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Voices Spring-Summer 2010:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Saint Rip” by John Thorn here.
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Voices Spring-Summer 2010


Volume 36

Saint Rip by John Thorn

Patron saint of the Catskills, Rip Van Winkle has belonged to all America, coast to coast, almost from the moment he was born, by passage through Washington Irving’s pen, in 1819. Only seven years later there was a Rip Van Winkle House along the road from Palenville to the nation’s first resort hotel, the Catskill Mountain House; in 1850 there was another Rip Van Winkle House on the corner of Pacific Wharf and Battery Street in San Francisco. Rip’s real-life presence was attested by nonagenarians who claimed to have known him and his hectoring dame. Other Hudson Valley denizens claimed to have heard as children, whenever thunder rumbled in the mountains, the tale of Henrik Hudson and his gnomish bowlers, as if it were a folktale eons old rather than Irving’s invention. Today Rip is more prevalent and perhaps more real than ever, the figure for whom every writer grasps when trying to convey our era’s dizzying rate of change.

Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) as Rip in an 1869 photograph by Napoleon Sarony. Photo:
Library of Congress
Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905) as Rip in an 1869 photograph by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Library of Congress

In 1872 William Cullen Bryant wrote in Picturesque America: “As you climb up this steep road [to the Catskill Mountain House] ... here, by the side of a little stream, which trickles down the broad, flat surface of a large rock, is the shanty called “Rip Van Winkle’s House.” In a June 1906 issue of 4 Track News, an overwrought Charles B. Wells wrote: “Rip’s ‘Village of Falling Water,’ Palenville, lies at the base and from the summit, looking far out over a field of fleecy cloud-tipped peaks, the gilded dome of the capitol at Albany tosses back the sparkling sunlight which glistens in the silvery Hudson below as though seeking to detain it in its mad onward rush to the pathless sea.” Rufus Rockwell Wilson wrote in the 1947 book New York in Literature: “Most of the dwellers in present-day Leeds are prompt in their denials that such a man as Rip Van Winkle ever lived in the town, but there is one wrinkled veteran, far spent in years who, if discreetly questioned, will tell you in confidence that were he again a lad he would lead you to the rock, a little way this side of Palenville, where Rip used to camp and sleep on his hunting trips.”

The real Rip is more interesting. Let’s hurtle back to the eighteenth century.

Washington Irving was born in New York in 1783, the year in which the American Revolution was won. In 1800 he made his first voyage up the Hudson. Writing of it many years later, he said: “The Kaaterskill Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination. As we slowly floated along I lay on deck and watched them, through a long summer day, undergoing a thousand mutations under the magical effects of atmosphere.” Presumably he gathered up stories on his travels in the valley, as he did on subsequent journeys to Canada and, in 1804–6, Europe. Upon his return he elected not to go into the law, even though he had been admitted to the bar. Instead he published, with his literary cohorts, the Salmagundi papers (1807) and, in 1809 as “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” a comic History of New-York that is fresh and funny today.

Jefferson created a dramatic version of Irving's story in 1859, and for the next four decades acted the part of Rip. He even played the
part in a film from 1896, the year of this photograph by B. J. Falk. Photo: Library of Congress
Jefferson created a dramatic version of Irving’s story in 1859, and for the next four decades acted the part of Rip. He even played the part in a film from 1896, the year of this photograph by B. J. Falk. Photo: Library of Congress

Flush from success on both sides of the Atlantic, he suffered a blow with the death of his fiancée, Matilda Hoffman; he was never to marry. A morose Irving entered the literary business, where his celebrity could not keep his Analectic Magazine from failing. In May 1815 he went to Europe and took charge of the family business in Liverpool, but in 1818 it failed, too. He now had nothing on which he might capitalize but his fame: he had to write for a living. Irving visited his admirer Walter Scott at Abbotsford and learned from him of the wealth of unused literary material in Scottish and especially German folk tales. Irving feverishly taught himself rudimentary German so that he might read—and borrow from—these tales.

