unable to exert any control over the story he wishes to tell, unable to decide whether the story is fact, myth, actual or marvellous.[14]

In an earlier passage from ‘The Author’s Account of Himself’ Crayon alludes to his discontent with his current American scene:

I visited various parts of my own country, and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery, I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification for on no country have the charms of nature been more prodigiously lavished… no, never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery.[15]

For Crayon, the meaning of America has become inextricably tied to romantic conceptions of the sublimity of the New World. Crayon feels little parity with the grandeur of American scenery, but his response to it is expressed in the register of Romanticism. Even as Crayon purports to reject the Romantic worldview, he is subject to its influences, describing the landscape in terms that were already becoming outdated by 1819 through association with Jefferson’s common declarations of America’s future promise. ‘Her mighty lakes,’ Crayon states, ‘like oceans of liquid silver; her mountains with their bright aerial tints; her valleys teeming with wild fertility; her tremendous cataracts thundering in their solitudes’.[16] The enthusiastic viewer of early-nineteenth-century romanticism has come to resemble a bored, lone spectator longing for some new object to gratify him: ‘had I been merely a lover of fine scenery, I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification’.[17] As Albert Von Frank remarks in The Sacred Game (1985), Crayon is a confused character in whose narrative it is ‘often difficult to distinguish between the literary nationalist, with his grudge against history, and the provincial Anglophile who wants nothing more than to have history reassert itself’.[18] Irving plays out these tensions through the sketch form, which possesses at once a historical association with English literature and a formal propensity towards the disembodied consciousness that marked an anti-Federalist culture of romanticism.

Ironically, Crayon’s desire to see the world as ‘from the window of one print shop to another’ replaces the stultifying experience of the sublime landscape with an equally staid and detached series of tableaux that are really nothing more than a degraded form of romantic disinterest.[19] Bored by expressions of the sublime in nature, but yet unable to abandon his reliance upon the sketch form’s inbuilt romantic sensibility, Crayon unknowingly presents himself as conflicted. In this way, Irving satirises the kinds of grand nationalist rhetoric often associated with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party as well as the more insidious manner by which the American mind is colonised and delimited by such rhetoric. The narrative of The Sketch Book concerns Irving’s attempt, through Crayon, to resist appropriation by a romantic sensibility increasingly becoming inseparable from Jefferson’s cultural nationalism and Anglophobia.

Irving’s challenge to romanticism is continued in the second essay of The Sketch Book, ‘The Voyage’, in which Crayon is consistently foiled in his attempts to envision the Atlantic in terms that correspond with the romantic ideal of an imaginative neutral space. Crayon remarks, ‘the vast space of waters, that separates the hemispheres is like a blank page in existence… From the moment you lose sight of the land you have left, all is vacancy until you step on the opposite shore…’.[20] However, in the paragraph immediately following this assertion, Crayon undercuts himself by describing this sense of ‘vacancy’ as at once liberating and troubling, providing the mind with a space for ‘meditation’ and ‘reverie’ as well as an object of profound fear and trepidation. Crayon remarks, ‘a wide sea voyage severs us at once… it makes us conscious of being cast loose from the secure anchorage of settled life and set adrift upon a doubtful world’.[21] For Irving, the sublime and the terrifying share a common space in the imagination. Crayon wishes to find comfort in the ‘vacancy’ produced by the ocean, but instead finds a terrifying sense of disconnection and solitude. In this way Irving emphasises the equation of romanticism and the genteel ‘sauntering gaze’ of the sketch genre he first made in ‘The Author’s Account of Himself’. By suggesting that the blankness of the ocean and the ‘picturesque’ qualities of the sketcher’s tableaux share a common space in the imagination, Irving collapses the distinction that Crayon makes between the ‘sublime and beautiful of natural scenery’ and ‘the picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another’. Crayon’s desire for the aesthetic distance suggested by his decision to adopt the sketch form is mapped onto the strange fear he has for the ‘vacancy’ of the ocean. Aesthetic distance becomes a source of profound terror, rather than a way of providing comfort and safety for middle-class readers, as it had in the cases of Addison, Steele and Johnson.

