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Rip Van Winkle | Context

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Nostalgia and Change

Dutch immigrants were some of the earliest European settlers in the region that would become the United States. The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam came under British control in 1664, and its name was changed to New York. By Rip Van Winkle's time, the inhabitants knew and repeated tall tales about the original Dutch settlers.

Under the English, settlements became more populous as waves of English immigrants arrived. As the population increased, commerce grew as well. New York and the surrounding countryside experienced economic growth. By the time the American Revolution (1775–83) ended, citizens of the new republic embraced their civic duty, such as voting. They also celebrated and profited from a growing economy. Trade in agricultural products flourished, and industry began to play an important role in the economic life of the nation.

Most Americans were enthusiastic about the booming economy. Yet there remained for some a twinge of nostalgia for an earlier, simpler way of life, such as the life depicted in the first pages of "Rip Van Winkle." Irving captures this nostalgia in "Rip Van Winkle" and in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," published in the same collection. "Rip Van Winkle" highlights the main character's astonishment that the "very character" of his townspeople has changed during his sleep from "drowsy tranquility" to a "busy, bustling, disputatious tone." In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," he calls migration and improvement a "great torrent" making "incessant changes" in a "restless country," language that shows that Irving, too, was ambivalent about those changes.

European Influence

Irving traveled in Europe from 1804 to 1806, particularly in Liverpool, England, and in Spain, and returned to England in 1815 to manage the European part of his family's business. He wrote the first draft of his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., while abroad.

When reading "Rip Van Winkle," it is worthwhile to consider that Irving had spent much time in Europe and felt at home there; in fact, only 4 of the 34 stories in The Sketch Book are about America. As shown by the protagonist's attitudes in "Rip Van Winkle," Irving valued the old ways of England and wanted to preserve them. Consider Irving's quotation about the United States of America: "We are a young people, necessarily an imitative one, and must take our examples and models, in a great degree, from the existing nations of Europe."

When viewed in light of the European influences on Irving's work, "Rip Van Winkle" can be seen as the story of a character who falls asleep under the rule of a long-established country and wakes up in a brand-new one. In the words of scholar Frederick William Dame, through the character of Rip Van Winkle, Irving "emphasized the traumatic absence of the past in the American society, and strived to the creation of [a] national identity."

Literary Predecessor

Irving admitted that an inspiration for his story was a German fairytale called "Karl Katz." It tells of a goatherd whose flock includes a goat that disappears each night but reappears in the morning. Searching to see where the goat goes, he enters a cave, where he finds the little goat eating corn. A dwarf emerges from the cave and leads him to a valley where strange men play at ninepins. Having tasted too much of the men's wine, Karl falls into a deep sleep and awakens to a changed world 20 years later.

Irving did not depart much from the plot of this fairytale. Instead, his genius was in giving the story an American setting that allowed him to contrast the idyllic, slow-paced world of pre-Revolutionary New York to the bustling young country it became as a result of a war.

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