Rip met the light of day in May 1819 as the last sketch in the first installment of The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, published in New York by, oddly enough, C. S. Van Winkle. Six installments followed, until in 1820, the publisher issued them all in one volume. Today we might say that with The Sketch-Book, which also included “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving invented not only the American short story, but also the Catskills, as a source of legend and enchantment. Yet even in his own day, Irving’s critics pointed out that some passages in “Rip Van Winkle” were not mere borrowings, but in fact direct translations from the German of Otmar’s Volksagen, published in Bremen in 1800.

This 'oldest frame house standing in the Catskills' dating from 1787, was one of several
structures in Greene County, New York, promoted as the 'Rip Van Winkle House.'
Photo: Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey
This “oldest frame house standing in the Catskills,” dating from 1787, was one of several structures in Greene County, New York, promoted as the “Rip Van Winkle House.” Photo: Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey

In a note appended to the legend, Diedrich Knickerbocker—among whose posthumous writings the tale was supposedly located by editor Geoffrey Crayon (also Irving’s creation, of course)—informs us that he himself has talked with Rip Van Winkle and that “the story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt.” Crayon introduces this note by saying that, without it, one would suspect that the tale had been “suggested by a little German superstition about the Emperor Frederick der Rothbart and the Kyffhauser Mountain.” This false clue led a generation of scholars off on a Barbarossan snipe hunt, as Rip Van Winkle is not based on the legend of the Mountain King who would rise with his entombed army to defend his nation (Folk motif D1960.2, Kyffhaueser, King asleep in mountain, will awake one day to succor his people; Bolte and Polivka 3:460; Feilberg, Danske Studier, 1920: 97ff; and other motif citations too plentiful for a general readership).

Irving’s location was indeed the Kyffhauser Mountain, but his model was plainly Otmar’s Peter Klaus, described by Bayard Taylor in Byways of Europe (1869):
Peter Klaus, a shepherd of Sittendorf, pastured his herd on the Kyffhauser, and was in the habit of collecting the animals at the foot of an old ruined wall. He noticed that one of his goats regularly disappeared for some hours every day; and, finding that she went into an opening between two of the stones, he followed her. She led him into a vault, where she began eating grains of oats which fell from the ceiling. Over his head he heard the stamping and neighing of horses. Presently a squire in ancient armor appeared, and beckoned to him without speaking. He was led up stairs, across a court-yard, and into an open space in the mountain, sunken deep between rocky walls, where a company of knights, stern and silent were playing at bowls. Peter Klaus was directed by gestures to set up the pins, which he did in mortal fear, until the quality of a can of wine, placed at his elbow, stimulated his courage.

Finally, after long service and many deep potations, he slept. When he awoke, he found himself lying among tall weeds, at the foot of the ruined wall. Herd and dog had disappeared; his clothes were in tatters, and a long beard hung upon his breast. He wandered back to the village, seeking his goats, and marveling that he saw none but strange faces. The people gathered around him, and answered his questions, but each name he named was that upon a stone in the church-yard. Finally, a woman who seemed to be his wife pressed through the crowd, leading a wildlooking boy, and with a baby in her arms.

“What is your name?” he asked.


“And your father?”

“He was Peter Klaus, God rest his soul! who went up the Kyffhauser with his herd, twenty years ago, and has never been seen since.”

Sound familiar? I won’t burden you with side-by-side German and English, but trust me, the congruency is shocking. When confronted by his critics, Irving seemed confused, responding that legends were for all to use, as writers of the past had done. Eventually he issued a sort of apology:
In a note which follows that tale [“Rip Van Winkle”], I alluded to the superstition on which it is founded, and I thought a mere allusion was sufficient, as the tradition was so notorious as to be inserted in almost every collection of German legends. I had seen it myself in three. I could hardly have hoped, therefore, in the present age, when every ghost and goblin story is ransacked, that the origin of the tale would escape discovery. In fact I had considered popular traditions of the kind as fair foundations for authors of fiction to build upon, and made use of the one in question accordingly.
Washington Irving in a daguerreotype by John Plumbe, ca. 1856, produced by Mathew
Brady Studio. Photo: Library of Congress
part in a film from 1896, the year of this photograph by B. J. Falk. Photo: Library of Congress
Washington Irving in a daguerreotype by John Plumbe, ca. 1856, produced by Mathew Brady Studio. Photo: Library of Congress

