Author’s note: “Weekend Short” will cease and become a monthly profile of a short story or novella. The winds of change blow, carrying the scent of the world’s best hot dogs and the country’s worst football team with them; I’m off to Chicago for grad school at Northwestern’s Medill. But be rightly afeared; I’m sticking around as a contributing writer and editor — NR’s grammarians will have many more dangling modifiers and tortured metaphors to suffer going forward.
Welcome to the weekend!
Nature is in revolt. It’s a slow-moving revolution, but every shrub and flower has taken it upon itself to grow far beyond the arbitrary bounds set for it inside the gardener’s head. This verdure is a vigorous rejection of March’s suggestion that nothing could possibly grow and the property was doomed to resemble a New Vegas wasteland abutting the neighbors’ handsome putting-green lawns — baseless anxiety.
Today’s short story is Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” a tale from the Old World remade for the expanding mythology of the New. Published in 1819 and written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker — first employed in Irving’s satirical Dutch history of New York (enough beloved by the people of that place that it is now a nickname for New Yorkers) — “Rip Van Winkle” tells of a good but indolent man’s oppressions in the shadow of the “Kaatskill” Mountains.
Knickerbocker (Irving) writes:
WHOEVER has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers. When the weather is fair and settled, they are clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory.
At the foot of these fairy mountains, the voyager may have descried the light smoke curling up from a village, whose shingle-roofs gleam among the trees, just where the blue tints of the upland melt away into the fresh green of the nearer landscape. It is a little village, of great antiquity, having been founded by some of the Dutch colonists, in the early times of the province, just about the beginning of the government of the good Peter Stuyvesant, (may he rest in peace!) and there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing within a few years, built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland, having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weathercocks.
The tale has such charm. The description of Rip as “one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble . . .” practically bounces. But Irving hid behind a pen name (clever as it was).
Adult status anxieties are peculiar; they’re equal parts departure from, and continuation of, the drama a 96-pack of Crayola crayons with a sharpener engenders — a delineation of the “haves” and “have-nots” already in elementary school. Certainly, early American authors knew the feeling of self-imposed inferiority even as they sought to differentiate themselves from European counterparts (an emotion that arguably lives still today as the nasally American staff bemoan our accents’ coarseness when heard alongside Charlie’s posh, and Maddie’s dulcet, tones on a podcast).
Consider Chapter 51 of Moby Dick, wherein Melville recounts how the quantifiably inferior English whalers would nonetheless “affect a kind of metropolitan superiority over the American whalers; regarding the long, lean Nantucketer, with his nondescript provincialisms, as a sort of sea-peasant. But where this superiority in the English whaleman does really consist, it would be hard to say, seeing that the Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than all the English, collectively, in ten years.” Irrational but observable assumed statuses.
This tension between our sociopolitical progenitors and the aspirations of the United States is foundational to Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.” While cruel in its treatment of the wife figure, the shrewish Dame Van Winkle can be understood as the crown, whose ostensibly unimpeachable edicts the colonies could do naught but accept (or cleave from).
What I appreciate about “Winkle” is how conservative it is in its treatment of change — the 20 years of slumber allow the reader to understand the before and after, i.e., the trade-offs to independence. Even when the end result was exceptional and good, the cornerstones of the village went to war and never returned. Unsurprising, really, given the pragmatism of the Dutch and their descendants.
Pray take notice of the postscript. After Knickerbocker accedes that there was someone like a Rip Van Winkle in German folklore, he then pulls in American Indian stories of the Catskills and the old squaw who commands the mountains and their humors while a Manitou (spirit) would bedevil those beneath the peaks. The European and Indian stories weave together as all eyes contemplate the land’s unknowable higher powers.
Here’s Shannon and the Clams with their groovy interpretation of “Rip Van Winkle”:
Author’s note: If there’s a short story or novella you’d like to see discussed in the coming months, please send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you all for making the “Weekend Short” a delight to write.