The Identity Crisis In Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle

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Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” enjoys the reputation of being one of the first great American short stories written by a pioneer of American fiction, and of capturing a transtemporal portrait of American life. Yet because of the ambivalence with which Irving treats the new nation in this work, scholarship has debated whether this story is simply “the first truly American folk tale, or a derivative vehicle used to undermine the young republic” (Wyman 220). I argue that this short story cannot be reduced to either an experiment in genre or a political critique. Rather, Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” depicts storytelling as the key to connecting national identity with mythology, and thus to strengthening a post-Revolutionary America. To understand this connection, we must first discover that Rip Van Winkle himself represents storytelling and authorship. Rip is far from being the ideal American…show more content…
As Sarah Wyman points out Rip’s “inability to read and understand the signs and symbols (he) encounters may result in more than dramatic confusion,” essentially ostracizing him once again from the people of his village (217). Not only is the town unrecognizable to Rip, but the strange new words he encounters like “congress” or “General Washington” are to him as incomprehensible as “perfect Babylonish jargon” (Irving 478). Rip’s struggle comes to a climax as he exclaims, “God knows, I’m not myself…every thing’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!” (Irving 480). The echoes of a young America can be heard in this desperate cry for identity; less than forty years old when “Rip Van Winkle” was published, the nation still had much to determine about its identity and what it meant to be American. Without a canon of origin mythology and literature to draw upon, Americans might have struggled much like Rip to find their place in a new
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