Irving lived long enough to see his own invented and adapted legends become in turn the legends which others used for their tales and stories. And to be fair, surely unbeknownst to Irving, sleeper tales went back far earlier and wider than that of Peter Klaus, to Scandinavia’s “Girl at the Troll Dance,” to Ireland’s “Clough na Cuddy,” to Japan’s “Urashima Taro,” and more (Folk motifs D1364, Magic sleep; F564.3.1, Long sleep, long waking). In an ancient Greek tale, Epimenides, a shepherd, went to the mountains in search of stray sheep, fell asleep in a cave, and woke up fifty-seven years later to find himself unrecognized by all, until his youngest brother, now an old man, finally knew him. And there is Ulysses, of course, who returned home after twenty years to be recognized only by his faithful dog Argus. And Woody Allen’s Sleeper. All, no matter how dimly, echo the greatest Resurrection story, which itself is the product of legend and fable from prior millennia.

A Blanche McManus poster executed for Dodd Mead, publishers of Jefferson's book
(1895-6). Photo: New York Public Library
A Blanche McManus poster executed for Dodd Mead, publishers of Jefferson’s book (1895–6). Photo: New York Public Library

But the mother lode for the Christian era appears to be the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, saints whose feast day is July 27. During the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius, circa 250 C.E., seven Ephesian Christians were given a chance to recant their faith. They instead gave their possessions to the poor and retired to a mountain cave to pray, and there, as they slept the night, Rome’s soldiers walled the mouth of the cave with stones. More than a century later, during the reign of Christian emperor Theodosius I (379–95 C.E.) or II (408–21 C.E.)—one ought not press too hard for the factual base of this tale, especially as Aristotle had written of the “Sleepers of Sardes” some seven centuries earlier—the cave was unsealed, and the masons found seven Ephesians awakening from what they believed to be a single night’s slumber (Folk motifs D2011, Years thought days; D1960.1, Seven sleepers, or Rip Van Winkle. Magic sleep extending over many years. Huber Die Wanderlegende von den Siebenschlaefern; and more, from Ireland to Sweden to Native America).

'Rip Van Winkle House in Sleepy Hollow,' reads the identification on this stereoscopic
photograph by E. and H. T. Anthony of New York, ca. 1880. Photo: New York Public Library
“Rip Van Winkle House in Sleepy Hollow,” reads the identification on this stereoscopic photograph by E. & H. T. Anthony of New York, ca. 1880. Photo: New York Public Library

One of these seven sleepers, Malchus, walked into town and was startled by the crosses atop several buildings. Like Rip, he had slept through a revolution. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus—Malchus, along with Maximian, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine—were honored as saints for centuries. During the Crusades, their remains were removed to the Church of Sainte Victoire in Marseilles, where pilgrims flocked. In 1927–8 an excavation at Ephesus, underneath the ruins of a church, revealed several hundred graves from the fifth and sixth centuries, some with inscriptions referring to the Seven Sleepers. This grotto remains a tourist destination today, even though the sleepers’ feast day of July 27 was suppressed as mythical (of pagan origin, that is) with the reform of the Roman Catholic liturgy in 1969.

Luckily, that was the year of the Woodstock Music Festival, the height (or should we say Haight) of all hippiedom. And our beset and bedraggled Catskillian hero was ready to become its patron saint, even if this ripeness is evident only in retrospect. Rip was the quintessential hippie, the one who made a success of failure by tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.

Irving’s genius had lain not in his stealthy adoption of the nondescript Peter Klaus as his archetype, but in creating Rip with a twist, as an apolitical antihero, a henpecked laggard, at the very moment in history when America was most insufferably vainglorious. By making Rip literally a good-for-nothing, Irving created a role model not only for a distant counterculture, but also for art—which, like play, must have no purpose but itself, or it becomes no longer itself. In the years after Irving’s death, America became ever more practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, reinventing itself with every generation, relentlessly conflating change with progress. The seeming idler—the writer, the painter, the philosopher—prized in past times for performing his work far from the madding crowd, increasingly was termed the useless man. For the artist, the man outside, Rip provided the perfect symbol.

