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Historical Context in Rip Van Winkle

Historical Context Examples in Rip Van Winkle:

Rip Van Winkle

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"a tory..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Colonists who sided with the British during the American Revolution were called “tories,” in reference to Britain’s monarchist political faction of that name. Rip’s being called a tory shows the time gap between him and the present inhabitants, which adds to his confusion.

"the first discoverer of the river and country, kept a kind of vigil there..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Mythological traditions of sleeping kings hidden in mountains are prevalent throughout Europe. These traditions frequently include promises of the kings’ eventual return to their countries. The United States is no longer under the sway of a monarchy, but Hudson is fulfilling the role of an attentive ruler, watching with “a guardian eye” over the land he mapped for settlement. By incorporating this European tradition into “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving is elevating the mythology of the United States the the same level as that of more firmly established countries. He is also implying for the US a longevity that will be comparable to that of European empires.

"an old Flemish painting..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

All of the descriptions of the men and their dress, such as the laced doublet and high-crowned hat, give the men an out-of-time feel akin to figures featured in a Flemish painting. Alluding to the painting that was brought over during the establishment of New Netherland depicts the time period in which the men may be from.

"the great Hendrick Hudson..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Henry Hudson (1565–1611) was an English explorer who traveled and sailed through the northeastern parts of North America. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to find a Northwest Passage to Asia, he navigated through what would become New York which led to the colonization of the area by the Dutch. Peter Vanderdonk claims Hudson and his crew are seen every twenty years. Since this is the same amount of time that Rip has been missing, it’s implied that the stranger carrying the liquor was a member of Hudson’s crew, and the leader of the men playing ninepins was Hudson himself.

"a province of Great Britain..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The mentioning of Great Britain indicates that the time period of the story is set before the American Revolution, which occurred from 1765 to 1783. During this time the colony of New Netherland was no longer controlled by the Dutch, and Great Britain had taken over as the reigning government.

"good Peter Stuyvesant..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Peter Stuyvesant (1610–1672) was appointed director of New Netherland by the Dutch West India Company in 1645. He was largely involved in the beginnings of New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York when it was taken over by the English in 1664. Referencing a historical figure adds authenticity to the story because realistic foundations anchor the fictional story to history. By describing Stuyvesant as “the good,” Knickerbocker is also creating an idealized past, a “once upon a time,” a common setting in folk tales.

"German superstition..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The Kyffhäuser mountain is home to the myth of Emperor Frederick I. In that myth, he doesn’t drown in the 12th century; rather, he is resting and waiting to be revived as his beard continually grows, a trait that Rip shares.

"storming of Stony-Point..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Stony Point is a town in New York that was the site of multiple battles during the Revolutionary War. On the night of July 15, 1779, American troops attacked the fortification that was occupied by the British and won. Though they were unable to keep the fort, the victory boosted the soldiers’ morale. While taking part in this battle would have been considered an honor, the villagers do not know if Brom Dutcher really participated in it or died in a ditch, denoting their indifference to the past and isolation from the important events of the time.

"citizens-elections—members of Congress—liberty—Bunker’s hill—heroes of seventy-six-and other words..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought in 1775, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and in a few sentences, an election will be mentioned between two political parties, the Federals and the Democrats. The first major partisan election was George Washington’s second presidential election, held in 1792. While the villager’s spirits may have caught up with the political fervor of the time, the conflation of these widely spaced events implies that seclusion is still preventing them from participating in political discourse in a seriously meaningful way.

"CARTWRIGHT..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Beginning with a quote from another text is what’s known as an epigraph. Each chapter of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, in which “Rip Van Winkle” was first published, opens with a different epigraph. This one is from the play The Ordinary, written in 1634 by English playwright William Cartwright. While popular in his time, Cartwright’s work may not have been widely familiar to Irving’s readers. Moreover, the character quoted in this passage explicitly copies his words from Chaucer’s “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” Neither Chaucer’s nor Cartwright’s speaker has any intention of keeping the promise he’s made with this oath. For Irving, this provides multiple layers of commentary. The presence of the epigraph, the elevated tone of the words themselves, and the oath of truth to a pagan god all imply that his story is weighty and worth believing. However, appropriate understanding of the quote’s original context reveals that it is actually implying the complete opposite. By employing an epigraph from the consciously plagiarizing work of a lesser-known writer, Irving both alludes to his own frame device and sets a mocking tone for the story to follow.

