Washington Irving's Mythology for New York State Based on Dutch Colonists

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Most of the folklore of early America was rejected by many authors who preferred the romantic tales and European ballads. Washington Irving was perhaps one of the first who recognized the romance in the tales. It was easier for him, as his folk surroundings were Dutch, while he was from the Scotch Presbyterian background. Because of this contrast, he could provide a more objective view. Irving saw the Dutch stories as fascinating remains of literature, and as he was a man who studied European folklore, he recalled the stories of their homeland.

Walter Scott inspired Irving to help the local American countryside realize its romance and tradition as Scott had done in Scotland. These were very successful. Rip van winkle, the story we will discuss, is a clear example. Rip Van Winkle is an American short story with which Washington Irving was best known. The work was part of a collection of short stories entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon.

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The story is set in the days before the American Revolutionary War. In this essay I will explain how Washington Irving was creating a new mythology for New York State through stories based on the earlier Dutch colonists. Irving's use of superstition and folklore set in North America combines with motifs from European fairy tales. In that sense, he takes a European story telling tradition and makes it specifically American. I have chosen this topic because I believe that is one of the works with which Washington Irving reached fame.

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Besides, I think it is a clear example to observe the new mythological techniques that were employed by this author.

In this essay I am going to analyse different aspects of this short story. The symbolism plays an important role in the story. For example, we can consider the work is divided intotwo parts: pre-revolution and post-revolution. Thus, I will be explaining the imagery of the play. I will also analyse the language in Rip Van Winkle, but I will be focused on the humour.

Washington Irving

Washington Irving was born in New York in 1783. He was the youngest of eleven children. His father was a wealthy merchant and his mother an English woman. Belonging to the literary world of manners, Washington Irving is the first American author who used literature to make people laugh and to caricature reality. He can be considered as a perfect representative of the American Romanticism. Besides being an essayist and poet, Washington Irving is considered the father of the American short stories. Irving was studying a degree, but it was replaced by literature. He collected his first essays and satirical poems in a book called: Salmagundi (1808). He first became more widely known for his comic work, A History of New York (1809). In 1815 Irving went to England where he composed a collection of stories and essays that became The Sketch Book, (1819–20), which included Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving received a letter from Alexander Hill Everett on January 30, 1826. Everett urged Irving to join him in Madrid. His long stay in Spain led him to write The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada (1829), Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1831) and Tales of the Alhambra (1832). Before he died, he could still draw the biographies of Oliver Goldsmith (1849) and George Washington (1855-1859). He died in 1859.


The story is set in the days before the American Revolutionary War. A villager of Dutch descent escaped of his wife as she scolded him for going to the forest. After several adventures, he sat under the shade of a tree and he fell asleep. He woke up 20 years later and he returned to his village. Everything was outdated and new for him. The war had taken place while he was sleeping.


In the introduction of this short story, Washington Irving refers to Dietrich Knickerbocker as the author of the work, a man with mental problems who had already died. Irving talks about the different interests of Knickerbocker: "He was very curious in the Dutch history of the province, and the manners of the descendants from its primitive settlers". Irving criticizes some aspects of Knickerbocker's work: "now that he is dead and gone, it cannot do much harm to his memory to say, that his time might have been much better employed in weightier labours" (47). In any case and to give greater credibility to the story Irving says that the story is true. According to Susan Oliver "the technique of using an obscured that narrator is a device plays on the interest generated by mystery. That, in turn, contributes to Irving's humorous gothic style in Rip Van Winkle". The 20 years that Rip had been sleeping represent the war produced between America and Britain. There are two main parts in this short story: the pre-revolution and the post revolution. The narration of the story begins just before the American Revolution had occurred, during the days of colonial America and the time of Peter Stuyvesant.