When later reflecting on the terror and awe associated with the ocean Crayon retracts his remarks about the ‘vacancy’ of the sea. Instead, he suggests, ‘a sea voyage is full of subjects for meditation: but then they are wonders of the deep and of the air, and rather tend to abstract the mind from worldly themes’.[22] Never failing to miss an opportunity to satirise his hapless narrator’s commitment to romantic reverie, Irving immediately places Crayon in a position whereby he is forced to confront the ‘worldly themes’ from which he often ‘tend[s] to abstract the mind’. Crayon writes:

We one day spied some shapeless object drifting at a distance… It proved to be the mast of a ship that must have been completely wrecked; for there were the remains of handkerchiefs, by which some of the crew had fastened themselves to a spar to prevent their being washed off by the waves… But where, thought I, is the crew!—Their struggle has long been over—their bones lie whitening among the caverns of the deep. Silence—oblivion, like the waves, have closed over them… [23]

In the context of the recent War of 1812 the image of a shipwreck and drowning sailors seems poignant. The sublime is tied in his mind to nation and seems to annihilate the individual, removing all prospects of identification and creating a ‘vacancy’. Not only has the sea, contemporaneously bound by Burke’s theories of the sublime to the exercise of state power, presumably killed all of the men aboard, but it has also annihilated all records of the ship’s name. The erosion of the ship’s name is Irving’s poignant warning against unverifiability that is, in turn, a critique of the sketch form’s claims to aesthetic detachment. For Irving, bellicose nationalism, claims to a position of aesthetic detachment, and romanticism share a common space in the early nineteenth-century Atlantic imaginary.

In the chapter entitled ‘Roscoe’, Crayon encounters an English writer whose charity, generosity and talent serve as a model for him. The narrator remarks that Roscoe was ‘born in a place apparently ungenial to the growth of literary talent’.[24] This statement mirrors Crayon’s earlier assessment in ‘The Author’s Account of Himself’ of the limited opportunities available to an American writer who is not ‘merely a lover of fine scenery’. Roscoe is a partial reflection of the narrator, but his relationship to the world around him suggests a level of engagement that Crayon denies through his commitment to an aesthetic based on a ‘sauntering gaze’. Roscoe, unlike Crayon, ‘has turned the whole force of his talents and influence to advance and embellish his native town’.[25] Crayon depicts Roscoe as an uncanny other to himself. This mirroring serves Irving in his project of imagining a radical bond between Britain and America that relies upon a logic of commonality and reflection rather than separateness. As Giles states, ‘in the early nineteenth century, American and British culture comprised disturbing mirror images for each other in light of their newfound separatism’.[26]  From this perspective Roscoe is a synecdoche for the wider aesthetic concerns of The Sketch Book. What distinguishes Roscoe from other English writers is his refusal to use his writing as a tool to distance himself from the world; a lesson that is consciously directed against Crayon himself. In the sketch, Irving suggests that the exercise of international travel should produce a consciousness in which the claims of the sketch writer to critical distance and authority are consistently challenged or undermined. For Irving, the sketcher should be forced to reflect upon his own condition, engaging in a reflexive double-vision that forces the subject to recognise his identity as constructed through social engagements rather than in the exclusive mental space of romantic detachment. In this way it is possible to see the division between Irving’s own aesthetic vision and that of his narrator. Crayon always reasserts his neutrality and detachment from the scenes he views, whilst Irving, in borrowing from the performance culture of American Federalism, conceived of the function of literature as establishing a ritual in which the viewer and the viewed subject were connected by a common culture and bound by duty to expressions of civic virtue. ‘Roscoe’ operates by demonstrating the construction of identity within a social space of interaction.

It is following these sketches and their challenges to the authority of aesthetic detachment and the ideality of a neutral space free from history that Irving presents the reader with ‘Rip Van Winkle’, regarded by many as one of the first genuine ‘short stories’ in the English language. It is in the creation of a new genre in the short story that Irving is able to more adequately explore the tensions inherent in romanticism’s claims to representation. ‘Rip Van Winkle’, besides being more-or-less the first, is perhaps the most famous American short story of the nineteenth century. It is the story of a man in the late-eighteenth-century who, to escape his bullying wife, goes off into the woods to shoot squirrels near the Hudson River. There he encounters the ghosts of some old Dutch burghers, drinks a flagon of beer, and falls asleep for twenty years. Upon waking he discovers that the revolution has taken place and he is the citizen of a new government, the United States of America.

