Rip Van Winkle: The local and mythic roots of Irving’s timeless tale

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When I moved to Saugerties, one of the first places I explored was the old library. At the far end of the room, hidden behind the shelves, there was a reading alcove with some wooden chairs gathered around a fireplace with a tiled mantle. The tiles, with their sculpted relief in the historic arts and crafts style, illustrate what is probably the most famous fable to come out of the Hudson Valley, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. Here in a series of images, we find the familiar tale of a henpecked husband, who, looking for peace of mind, hiked with his dog, Wolf, and his fowling-piece to the mountain source of Kaaterskill Creek. Once there, he met the short, stout ghosts of Henry Hudson and his men and accepted an evening drink that took 20 years to sleep off.

Irving was America’s first internationally acclaimed author and Rip was his most popular character, one who became as well known from the numerous theatrical performances of his tale as from Irving’s writing. As it was Rip’s story that brought the Hudson Valley to the attention of the world, references to Rip Van Winkle are ubiquitous in this area. But Saugerties may have a unique claim to this character. Is it possible that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown?

Irving’s story was first presented to the public in May 1819 in the first installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent. This was during the Romantic era in art and philosophy, which combined a reverence for nature with a fascination for the supernatural. The Catskill Mountains were a preserved area of rugged wilderness in close vicinity to the centers of population in New York and Albany, and they, therefore, were becoming an attraction for Romantic tourists, who wanted to get back to nature and who valued legend and tradition. With his writing, Irving attempted to supply the second element and the legend of Rip Van Winkle was seized on by the Catskill tourist industry, perhaps the first such industry in our country’s history. In 1823, the Catskill Mountain House, the first resort hotel in the U.S., was constructed on top of the cliff, at the foot of North Point, from which the Kaaterskill Creek descends. As local historian John Thorn pointed out in an article in Saugerties Times, by 1826 there was a building claiming to be the Rip Van Winkle House along the road to the hotel. Although Rip is a fictional character, it seems that this fact was soon forgotten and some longtime residents began to claim that they had known him.

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A 1902 postcard showing “Rip Van Winkle’s house”

As the 19th century progressed, Rip continued to be a valued Catskills tourist attraction and many local towns claimed him as their own. The most adamant were Catskill, Kingston, Stone Ridge and Palenville. By the 20th century, Rip’s name seemed to be on everything from hotels to rocking chairs. In 1935, the bridge connecting Catskill and Hudson was named for him. A Rip Van Winkle theme park was built on the plateau above Kaaterskill Clove next to North Lake, which is the source of the Kaaterskill. Here, among 18th century cottage architecture complete with appropriately dressed women engaged in colonial crafts, a visitor could shake hands with Rip himself, or at least an actor playing the part. The only road leading from the valley to the summit of the plateau led through Palenville and tourists would be greeted by a sign claiming Palenville was the home of Rip Van Winkle. Until recently, the Palenville website claimed that Washington Irving envisioned Rip living in Palenville because Irving lived there when he wrote the story, which wasn’t true. Now it says, “another name for Palenville is ‘the village of falling waters’ as described in the legend of Rip Van Winkle, a fictional citizen of the hamlet.” The only problem is there’s no such description in Irving’s story. Another web site designed for tourists claimed that it was Irving’s visit to Catskill that inspired him to write the story, and the village of Catskill features Rip prominently in its official seal.

 

Irving’s visit

Irving, who was born in 1783, lived in New York and occasionally spent time on the Passaic River in New Jersey and just up the Hudson from New York in the Old Dutch village of Sleepy Hollow. His first view of the Catskill Mountains was from the deck of a sloop on his way up the Hudson. On at least two occasions in 1802 he sailed from his home in New York to Albany to visit his sisters, Nancy and Kitty, and again in 1803 he sailed up the Hudson to Canada with his employer Judge Hoffman. It seems that before 1819 when Rip Van Winkle was published, the only time Irving had a chance to explore the Catskill region on foot was for one week in August in 1812 when he was a guest of John Robert Livingston at his mansion on the east bank of the Hudson at Barrytown, across the river from Kingston. Irving was 29 at the time and took advantage of his stay to make day trips with some of the young Livingston women as companions. The Livingstons were wealthy landowners who lived in a series of mansions along the east bank of the Hudson where, from their spacious lawns, they could view their land holdings on the west bank, which included what is now Saugerties, Woodstock and much of the Catskill mountains. John Robert was the younger brother of Robert R. Livingston, who lived in Clermont the principal estate, which lies about seven miles north of Barrytown directly across the river from Saugerties.

