Written by René Dubé


The Early American Romantic Fiction

    Washington Irving (1783-1859) was maybe one of the first American authors to get international fame. Through my research, I learned that Washington Irving was a multi-disciplinary writer who brought Romantic awareness into American literature. He experienced great success depicting American regions such as the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. His ability to turn real life people and historical facts into myth and brought a new look to a not-so-old land already full of wonders and wisdom. There is an interesting sense of spirituality in his fiction, a will to promote modern thinking by writing stories about a new down-to-earth nation. A nation that was ruled by puritan thoughts and usually distrustful of any manifestations of the imagination. Irving’s writings sit between fable and tall tale. In his early day writing period, he used the alias “Geoffrey Crayon” as a pen-name and wrote for newspapers and literary magazines. In 1819, he published “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” and created the legendary character “Rip Van Winkle”. Washington Irving used Romanticism as literary form and contributed to the shaping of the American folklore. The following paper demonstrates how Irving’s short story belongs to Romanticism by exposing the rejection of rationality, the spiritual and resourceful quality of nature, and the protagonist’s goodness and simplicity presented throughout the story. It also demonstrates that the short story is part of community folklore, so it can be considered as representative of the American romantic folktale.

   In order to define Romanticism, I referred to the Oxford Companion to American Literature


Romanticism, term that is associated with imagination and boundlessness, as contrasted with classicism, which is commonly associated with reason and restriction. A romantic attitude may be detected in literature of any period, but as an historical movement it arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, in reaction to more rational literary, philosophic, artistic, religious, and economic standards. “Characteristics of the romantic movement in American literature are sentimentalism, primitivism and the cult of the noble savage; political liberalism; the celebration of natural beauty and the simple life; introspection; the idealization of the common man, uncorrupted by civilization; interest in the picturesque past; interest in remote places; antiquarianism; individualism; morbid melancholy; and historical romance. (Michelson, 2004)

   In his short story “Rip Van Winkle”, Washington Irving respects the underlying principle of American Romanticism according to which romantic works are written in reaction to rationality and scientific logic. The fact that the protagonist of the story wakes up twenty years after the time he fell asleep definitely shows the author’s will to dissociate his story from reason and give it an unrealistic and almost mythical character. The rupture in time between the moment at which Rip Van Winkle fell asleep and the moment at which he woke up and “ found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel encrusted with rust, the lock falling off and the stock worm-eaten” (Irving, 1819, p.708), symbolizes the unrealistic and almost mythical rupture he attempted to create with reality.

   It is true to affirm that “Rip van Winkle” belongs to the American Romantic Folktale because the author definitely attributes a lot of importance to the spiritual value of nature and to the goodness and simplicity specific to the protagonist. First, nature plays an essential role in Rip Van Winkle’s life since each time he wants to escape from his nagging wife, he retires in the most secluded parts of the wood to fish or to hunt down squirrels. According to the narrator’s words, Rip’s “only alternative to escape from the labour of the farm and clamour of his wife, was to take gun in hand and stroll away into the woods” (Irving, 1819, p.706). Without a doubt, this demonstrates the spiritual and resourceful quality the writer perceives in nature.  Second, Washington Irving respects another basis of Romanticism by describing the protagonist as “a simple good-natured man; he was moreover, a kind neighbour and an obedient henpecked husband” (Irving, 1819, p.703). It is therefore justified to assume that the character is virtuous. Also, he shows that Rip Van Winkle is a simple man whose life is a model of modesty and simplicity. The following passage supports this assumption: “Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish well-oiled disposition, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound. If left to himself, he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment” (Irving, 1819, p.704-705).

   The short story can also be connected to community folklore, which is another of the many concerns of Romanticism, since Rip Van Winkle’s anecdote became part of the villagers’ oral tradition at the end of the story. The author ends his story by telling that “not a man, woman, or child in the neighbourhood but knew it by heart” (Irving, 1819, p. 713). Obviously, this proves that Washington Irving wanted to make a legend of his short story.  Moreover, the story itself is built as a myth or a legend because of the fantastical elements it contains. They represent the fight led by the romantic authors against rationality. They also contribute to make the story a fiction instead of a real life story. This enhances its transmission from one generation to another. If no fantastical elements would have been found in the story, the story would not have become a community tale.

   To conclude, “Rip Van Winkle” definitely belongs to the literary movement called American Romanticism because it puts forward events that can not be explained by any rational means, it confers a spiritual and resourceful quality of nature, it exposes the protagonist’s goodness and simplicity, and it is part of the common folktale tradition. Finally, since most of the fundamental rules of Romanticism are being observed by the author, it is appropriate to associate this piece of work with the American Romantic Folktale.      

 Works Cited