Whilst Geoffrey Crayon’s interventions in The Sketch Book show his desire to remove himself from history through the sketch’s claims to an ideal disembodied space of objective vision, ‘Rip Van Winkle’ begins by establishing its relation to history and myth through the presentation of the story’s increasingly baffling series of prior narrators. Irving frames the narrative as ‘A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker’, which the Dutch-American has collected, in turn, from the wives of ‘old burghers… rich in that legendary lore so invaluable to true history’.[27] Furthermore, Knickerbocker begins his manuscript with an epigraph from the seventeenth-century English dramatist William Cartwright that reads: ‘By Woden, God of Saxons/ From whence comes Wensday, that is Wodensday/ Truth is a thing that ever will I keep/ Unto thylke day in which I creep into/ My sepulchre’.[28] Even before beginning the story proper, by referring in the epigraph to the origin of Wednesday in the name of the Viking god Woden, Irving presents the reader with an example of the connection between modern language and older myth. By appealing to Woden, the poem’s narrator implies that the ‘Truth’ is found in the relation of modern consciousness to history and myth. Irving alerts the reader to the centrality of history to contemporary identities and ‘truth’, a function of social conditioning over time, rather than the essentialism of romantic thought.

Modern theories of the short story that have emphasised the relation of the genre to myth have tended to do so in a somewhat abstracted, dehistoricised manner. Whilst claims to the mythic origins of the short story are typical, few have attempted to map Irving’s early work in the form onto the specific historical circumstances of creation. Mary Rohrberger argues that the short story genre has its ‘beginning in myths and legends wherein the reader is asked to put the extensional world out of mind and deal in and with a kind of underworld… a mystical world of paradox and ambiguity’.[29] In referring to the ‘Romantic tradition’ Rohrberger is not speaking of the romanticism of the early nineteenth century so much as the medieval romance of questing knights errant and symbolic action. Furthermore, since early works of anthropology, such as Jessie L. Weston’s groundbreaking From Ritual to Romance (1920) and J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), mythic narrative has frequently been treated as having its origins in Christian and pre-Christian ritual processes. As Catherine Bell states in the introduction to Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), ‘The study of ritual began with a prolonged and influential debate on the origins of religion’, before remarking that ‘for Frazer and his followers, the theme of the ritually dying and reviving god became the basis of all myth and folklore’ in Western literature.[30]

Whilst this may be true of all short story narrative there are historical reasons for Irving’s decision to adopt this form at this time. Irving’s Federalism is discernible in ‘Rip Van Winkle’s’ move away from a concern with the individual subjective response into a realm of folklore in which human action is understood in relation to collective codes of meaning operating in the public sphere. The pattern of the story resembles the mythic basis that Frazer, Weston and Otto Rank saw as the origin of all folklore, a ‘ritually dying and reviving god’ that takes on the role of society’s redeemer.[31] Rip’s sleep and his subsequent awakening into a new world corresponds with this early anthropology, but the world that Irving wishes Rip to redeem is the world of the New American nation that he saw as rapidly galvanising, not around community, but an ahistorical vision of the power of the individual.

By transferring narrative focus in The Sketch Book from the individual to the collective, from Crayon’s spectatorship to Knickerbocker’s mythic storytelling, Irving fashioned the short story as a genre that operates within an inter-subjective matrix closer to ritual than to the sketch’s aesthetic detachment. It is in this manner that Irving resists appropriation by the Jeffersonian symbolic order, which sought to fuse nationalism and individualism together in its vision of American identity. It is in the short story, with its folkloric and ritualistic origins, that Irving’s cosmopolitan consciousness finds its strongest voice in dissent against the Democratic-Republican Party’s romantic, ahistorical and culturally amnesiac imagination.

