Rip Van Winkle and how American culture is linked to other cultures

By Joao Cunha

Rip Van Winkle is a story based on the changes of post-revolutionary war America. Rip after his 20-year slumber is unable to adjust to an independent nation. When Rip was asked who he voted for in the election, he was puzzled.

He did eventually answer, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!” (Irving, 12)

This response nearly set the citizens of the Catskills into a riot, as it brought up a distant past they wanted no part of.  Rip had a hard time adjusting to the present, as his friends died fighting the British in the revolutionary war. (Irving, 12)

His  “heart died away” hearing the stories of friends dying at war, and he was “puzzled” by this new America. (Irving, 12)

However after getting settled and meeting his daughter Judith he became a reference point as a symbol of the old times”before the war” (Irving, 15) This story demonstrates America’s evolution and its independence from Britain. Rip being Dutch and a foreign figure is vital as he’s seen as a separate part of America. He was very different from the people in post-war America. His famed “idleness” was seen as a part of a separate America, one that is in the past that in that present that seemed foreign to the Catskills.  However the story is not just influenced by America, its roots are in Dutch art as well. Irving’s fascination with Dutch art had an impact on his work, as his text was full of “coloring of language” (Zlogar, 44). His descriptive story is inspired by the Dutch artwork that he admired. (Zlogar, 44-45) so the work is still dependent in other cultures, it’s not a purely “American work” but one that is influenced by other cultures. America’s need for independent in a culture is manifested in the story Rip’s desire to escape yet neither Rip nor America can escape this dependency in others.

Rip Van Winkle

This was a famous painting depicting Rip Van Winkle after he wakes up from his slumber. He has his long beard and is clearly aged in the painting, Yet Rip is still seen as a statesman like figure, pointing his staff in defiance. Which shows that Rip is imagined to be a powerful figure even after spending 20 years asleep. The painting was done by John Quidor who was a great admirer of Washington Irving’s work. In fact he worked on several works of art that were related to Irving. 1829 was the year that his painting was completed

Irving using Rip as a symbol tried to reconcile America’s a fledgling republic yet at the same time acknowledging its foreign roots. Rip’s awakening was an allegory for America’s own realization that it is a country that is indepedent yet needs others to produce its own culture. America’s British roots, Dutch artwork were a part of the “dependency” of America’s cultural production. This cultural production was inextricably linked to the what many Americans saw themselves as. As Terence Martin noted, “The United States was new but a self-consciously old nation” (Martin,137). This “consciousness” that Americans had explains why they wanted to separate themselves from the past, as they wanted to believe in “progress” both culturally and as a new nation.(Martin, 137) In many ways that is why Rip becomes a old relic to the catskills, as a reminder and warning of the past America had left behind. The reconciliation of the town and Rip is complete, as Rip tells his story to “every stranger that arrived in Mr. Doolittle’s hotel” (Irving, 15).Irving through this reconciliation is able to bridge a connection to America’s past and that time period, and shows the interdependency between history and culture. Rip wasn’t just a separation of America, he became the link between the past and the present in the story. Rip woke up to the reality of a different world, in the same way America woke up and slowly reconciled the fact that it may not be culturally independent.  

Works Cited

Quidor, John, “Rip Van Winkle”, Art Institute of Chicago.

Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle”, Short Story America, 1-16.

Martin, Terence. “Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination.” American Literature 31, no. 2 (1959): 137-49.

Zlogar, Richard J. “”Accessories That Covertly Explain”: Irving’s Use of Dutch Genre Painting in “Rip Van Winkle”.” American Literature 54, no. 1 (1982): 44-62.

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