Rip Van Winkle | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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Rip Van Winkle | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Washington Irving's 1819 short story "Rip Van Winkle" is the tale of a Dutch-American villager living in the northeastern United States during the colonial era. Set in the picturesque Catskill Mountains, the story begins shortly before the onset of the American Revolutionary War. Rejecting the Puritan work ethic that governed much of daily life during the 18th century, Rip Van Winkle is a ne'er-do-well who avoids labor at all costs and complains that he is constantly berated by his domineering wife. When he retreats to the wilderness for a brief escape, he shares a drink with a group of mysterious men and falls asleep, only to wake up 20 years later with a long white beard. Rip faces the dramatic realization that his wife, along with most of his friends from the village, have since died and that he's entirely missed the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States.

Since its publication, "Rip Van Winkle" has become one of America's most well-known folktales. The story is closely identified with the Catskill region, and many locales in upstate New York attempt to capitalize on the mythology of the story through tourist attractions, such as the Rip Van Winkle monument on Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. Although often considered children's literature, "Rip Van Winkle" is also a cautionary moral tale and a portrait of the ethos of hard work that is considered inherently American.

1. "Rip Van Winkle" was inspired by a German folktale.

While living in England, Irving met Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, who mentioned his appreciation for German folklore. Intrigued, Irving taught himself German and began to explore the culture's folktales. He came across the tale "Peter Klaus" in Otmar's Volksagen (Folktales), published in Germany in 1800. Adapting the story to an American setting, he titled it "Rip Van Winkle" and included it in his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, published in 1819.

2. Irving never visited the Catskill Mountains before he wrote "Rip Van Winkle."

A river journey through the Hudson Valley in 1798 so impressed Irving with the beauty of the Catskills that he adopted them as the setting for "Rip Van Winkle" without ever having set foot on their slopes. Although he'd seen the mountain range from a distance, Irving admitted, "When I wrote the story, I had never been on the Catskills."

3. Some critics interpret "Rip Van Winkle" as an examination of the American Revolution.

"Rip Van Winkle" can be interpreted as a satiric examination of the American Revolution and its aftermath, with the wife, Dame Van Winkle, representing British rule and interference in the lives of the colonists. Rip represents the dissatisfaction of the colonists who wish to go their own way, without the "nagging" of a faraway monarch. Rip's confusion upon his reentry into the village represents the attempts of citizens to go about their lives under a new government with new rules.

4. The Flintstones once paid homage to "Rip Van Winkle."

Cartoon character Fred Flintstone starred in an adaptation of the story titled "Rip Van Flintstone." In the episode, Fred falls asleep at a company picnic and awakens 20 years later to find the company gone, his wife, Wilma, a widow, his friend Barney a rich oilman, and his daughter, Pebbles, married to Barney's son, Bamm-Bamm. All is restored to normal when Fred actually wakes up and realizes it was all a dream.

5. A Rip Van Winkle bridge spans the Hudson River.

Built in the 1930s, the Rip Van Winkle bridge connects the towns of Catskill, New York, and Hudson, New York. To commemorate Irving's story, the bridge was constructed in the Dutch Colonial architectural style, paying homage to Rip Van Winkles's Dutch ancestry and the Dutch legacy of New York State.

6. Thomas Edison produced the first film adaptation of "Rip Van Winkle" in 1896.

Nearly 80 years after its publication, "Rip Van Winkle" was first adapted into a motion picture production. American actor Joseph Jefferson appeared in eight short silent scenes based on the story, which were filmed partly in inventor Thomas Edison's New Jersey studio. In 1903 the individual scenes were edited together, providing audiences with a film that—for its day—was an epic four minutes in length.

7. Stories similar to "Rip Van Winkle" appear in mythologies around the world.

While the inspiration for Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" is traced to a particular German folktale, similar stories appear in mythologies across the globe. The Hebrew story of Honi Ha-Me'agel tells of a man who sleeps for 70 years to wait for a carob tree to grow so he can finally enjoy the fruit. An early Christian myth known as Seven Sleepers of Ephesus speaks of a group of Christians who sleep for 200 years in a cave to escape the persecution of a Roman emperor. Chinese and Japanese mythologies also feature stories of individuals who sleep for decades, only to awaken to a changed world. These fish-out-of-water narratives provide an entertaining way to contrast past and present ways of life.

8. "Rip Van Winkle" inspired a line of bourbon.

Distilled in Kentucky from a 120-year-old recipe, Rip Van Winkle bourbon is a popular brand among whiskey drinkers around the world. Aged bottles of the beverage often sell for prices far higher than the amounts suggested by the manufacturer. The beverage's high price is due to the small quantities produced each year, which are often sold out through preorders months in advance.

9. Although the story is set in New York, another location was once named "the Rip Van Winkle State."

In the mid-19th century some dissatisfied residents of North Carolina took to calling their home "the Rip Van Winkle State" after Irving's character, who slumbered while major events were going on around him. The North Carolina residents complained that their state's economy was asleep, while all around them the economies of neighboring states were wide awake and teeming with trade and manufacturing.

10. Irving began writing after a failed business venture that forced him to declare bankruptcy.

Between 1816 and 1818 Irving worked in Liverpool, England, trying to salvage his brothers' failing import firm. When, despite his efforts, the business was forced into bankruptcy, Irving turned to his writing to earn a living. He found success with a collection of short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, serialized in 1819, which included "Rip Van Winkle."

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