This can be seen in the plot of the story, in which Rip’s famous sleep in the woods above his village causes him to pass, however briefly, out of history, a process that is presented as a trauma. Like the conflation of nullity and sublimity that attend Crayon’s vision of the sea in ‘The Voyage’, the ‘awe and apprehension’ that Rip feels as he gazes on the mysteriously silent ghosts of the Kaatskill mountain results in his withdrawal from conventional temporality: ‘his senses were overpowered, his eyes swam in his head… and he fell into a deep sleep’.[32] It is important to note that Rip’s temporary removal from history is sanctioned by his temporary removal from community. Rip’s flight into the woods is presented as a retreat into the individual consciousness, rendered by Irving through Rip’s entry into a fugue state; a psychologically complex condition characterised by total amnesia and detachment. The blankness associated with Crayon’s mind in the earlier sketch ‘The Voyage’ is transferred onto Rip at this point. In so doing, Irving comments on the limits placed upon memory by the individual gaze and necessary brevity of the sketch form. As he ‘rambles’ alone in the woods Rip becomes ‘unconscious’ of his surroundings. It is in this state that he encounters ghosts with whom he cannot interact in any meaningful way in ‘a hollow like a small amphitheatre’.

On entering the amphitheatre new objects of wonder presented themselves. On a level spot in the centre was a company of odd-looking personages playing at ninepins… Their visages too were peculiar… The whole group reminded Rip of figures in an old Flemish painting… they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed.[33]

In a moment of lonely reverie Rip is transformed from a figure embodying the spirit of community into a passive observer closer to the kind that Irving had satirised earlier in The Sketch Book through Geoffrey Crayon’s narration. Indeed Crayon’s own idiosyncratic lexis is even used to describe Rip’s response to the ghosts. Irving has Knickerbocker describe them as ‘figures in an old Flemish painting’ directly referencing Crayon’s earlier description of life as a ‘picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another’. Furthermore, the ‘amphitheatre’ in which the event takes place is the theatre of the sketcher’s imagination, a place for viewing images with which he does not interact. Rip becomes a passive viewer who receives new objects of wonder but remains largely invisible and unacknowledged by the subjects he views. Rip’s sleep is the terrifying corollary of the sketcher’s romantic vision, a utopian annihilation of history and community through the disembodiment of the viewing subject.

In the story, Rip Van Winkle’s decision to escape into the woods of the Kaatskill Mountains is the result of a depression caused by his ‘termagant wife’s’ forceful insistence that his labour be for the family alone. ‘Poor Rip’, Irving writes, ‘was at last reduced almost to despair… his only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm and the clamour of his wife’.[34] Whilst Rip ‘would never refuse to assist a neighbour even in the roughest toil’, he is unwilling to do ‘family duty, and keep[…] his farm in order’.[35] Irving fashions Rip as the functional opposite of Jefferson’s ideal yeoman farmer in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), a man who feels that his duty is to a wider community and not to the individual or the family.

In short, Rip lacks the self-interest required for citizenship in Jefferson’s future American republic. Through Rip’s wife Irving shows how a focus on an ideal domestic sphere and Jefferson’s model of individual labour have an uncanny parity: an austere self-interest that is contrary to the festive, collective culture of the Federalist imagination. It is against the twinned forces of romantic reverie and domestic self-interest that Irving depicts theatricalised exchange as a radical force of cosmopolitan anti-nationalism. Irving’s political vision is embodied in the new relationship that Rip has with his son upon his return to the village, which, through the image of their identical physicality, transforms a familial and patriarchical power relationship into the more egalitarian relation of fraternity.