"his Majesty George the Third..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The emigration of early American colonists was frequently in the aim of directing natural resources back to their homelands. Over time, the colonies formed a shared national identity independent of their European governors. The ensuing American Revolution was against the British government, represented in the American consciousness by the figure of King George III. The perceived misgovernment by George III of his American colonies is outlined in detail in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, and he is described repeatedly as a tyrant of the worst degree. While this is the most common understanding of George’s role in the American Revolution, more recent historical analysis depicts George III in a more favorable light as a constitutional monarch attempting to maintain an elected body’s right to govern its constituents. The portrait on the inn of Rip’s village thus serves to explicitly date the story: events taking place in an American village that displays a portrait of the king of England must predate the Revolutionary War.

"The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor...."   (Rip Van Winkle)

This is the source of the conflict between Rip and his wife, and by extension the obstacle standing between Rip and a peaceful life in his village. It is not strictly true that Rip is unable to provide for himself and his family; he fishes and hunts, and his children are messy but not starving. Moreover, Rip is a conscientious and helpful member of his community, behaving appropriately for the earlier days of American settlement. However, he does not perform the sort of farm work considered productive in the more commercially established American colonies. As the colonies stabilized and began to move toward unification, programs for the encouragement of a market-based economy spread outward from major commercial hubs. Mountain communities like Rip’s would have been slowly converted from subsistence farming, relying on barter and self-reliance to survive, into commercial farming, using money to attempt a betterment of station.

"their wives, rich in that legendary lore..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The phrase Irving is alluding to here is “old wives’ tales,” which is a term used to describe traditional folk beliefs or stories that become part of a cultural narrative without necessarily holding any truth. The story of “Rip Van Winkle” is based on a number of German folktales: Geoffrey Crayon implicates the story of Emperor Frederick I in his note following the story’s end, and the tale of a man wandering into the mountains and sleeping for twenty years is explicitly borrowed from the German figure of Peter Klaus.

"the Dutch History of the province..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The colony of New Netherland was established in the early 1600s by the Dutch West India Company. At the peak of its power, New Netherland included parts of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. It was gradually encroached upon by English settlements to the south, and after a series of conflicts the territory was ceded to England in 1674.

"The following Tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Washington Irving introduces “Rip Van Winkle” in the voice of “Geoffrey Crayon”. Crayon relates the story from the papers of the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, allowing Irving to raise questions of reliability and truthfulness. Irving first introduced Diedrich Knickerbocker as the purported author of his 1809 book, A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. That work was explicitly satirical, and readers familiar with it would know not to trust Knickerbocker’s word.

"ghosts, witches, and Indians..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

Irving has set “Rip Van Winkle” in a very tangible place and time. As he consciously creates folkloric traditions for the American colonies, he involves the traditions that were already there. Stories of ghosts and witchcraft codified fears of the unknown into familiar stories for American colonists, and while relations with Native Americans had been relatively peaceful in the early days of Dutch settlement, continued European expansion eventually resulted in war. By the time of “Rip Van Winkle,” the tribes that used to inhabit the Catskills were widely assumed by settlers to be violent devil-worshippers and had been almost entirely pushed out of the area. This foreshadows how the Dutch and their traditions are being overridden by the English, and will soon be subsumed entirely into the new United States.

"on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

German and Celtic mythologies contain stories about people who fall asleep on green hills which turn out to be entrances to the fairy realm. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” by John Keats, is a poetic treatment of this type of story. Often, the person who has been spirited away experiences time differently than those they leave behind.

"there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired awe, and checked familiarity..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

While modern readers might find it strange, and even silly, that Rip doesn’t question his circumstances, the theme of human helplessness when confronted by an unknown force was common for romantic writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. This contributed to the evolution of gothic literature, in which characters frequently find themselves in thrall to strange and indescribable powers. For Irving’s readers, a character who is unwilling or unable to question a strange experience would not be unusual or jarring.

"the siege of Fort Christina..."   (Rip Van Winkle)

The siege of Fort Christina occurred in 1655 and was a ten-day campaign by the Dutch against the colony of New Sweden and its base, Fort Christina. Upon the Stuyvesant-led Dutch victory, Sweden’s presence in North America was essentially eradicated. The mention of the siege and the military history of the Van Winkle family serves to contrast with Rip’s more simple and listless character.

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