In The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, historian Alf Evers writes that during this stay Irving got his only up close view of the Catskills when he saw Overlook Mountain in what is now Woodstock. To accomplish this, he most likely would have taken a carriage to Clermont where the Livingstons had a ferry, which regularly crossed over the river to Saugerties. On the west side, the Livingstons had built a road from the bank to their sawmill in Woodstock over which logs were brought to the river. Irving could have taken a carriage up the road to the sawmill within view of Overlook Mountain. Although Woodstock at the time was only the mill and some workers’ huts, in Saugerties Irving would have found farms and, clustered around the Esopus where it empties into the Hudson, rows of brick houses inhabited by people who spoke a combination of Dutch and English like the inhabitants of Irving’s beloved Sleepy Hollow. And, like the residence of Sleepy Hollow, they were steeped in ancient lore and a belief in witchcraft.

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Old World and New

Between 1815 and 1819 Irving was living with his Sister Sara Van Wart in Birmingham, England. Because of the bankruptcy of his family business, Irving had decided to try and make a living as a writer but, because of his depressed state of mind, he wasn’t doing much writing. He’d been studying German folk legends and longed to create a similar folk history for his home country. One evening in June, Washington was walking with his sister’s husband, Henry, and they were reminiscing about their visits to Sleepy Hollow. Sparked by the memory of happier days, Washington retired to his room early and began to write.

That night he made use of two German folk stories. One was about the Emperor Charles the Great and his army, who disappeared into a cleft in a mountain where they were condemned to stay until doomsday. It was said that when claps of thunder were heard in the mountain it was the emperor making an appearance. Irving had been reading a description of Kaaterskill Clove written by Samuel Mitchill and he thought of transplanting the story in this new-world location, substituting Henry Hudson and his men for the emperor and his army. The second story was about Peter Klaus, a goatherd who followed his goats into a cleft in a mountain where he discovered some otherworldly bowlers. The bowlers gave him a drink of wine that caused him to sleep for 20 years. In Irving’s imagination, Peter Klaus became Rip and the bowlers became Hudson’s men, complete with a means of creating thunder by striking their bowling pins. All that was left was to give Rip a suitable colonial Dutch village.

Of course, when creating Rip’s home, Irving made use of images of Sleepy Hollow, which he had been recollecting that evening. He described the town as being founded by Dutch settlers during the early rule of Peter Stuyvesant (1647-1664) with the oldest houses being made of yellow brick brought from Holland. Sleepy Hollow was settled in 1645 and does have yellow brick houses. Saugerties was settled in 1677 during the rule of the English governor Edmund Andros and the oldest Dutch houses are made of fieldstone not brick. Irving describes the village as seen from the river, just below the mountains with “light smoke curling up from a village, whose shingled-roofs gleam among the trees, just where the blue tints of the upland melt away into the fresh green of the nearer landscape.” This is not a description of Sleepy Hollow but a description of Saugerties as seen from the grassy riverside slope of the Clermont estate. Saugerties occupies the ridge just above the river, which, because of an optical illusion, would appear to be at the foot of the mountains from this vantage point. It seems that just as Irving had amalgamated German legends with this new landscape he fused Sleepy Hollow and Saugerties into one village.

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Palenville is at the foot of the mountain from which the Kaaterskill flows as the town is described in the story but it did not exist in the late 1700s when the story took place, and it cannot be seen from the river as the town is described. Even in the early 1800s, all that stood there were two mills and the cabins of the workers who manned them. Stone Ridge, at over 28 miles, and Kingston, at over 20, are just too far from Kaaterskill Clove to be thought of as within walking distance and only make their claims by disputing the location of Rip’s nap. Catskill is a colonial town founded in 1678 about nine and half miles from the base of the mountain, which places it within walking distance for Rip. But Irving is not known to have visited Catskill before he wrote the account. Saugerties is actually older than Catskill and a half-mile closer to the clove, making it the closest colonial town, and as we have seen, it is likely that Irving did visit Saugerties before he wrote the story. Therefore, in answer to our question, yes, it is likely that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown.