Rip looked and beheld a precise counterpart of himself, as he went up the mountain: apparently as lazy and certainly as ragged. The poor fellow was now completely confounded. He doubted his own identity, and whether he was himself or another man.[36]

Whilst his first impression is one of confusion and terror at seeing his doppelgänger, upon learning his name is also Rip Van Winkle, he comes to serve as an ameliorating force within the narrative, an identical other that provides a connection between Rip Sr. and the new American nation that Irving had previously depicted as a violent threat. An initial revulsion is replaced with a sense of the radical potential within the bodies of the two Rips to rearticulate continuity between the Old World (Rip Sr.) and the New (Rip Jr.) in the wake of the revolutionary breach. In effect the young Rip becomes what Joseph Roach—following Victor Turner’s categorisation of the ritual process as a desire to redress a breach in the social world of a community through theatre—designates as a ‘surrogate’. In Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996) Roach depicts Atlantic theatrical culture as ‘a genealogy of linked surrogations’, that is, performances that seek to overcome the radical breach of death through a process of embodying the characteristics of dead forebears.[37] In this way, the folkloric origins of the story of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in the Western mythology of a dead and reviving king is manifested as a present concern, overcoming the nationalism of Irving’s own early-Republican moment. The neutral space of objectivity that Geoffrey Crayon seeks in the disembodied aesthetic of the sketch genre is critiqued through Irving’s presentation of the radical potential for transatlantic fraternity that lies within a ritualised treatment of the body. Whilst the sketch form produced a strange cultural amnesia as each event was treated as discrete from every other, the embodied, theatricalised content of ritual served Irving in his Federalist attempt to establish a literature of social memory.

The centrality of ritual and performance to the meaning of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is also manifested in the setting Irving selects for Rip’s return from the mountains after twenty years. Rip’s ritualised ‘rebirth’ conveniently coincides with a time of great festivity, the day of an election, which ties the mythic and ritual sense engendered by Rips rebirth with the transformative power of the democratic process. In this way democracy and revolution are conceived as a tradition, having more to do with continuity than breach. Consequently, Irving restores the concept of revolution to its pre-War of Independence meaning, by imagining Rip as a force that provides a restoration of community through ritual rebirth and election, rather than the dissolution of it through individual self-interest. As Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution:

the word revolution meant originally restoration, hence something which to us is its very opposite… The revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which appear to show all evidence of a new spirit, the spirit of the modern age, were intended to be restorations.[38]

In this way ‘Rip Van Winkle’ seeks to overcome the divisive effects of modern self-interest and inter-subjective conflict by reinstalling a historical consciousness that relies upon a process of ritualised and mythic embodiment. In doing this, Irving helped to establish the short story as a genre within early-nineteenth-century literature that would challenge the dominance of a romanticism that was becoming increasingly tied to insidious forms of cultural nationalism. For Irving, literature served a role similar to ritual or theatre in attributing value to history and community rather than the solitary ‘ramblings’ of a privileged individual.

University of Nottingham


[1] Kristie Hamilton, America’s Sketchbook: The Cultural Life of a Nineteenth-Century Genre (Athens, GA: Ohio University Press, 1998) p. 21.

[2] Ibid., p. 24.

[3] Paul Giles, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) p. 142.

[4] Dana Brand, The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), p. 33.

[5] Douglas Tallack, The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 13.

[6] Giles, op. cit., p.143.

[7] David Waldstreicher, In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), p. 27.

[8] Ibid., p. 55.

[9] Washington Irving, History, Tales and Sketches (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 743.

[10] Ibid., p. 743.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 745.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Martin Roth, Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving (London: Kennikat Press, 1976), p. 169.

[15] Irving, op. cit., p. 744.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 743.

[18] Albert J. von Frank, The Sacred Game: Provincialism and the Frontier Consciousness in American Literature, 1630–1860 (London: CUP, 1985), p. 61.

[19] Irving, op. cit., p. 745.

[20] Ibid., p. 746.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 747.

[23] Ibid., p. 748.

[24] Ibid., p. 753.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Giles, op. cit., p. 163.

[27] Irving, op. cit., p. 767.

[28] Ibid., p. 769.

[29] Mary Rohrberger, ‘The Origins, Development, Substance and Design of the Short Story’ in The Art of Brevity (eds.) Winther, Lothe, Skei. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), p. 6.

[30] Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford: OUP, 1997), pp. 3-5.

[31] Ibid., p. 5.

[32] Irving, op. cit., p. 776.

[33] Ibid., pp. 775-6.

[34] Ibid., p. 773.

[35] Ibid., p. 771.

[36] Ibid., p. 781.

[37] Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 133.

[38] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 43.