“Rip Van Winkle” is a framed story, in which a fictional storyteller (historian Diedrich Knickerbocker) is said to have collected it and in so doing establishes the story’s status as a credible historical account. But we have reason to doubt its status as such. Knickerbocker does not research using historical texts. He instead collects his stories straight from the mouths of Dutch families. His historical “research” consists of oral storytelling. What’s more, the story includes obviously mythological and magical figures, the “strange beings” that “haunt” the Catskill Mountains (later revealed to be the spirit of mutinied ship Captain Hendrick Hudson and his remaining loyal crew). The story opens with a poem about truth; but in the first paragraph Knickerbocker notes the “magical” beauty of the Catskills. There is the immediate suggestion that “Truth” is not the same as “historical fact.”
We know that Knickerbocker has spoken with Rip Van Winkle, whose own story is (we’re told) beyond doubt, but we are also frequently being clued in on details that make the account seem less reliable. For instance, Rip cannot keep his story straight the first few times he tells it, but we are led to believe his eventual consistency is reason enough to believe him. We are repeatedly prompted (paradoxically by Knickerbocker’s constant reassurance) to wonder what is real and what isn’t—and what “truth” itself consists in. Where does the line between history and fiction occur, and can “truth” still be present where facts are in dispute?
Washington Irving was himself a historical writer and biographer as well as a fiction writer in the tradition of American Romanticism. So, his interest in the relationship between truth and fiction, history and the mystical or irrational, is unsurprising. At the time of “Rip Van Winkle’s” publication, America was growing and beginning to construct its national identity. Perhaps the conflation of “history” and “fiction” demonstrated by Diedrich Knickerbocker is meant to suggest that storytelling, art, and culture develop a country’s history and identity as much as so-called “factual” events do. Irving’s interest is not only in compiling America’s historical record, but also in developing (and calling for the further development of) an American mythology, American folk history, and a new and distinct American voice.
Truth, History and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Truth, History and Storytelling Quotes in Rip Van Winkle
There have been various opinions as to the literary character of his work, and, to tell the truth, it is not a whit better than it should be. Its chief merit is its scrupulous accuracy, which indeed was a little questioned on its first appearance, but has since been completely established; and it is how admitted into all historical collections as a book of unquestionable authority.
On nearer approach, he was still more surprised at the singularity of the stranger’s appearance. He was a short, square-built old fellow, with thick bushy hair, and a grizzled beard. His dress was of the antique Dutch fashion—a cloth jerkin strapped around the waist—several pair of breeches, the outer one of ample volume, decorated with rows of buttons down the sides, and bunches at the knees.
It was determined, however, to take the opinion of old Peter Vanderdonk, who was seen slowly advancing up the road. He was a descendant of the historian of that name, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the province. Peter was the most ancient inhabitant of the village, and well versed in all the wonderful events and traditions of the neighborhood. He recollected Rip at once, and corroborated his story in the most satisfactory manner. He assured the company that it was a fact, handed down from his ancestor the historian, that the Catskill Mountains had always been haunted by strange beings. That it was affirmed that the great Hendrick Hudson, the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there every twenty years.
He used to tell his story to every stranger that arrived at Dr. Doolittle’s hotel. He was observed, at first, to vary on some points every time he told it, which was, doubtless, owing to his having so recently awaked. It at last settled down precisely to the tale I have related, and not a man, woman, or child in the neighborhood but knew it by heart. Some always pretended to doubt the reality of it, and insisted that Rip had been out of his head, and this was one point on which he always remained flighty. The old Dutch inhabitants, however, almost universally gave it full credit.