When Rip returned from the Catskill Mountains, he realized that his house was on American soil. He was not an American, because he did not feel identified with others. Rip Van Winkle did not suffered the war or other events that transformed people. Therefore, he was still a British colonist and he could not become American without being knowledgeable of all the fights that they had suffered in the war. So, Rip would talk to everyone to know their stories and, by this way, he would feel identified with them. In the plot, Rip walked accompanied by his dog through the Catskill Mountains. It started to get dark and he heard a voice calling him: "Rip Van Winkle!" (55). Here's, a farewell was anticipated by a raven: “... but could see nothing but a crow winging its solitary flight across the mountain" (55). What appeared as a nice wake up can be equated with the experience of living in America: “he rubbed his eyes- it was a bright, sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was Wheeling aloft and breasting the pure mountain breeze” (58).

There is a contrast between the eagle and the raven. When Rip decided to return to his village, he began to meet people who had never seen. Everyone was strange for him “As he approached the village he met a number of people, but none whom he knew, which somewhat surprised him, for he had thought himself acquainted with everyone in the country round” (60). Rip emphasized that the faces of the people were sad and their clothes were old-fashioned “Their dress, too, was of a different fashion from that to which he was accustomed” (60). Everything was outdated "He looked round for his gun, but in place of the clean, well-oiled fowling-piece, he found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten” (59). Rip despite his strange appearance was not bothered by any inhabitant. They were only curious about knowing who he is. It can be a symbol of America as the land of the opportunities. Their melancholy faces, as were being described by Rip can be a sign of suffering.

Rip is described by his neighbours as the perfect man "he was a great favourite among all the good wives of the village” (49). He helped them in all the tasks they needed. The children also loved him as he played with them. By contrast, at home, he did not carry out any work and his wife constantly insulted him. This abuse can be considered the main reason why Rip disappeared 20 years. If we analyse this relationship thoroughly, we realize that there are many nuances. At the time the story was written, it was expected that women stay in their home taking care of their children. Men's responsibility in this case was to support their families. Rip, contrary to what was expected of a husband, was not willing to carry out these tasks.

At the same time, Rip had demonstrated that he had the ability to do the work, as he was the perfect neighbour. After many years of resistance, Rip decided to abandon home and he went back 20 years later, without being worried about his responsibilities. We must compare this relation with the one which existed between America and England before the revolution. The settlers complained about the treatment that they received from England. The relationship between Rip and his wife can be seen as a relationship of tyranny. Once Rip returned home and saw his wife had died, Rip reached freedom. There are some symbols of freedom: Rip's reaction after knowing his wife had died and the animal. Irving's humour can be seen in Rip's ingenuity as he believed that King George of England had suffered a metamorphosis and, because of that, he was called George Washington.

By the end of the play, Rip gathered his children and grandson, whose name was also Rip Van Winkle. We can perceive here the key moment, a farewell with the past. The baby Rip Van Winkle symbolized the emerging generation: “The honest man could contain himself no longer- he caught his daughter and her child in his arms- "I am your father! Cried him. “Young Rip van winkle once-old Rip van winkle now! - does nobody know poor Rip van winkle!” (66).

New System of Mythology

According to Tatheen Assim Faiq, we should consider that the American myth is the incarnation of the American destiny. We can perceive that “Irving is a cultural ambassador from the New World to the Old as he shows the sights of Old England”. During his work, He evoked a sense of the past, scouring Europe in search of its legends, castles, and great themes. Rip's folklore takes place in the American mythology past. According to some critiques: "The "truth" that the poet espouses is one simple truth he will carry "into/my sepulchre".