Still, one mystery remained. Where did the name Rip Van Winkle come from? Is it possible that it based on the name of an actual family in the Catskill region as many have claimed? My friend Susan, a librarian in North Haledon, New Jersey, helped me to solve this one. After I talked to her about my theory that Saugerties was Rip’s hometown, she discovered an account by a local historian explaining why an avenue in Haledon was named Rip Van Winkle. It seems that Washington Irving was a friend of the Van Winkle family of Totowa, New Jersey, a town near Haledon and on the Passaic River, where Irving was living. Irving was particularly fond of the Van Winkle boy, who was nicknamed Rip because of his wide grin. As Irving spent more time in New Jersey than in the Catskills this account does seem plausible. It struck me as ironic, however, because I grew up in Totowa. It seems I had traveled up the Hudson to find Rip’s hometown only to find out that I may have attended grammar school with some of his namesake’s descendants.

 

Rip’s mythological roots

To most Americans, Rip Van Winkle is a unique, humorous character, famous for his nap. But his story contains several familiar motifs that run deep in mythology, well beyond Irving’s source material. The theme of the hero being lured into fairyland and returning to find that years have passed is a popular one. A mountain or a hill is the most likely place for this type of encounter. The Gaelic for fairy is sidhe, pronounced “shee.” It means “people of the hills.” Hills and mountains are traditionally associated with the inhabitants of the spirit world. The Irish call them fairy mounds. From Irving’s retelling of the Native American legend we can see that the American natives associated North Point with the spirit world as well.

In Ireland, Scotland, and other Celtic countries, hills are also said to be the burial places of ancient kings, such as King Arthur and there are parallels between the fairy world and the other ancient myths of the underworld, the land of the dead. In the ancient Greek myth of Persephone, Hades, the god of the dead, carries the young maiden away to his home under the ground with the intent of making her his bride. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, manages to win her back but, because Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must return to the underworld for six months of the year. Similarly, it is because Rip accepted a drink from the keg of his fairy/ghost hosts that he fell into his sleep. In Celtic folklore, it is an established fact that if one should venture into a fairy mound, one should not accept invitations to play, dance, eat or drink. Rip managed to avoid playing ninepins but he made the mistake, in spite of intuitive warnings, of drinking from the keg.

According to legend, a young Irishman named Shon ap Shenkin was even less fortunate than Rip when he encountered the fairy world. On a warm summer morning he was walking through the forest when he became captivated by the most beautiful yet eerie melody. Shon sat under a tree to relax and listen. When the music came to an end, he got up and was surprised to find that the green healthy tree that he placed himself under had become an old dead trunk during the course of the melody. Shon made his way home and found that his house had also aged. At the door, he encountered a strange old man. When he introduced himself, the stranger said, “I have often heard my grandfather talk about your disappearance.” At the news, Shon crumbled to dust on the doorstep. The years had caught up to him.

Shon ap Shenkin returns home

Shon ap Shenkin returns home

A visit to the underworld is not to be taken lightly and folk tales are continually warning us of the dire consequences that can befall an ordinary man who dares the adventure. Yet the underworld is the very place that a hero must venture to if he or she is to escape the realm of time and find the secret of immortality.

Rip Van Winkle didn’t find immortality, but he did manage to finally escape the labors expected of a middle-aged family man in good health. He may have been “henpecked” by Dame Van Winkle, but not without reason — Rip was more interested in hanging out at the inn and traipsing across the countryside than working on his farm, which had fallen into disrepair. After the disorientation from his sleep wears off, and he learns that his wife died years before after bursting a blood vessel cursing out a peddler, Rip realizes the advantages of his situation. “Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can be idle with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times ‘before the war.’”

So Rip’s tale is a hero’s journey of sorts, though not a particularly heroic one. Joseph Campbell, the author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, explored these themes more thoroughly, and he was living nearby in Woodstock when he did it. Perhaps there is something in the area that inspires these thoughts.

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