Rip Van Winkle


Washington Irving

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Rip Van Winkle: Genre 1 key example

Explanation and Analysis:

Although "Rip Van Winkle" is easily recognizable today as a short story, its genre was not so easy to pin down at the time it was written. In The Sketchbook of Sir Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the longer work in which the story appeared, Irving experimented with several genres. These included travel writing, the "sketch," the folktale, national literature, and historical fiction.

The frame narrator, Sir Geoffrey Crayon, presents "Rip Van Winkle" and other short "sketches" as anthropological snapshots he has collected through his travels around England and the United States. Travel writing had been a successful genre in the English-speaking world throughout the previous century, as empires expanded, international travel increased, and readers at home eagerly purchased travelers' accounts of life in far-off places.

Travel writing did not always take the form of a collection of short tales. Alongside travel writing, the short-form "sketch" had grown popular in 18th-century periodicals such as Joseph Addison's Spectator magazine. Irving's union of these two genres, and his use of a traveler's frame narrative to unify a series of short stories, hearkens back to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one of the first major literary works written in vernacular English. Just as the Canterbury Tales was a founding piece of England's national literature, Irving aimed for "Rip Van Winkle" to be one of the foundational stories in American literature.

Irving was also clearly responding to Walter Scott's recent success with his Waverley novels, some of the first commercially successful examples of what we now call historical fiction. Scott, like Irving, was a Romanticist. Set in the distant past, his historical novels reanimated dead politicians and war heroes as fictional characters and placed them alongside folk heroes and simple-minded Scottish people not unlike Rip. The novels painted nostalgic fantasies of Scottish history before it became part of the British empire. There are many stylistic similarities with one Scott novel in particular, Old Mortality (1816), which concerns a man who spends his life re-engraving faded gravestones to preserve an obscure chapter of Scottish history. When Rip finds out that the old innkeeper died long ago, "Rip Van Winkle" directly alludes to the impermanence of gravestones that is the central concern of Scott's novel:

"Nicholas Vedder! Why, he is dead and gone these eighteen years! There was a wooden tombstone in the churchyard that used to tell all about him, but that’s rotten and gone too."

As Romanticists, Scott and Irving alike thought that historical fiction could re-inject modern life with feelings and ideas that were rotting out of public discourse and historical records. "Rip Van Winkle" thus helped to establish a genre of Romantic fiction that transports readers into a national past largely forgotten by politics.