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Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle Shapes American Culture

1672 words - 7 pages

Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle Shapes American Culture

"Darkness...lowers upon my mind, and the times are so hard they sicken my soul," says Washington Irving in a letter to a friend (Letters 446). This statement reveals Irving's intense emotional condition, and in many ways indicates the intense social atmosphere as well as his personal conflicts, during the composition of The Sketch Book. Upon the bankruptcy of his family's fortune, of which he depended on solely for his monetary security, Irving found himself flung into the "galling mortifications of independence" (Letters 487). In response to this trauma, he sailed to England to regain his composure and hopefully secure his stake as a writer so he could provide for himself that which would keep him from "being cast homeless and pennyless on the world" (Letters 486). Within statements like these, Irving's countenance is quite apparent. Additionally, it helps to reveal the social atmosphere of the time, as well as increase one's knowledge of "Rip Van Winkle" as it is represented in The Sketch Book. And this representation holds great significance to Washington Irving's development as a person, and to American culture's struggle to define itself in a unique (non-British) way.


Around 1817 Irving left the United States drained of inspiration, and slid into depression. He wrote of himself to a friend several years later, "I felt cast down,abased,I had lost my cast,I had always been proud of Spirit, and in my country had been, as it were a being of the air,I felt the force of the text 'a wounded spirit who can bear?' " (Letters 743). However, the idea of The Sketch Book which came before he left relieved him to some extent. In many ways, though, his idea was somewhat of a torment to him because he still had a writer's block. While in England he was "easily thrown into such a state of perplexity and such depression as to incapacitate [him] from any mental exertion" (Williams 173). And this incapacitation resulted in great despondency until one night when speaking to Van Wart (the owner of the house where he stayed). Upon Van Wart's attempts to cheer him, Irving's mind suddenly let loose and "thoughts came with a rush, faster than he could write them" (Williams 168). This is an excerpt describing the night he wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle":

"...for being fettered so long by the ice of long mental despondency.' Until morning and through the small hours he wrote. At morning the June sun shone through the shutters, revealing him still bent over his table. The Van Warts at breakfast looked up to see him enter, radiant, the fresh manuscript in his hand. 'He said it had all come back to him; Sleepy Hollow had awakened him from his long dull, desponding slumber; and then he read the first chapters of "Rip Van Winkle"'" (Williams 169).

The composition of these sketches was sporadic in nature and it seems as if the Muses opened...

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