Washington Irving (1783-1859)

    Contributing Editor: William Hedges

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students generally know the two short stories ("Rip" and "Sleepy Hollow"). With the selections from History, it is wise to avoid tipping off students in advance to Irving's attitude toward the treatment of Native Americans by European-Americans; see if they can penetrate through the technically sophisticated irony to Irving's scathing condemnation; some may be tempted to read the passage as approving the harsh treatment. (Note that, strictly speaking, the passage is concerned with Latin America, not America as a whole. But students can be asked whether it has relevance to North American policies relating to Indians.)

    Emphasize Irving's humor before getting too serious. Give students a chance to talk about what they find entertaining in the selections and why. Also, try comparing responses of male and female students to "Rip Van Winkle." How sympathetic are each to Rip? Look at the story as the first in a long line of texts by male American writers in which a male protagonist forsakes civilized community life for the wilderness (or the sea) on a quest of sorts and perhaps joins forces with a male companion(s). Consider the psychological or cultural significance of such narratives, as well as the role of and attitude toward women they portray.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    History: racism, its guises and rationalizations; what it means to be truly civilized--or savage.

    "Rip Van Winkle": loss (and discovery?) of identity; a challenge to American values, the work ethic. Does Rip himself represent anything positive? George III vs. George Washington (is the story anti-republican?); is the story sexist?

    "Sleepy Hollow": artificiality vs. naturalness; Puritan-Yankee intellectual pretentiousness, hypocrisy, greed, and commercialism as threats to an American dream of rural abundance and simple contentedness; the uses of imagination.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    With the History selection, questions of burlesque irony, the reliability of the narrator: Is Irving's persona, the peculiar Diedrich Knickerbocker, a party to the irony? Is he being deliberately ironic himself (saying just the opposite of what he believes about treatment of Native Americans), or does he seem duped by the defenses of brutal mistreatment that he offers? Does it matter which? Could it be either one--or both? Is the reader being played with?

    The two stories were written ten years after the Knickerbocker History. The Sketch Book, from which the two stories come, is generally taken to be the beginning of Irving's transformation into a romantic writer of sorts. What romantic elements can be seen in "Rip" and "Sleepy Hollow"?

    These two stories are also, arguably, the beginning of a new genre, the short story. If so, what makes these narratives short stories as opposed to earlier kinds of tales?

    Original Audience

    Relate Irving's commercial success beginning with The Sketch Book to the burgeoning of American popular culture in the early nineteenth century. Discuss The Sketch Book as context of "Rip" and "Sleepy Hollow" and the huge vogue for "sketch" books, literary annuals, and gift books that follows.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare the selection from History with Franklin's Swiftian satires, "The Sale of the Hessians," "An Edict by the King of Prussia"--or Swift's "A Modest Proposal" itself.

    Compare and contrast the rural felicity of the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow with Crèvecoeur's idealization of American rural life in the American Farmer or Jefferson's famous agrarian pronouncements in query XIX of Notes on Virginia.

    What distinguishes Irving as a short story writer from Hawthorne or Poe?

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. The humor of the Knickerbocker History--have students read sections of it.

    2. Political satire and opinion in the History--consider specifically the anti-Jeffersonianism of the section on Governor Kieft. Prepare a personal interpretation of one of the two stories.

    3. Papers on varying or contrasting approaches to "Rip" or "Sleepy Hollow," consulting some of the interpretations listed in the bibliography. Discuss the humor in either story.


    Fetterly, Judith. Chapter on "Rip Van Winkle" in The Resisting Reader (1978). A feminist interpretation.

    Hedges, William L. Article on the History in Stanley Brodwin, ed., The Old and New World Romanticism of Washington Irving (1986). Knickerbocker 's politics and Irving's disorienting humor.

    Hoffman, Daniel. Chapter on "Sleepy Hollow" in Form and Fable In American Fiction (1961). Folkloristic interpretation, Native American humor.

    Martin, Terence. "Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination." American Literature 31 (1959): 137-49.

    Ringe, Donald A. "New York and New England: Irving's Criticism of American Society." American Literature 21 (1967): 455-67. Irving's pro-Dutch, anti-Yankee posture.

    Roth, Martin. Chapters on Knickerbocker and on the two stories, in Comedy in America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Very original criticism, mythic and cultural.

    Seelye, John. "Root and Branch: Washington Irving and American Humor." In Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38 (1984): 415-25. Very solid, well-balanced approach.

    Young, Philip. "Fallen from Time: The Mythic Rip Van Winkle." Kenyon Review 22 (1960): 547-73. Jungian, the motif of the long sleep in world literature.

    Zlogar, Richard J. "Accessories that Covertly Explain: Irving's Use of Dutch Genre Painting in 'Rip Van Winkle.' " American Literature 54 (1982): 44-62. Argues story is critical of Rip.