The Catskill Mountain House was the nation's first resort hotel, founded in Haines Falls
in 1823. This view by Thomas Nast is from 'Sketches among the Catskill Mountains'
in Harper's Weekly, July 21, 1866. Author's private collection.

The Catskill Mountain House was the nation’s first resort hotel, founded in Haines Falls in 1823. This view by Thomas Nast is from “Sketches among the Catskill Mountains” in Harper’s Weekly, July 21, 1866. Author’s private collection.

Mind you, Irving did not intend his hero this way. It was for the next generation of writers like Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville to see in their own commercial struggles, their own ineffectuality, the specter of Rip. For Melville in particular, Rip possessed untapped allegorical, even spiritual possibilities. His star had fallen from the firmament of American authors after Typee (more than 16,320 copies sold in his lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic) and Omoo (13,335 copies). His masterwork, Moby-Dick, published in 1851, sold only 3,715 copies. His last attempt at fiction, The Confidence Man, sold even more poorly, and his 1866 volume of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, sold a pathetic 471 copies, compelling the author to reimburse the publisher for its production costs. In that same year he gave over all hope of making a living from his writing and accepted a job as a customs inspector, a post he held for nineteen years.

Melville’s death in 1891 passed almost unnoticed. But in 1919 it emerged that he had never truly stopped writing. He had left behind work that future generations would cherish: the novella Billy Budd, today perhaps his most widely read book, and a volume of poems titled Weeds and Wildings with a Rose or Two. One of the sections in this astounding volume is called “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” an experimental combination of prose and poetry that transforms and elevates Rip to nothing short of sainthood.

Melville introduces a new character, a “certain meditative vagabondo” who comes upon Rip’s vacant but picturesque abode some years before the hero’s awakening. “And the gray weather-stain not only gave the house the aspect of age,” Melville wrote, “but worse; for in association with palpable evidences of its recentness as an erection, it imparted a look forlornly human, even the look of one grown old before his time.” Yet the vagabondo is drawn to the ramshackle ruin of fallen willow, roof-shingle mosses, and Lilac (Melville always capitalizes the word) gaily sprouting from Rip’s planting on the day he last saw home. Exhorted by a passing stranger—“gaunt, hatchet-faced, stony-eyed”—to paint a trim white church in the distance rather than the shambles before him, he demurs, only to have the stranger press on:

“You will stick to this wretched old ruin, then, will you?”

“Yes, and the Lilac.”

“The Lilac? And black what-do-ye-call- it—lichen, on the trunk, so old is it. It is half-rotten, and its flowers spring from the rottenness under it, just as the moss on those eaves does from the rotting shingles.”

“Yes, decay is often a gardener.”

When Rip returns to his broken-down home some years hence, he recalls having set a Lilac on the day of his departure for the hills:
That Lilac was a little slip,
And yonder Lilac is a tree!

Many years after Rip was “remanded into night,” the Lilac continued to bloom:
Each June the owner joyance found
In one prized tree that held its ground,
One tenant old where all was new,—
Rip’s Lilac to its youth still true.

To the end of his life, Melville had kept on his desk this motto: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” And the poem concludes:
See, where man finds in man no use,
Boon Nature finds one—Heaven be blest!

R.I.P., Rip.

Author’s note on references: All references to folk motifs are cited using the Aarne-Thompson classification system, with volume and page numbers for the motifs listed parenthetically. See Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955–8).


John Thorn is the author and editor of many books, including New York 400 (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009). He lives in Saugerties, New York. With each passing year he identifies more with ol’ Rip. Copyright © John Thorn.

Irving lived long enough to see his own invented and adapted legends become in turn the legends which others used for their tales and stories.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 36, Spring-Summer 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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