Rip also maintains one truth or perspective in life, which will remain steady and unchanging until his death: the philosophy of "taking care of everyone else's business but his own." Rip's simple truth is his carefree parochialism, the idleness that (fictionally, of course) characterized the earliest days of the Dutch settlement in New York”. Washington Irving's writings show the formulation of the American myth. He differs from other Americans writers in the use of German and some European legends. His work has, therefore, an important cultural aspect. Myths and legends were used by most American writers as the essence of his literary production. A myth is a traditional story that refers to prodigious events, carried out by supernatural or extraordinary beings, such as gods, demigods, heroes, monsters and fantastic characters which want to explain an event or phenomenon. While a legend is a narrative of natural or supernatural, transmitted from generation to generation by orally or in writing. In Rip Van Winkle, Irving began to create an American mythology that was based on some historical elements inserted among his supernatural elements. We have for example the myth of the runaway male.

According to Fiedler: “The myth of the runaway male, as represented by Rip Van Winkle tells the story of a white male who runs away from the white female and replaces her with a coloured male. This myth was first imagined by Washington Irving”. According to Tatheen Assim Faiq: “Irving formulated the theme of America as the Republic dominant myth. He accepted the magic metamorphosis, folk heroes stave of death forever by changing”. This myth shows how the American literature has departed from the spirit of the past which was dominated by strict puritanism and Calvinism. Talking about mythology, Irving parodies the myth of the American Dream which was inserted in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. I support some analysis about this matter “Irving makes reference to and parodies another classic American myth embedded in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, the Rags to Riches/American Dream mythology. Rip is the antithesis of the hyper-productive Franklin. Irving's reference to Franklin further encouraged a political/cultural critique and discussion for his readers”.


In conclusion, with this essay I intend to have offered a comprehensive analysis of the short story Rip Van Winkle that was written by Washington Irving. After analysing all the points, I came to the conclusion that we face a story where the humour, the superstition and the mythology are present from the outset. From my point of view, this short story is a political allegory as Rip Van Winkle symbolizes the American Revolution, produced between England and America. The short story is full of symbols that refer to it. First of all, the tyranny relationship between Dame Van Winkle and Rip Van Winkle. There is a clear parallel between this relationship and the relationship between England and America. The treatment that settlers received from England, before the war, was the same that Rip received from his wife. At the same time, once the war ended and Rip found that his wife had died, Rip reached freedom. The Americans tried to eliminate the tyranny of the crown, while Rip escaped his wife. Moreover, when he returned to the village, after his long sleep, he found himself in a different political system. For example, Instead of King George, George Washington was in the power. I have been also explaining the myths that were used by Irving in Rip Van Winkle. Finally, I want to emphasize that the analysis of the short story Rip Van Winkle of Washington Irving has helped me to understand many aspects of the folklore and the systems of mythology in transatlantic writing.


  1. Fiedler, Leslie. (ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin). Leslie Fiedler and the American Culture. United States of America. 1999
  2. Irving, Washington. (ed. William Paterson). The Sketch Book. 1888.
  3. Oliver, Susan (January, 2015). Lecture conducted from the University of Essex.
  4. M. Janowski, Carolyn. http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search? q=cache:QgePAxqkGukJ:faculty.ccbcmd.edu/owl/wrsample/cjanowski.htm+&cd=3& hl=es&ct=clnk&gl=uk [22/01/2015]
  5. Tatheen Assim Faiq. https://www.academia.edu/2232248/The American Myth in Washington Irvings
  6. The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow [20/01/2015] http://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/i/irving.htm [03/01/2015] http://www.nyfolklore.org/pubs/nyfq/xiii-1/washirving.html [07/01/2015]
  7. https://litcasebook.wordpress.com/ [15/01/2015]
  8. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/prerom6.htm [17/01/2015]
  9. http://lkleincourses.Imc.gatech.edu/formac12/2012/12/10/rip-van-winkle-and-the . bt american-identity/[17/01/2015]
Updated: May 03, 2023
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Washington Irving's Mythology for New York State Based on Dutch Colonists. (2021, Sep 30). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/how-washington-irving-created-a-new-mythology-for-new-york-state-through-stories-based-on-the-earlier-dutch-colonists-essay

Washington Irving's Mythology for New York State Based on Dutch Colonists essay
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