Date to note June: 23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’ including Rip Van Winkle.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th Women’s prize for fiction winner announced.

23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book,’ including “Rip Van Winkle”.

This month I chose the bicentenary to write about safe in the knowledge that every woman and her dog with interest in the literary world will have an opinion on the women’s prize for fiction winner.  I was unsure whether the anniversary of a book by a long gone Irving might have had similar interest but thought it likely not.

Most of us have heard of Rip Van Winkle but a quick vox pop of friends evidences that very few had much of an idea of the story other than it is about someone who falls asleep for a long period.

The story, inspired by folklore (there are many very similar variables of this story across Europe), is, in fact, charming, humorous and beautifully written and as so many enduring stories are, is an apologue of sorts. The story said to be about the demands of the British Empire (represented by the nagging wife) upon the USA (represented by Rip Van Winkle), is set in New York’s Catskill Mountains.  Rip, escaping the nagging of his wife, wanders into the woods with his dog where helps a peculiar man carry a barrel. They meet up with another group of odd beings who seem to know Rip.  He drinks with the group and falls asleep.  When he wakes his dog is gone, his gun has rusted, he has a long beard and everything is different.  He recognises no-one in his village and discovers that the American revolution has happened.  He finds most of his friends gone, lost to the war, his wife long dead and his son a grown man.  He is told he was missing for twenty years and that he was likely to have been partying with ghosts in the woods.

Irving, born of British parents but settled in New York City (1783-1859) began his writing career by letters and commentaries to newspapers and literary magazines. After his grand tour of Europe, he returned to the States and studied law but increasingly became involved in writing and publishing through which his reputation grew.

(Portrail of Washington Irving by John Wesley)

The story ‘Rip Van Winkle’ appeared first in Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’, in 1819 to great acclaim and the subsequent instalments of volumes from the series equally so.  Following their great success, Irving travelled Europe and published more work which was also moderately well received.  Following his successful writing career Irving was appointed as a Minister to Spain, work he did not especially enjoy, before returning to the States where he died aged 76. 

The bicentenary has not caused the bedecking by bunting and launching of fireworks in many places though the town of Sleepy Hollow in Winchester County, USA, is hosting a series of celebratory literary and arts-based events and Tarrytown where Irving lived are also hosting activities and local tours.

The bicentenary is indeed a date worth celebrating. Rip Van Winkle is an enduring story which has been adapted for theatre and film, television, animated films and cartoons several times. The story has influenced comics and music and paintings. Bing Crosby and Al Jolson can be found on YouTube singling ‘who pays the rent for Mrs Rip Van Winkle’. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge spans the Hudson River, near Catskill where the story is set. There is even a Rip Van Winkle Bourbon whiskey. It seems to me there is a lot worth celebrating. (Photograph by Anthony-22, 2017).

My personal favorite inspired work though is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Mrs Rip Van Winkle

I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I’d always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

© Carol Ann Duffy ‘The World’s Wife’. Picador. 1999