Celebrating the Independence of Rip Van Winkle

Independence Day celebrates the discord of jangling souls with dissonant convictions airing a racket of reasons in the tumultuous din of democratic fora. It isn’t discord per se that is noteworthy; it is the resilience afforded by the interplay of discord and institutions that animates this republic.

There will always be those free riders, however, for whom simple contentment and tranquility are the only governments worth enduring.

Washington Irving’s famous literary creation Rip Van Winkle, one of those free riders, awakes after 20 years of liquor-induced slumber to find the Revolutionary War over and gone. General Washington’s sword occupyies the place of King George’s scepter on town placards. Analyzing this story for his book Common as Air, Lewis Hyde isolates the reign of discordant views in an emergent public sphere as a startling cultural shift in Rip’s world.

Hyde does not, however, highlight the literary value of Rip Van Winkle’s habitual idleness; and it is the habitual idleness afforded by independence that I, for one, always celebrate on the Fourth of July. It is Rip’s capacity to enjoy life outside the din of voices for days on end that makes him a narrative anchor for a tale of discordant temporal frames.

“The great error in Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor,” writes Washington Irving. “His children, too, were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody.”

He was, however, “universally popular” with the village-folk on account of his willingness to distribute the burdens of physical toil among neighbors.

Van Winkle’s favorite thing to do, once Dame Van Winkle had driven him from the house with her fiery lectures, was to convene with local sages, philosophers, and gossip historians at the local inn, where they would have a dapper gentleman read the latest newspaper. After a while, Dame Van Winkle would accuse even these men at the inn of encouraging her “hen-pecked husband’s” idleness. There was nothing for old Rip to do: he set out for the mountaintops with his dog and his rifle, away from that woman!

“The terrors of Dame Van Winkle” send Rip into the Catskills, where he meets a “short square-built old fellow” carrying a keg full of liquor up the mountainside. Together, these two proceed to a hollow in a ravine, shaped like an amphitheater, where Rip encounters a committee of bearded strangers, like “figures in an old Flemish painting,” amusing themselves with a game of nine-pin.

“He was naturally a thirsty soul,” and so drank himself unconscious at this bizarre gathering.

So far, a very beautiful American story — worthy of a cinematic treatment, I should think, in the near future.

Upon waking, Rip Van Winkle descends the mountain to witness the future he slept through. Strange names adorned the new houses — “every thing was strange.” When he happened upon his favorite village inn, Rip is crowded round by villagers curious whether his party affiliation is “Federal or Democrat.”

“Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”

You can imagine the uproar that caused.

Suddenly thereafter, Rip is pointed to the location of his son, Rip Van Winkle the Second (as it were) — “apparently as lazy, and certainly as ragged” as his old man.

The situation gets sorted, and Rip resumes “his old walks and habits.” He is happiest to be free of the tyranny of his wife, Dame Van Winkle — “the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him.”

To authenticate the whole affair, the narrator claims the following: “I have seen a certificate on the subject taken before a country justice and signed with a cross, in the justice’s own handwriting. The story, therefore, is beyond the possibility of doubt.”

But what does this story teach us?

Two important themes emerge: civic republicanism and personal joy. Civic republicanism refers to the capacity to assist others in the performance of productive labor, whether this be carrying a wheelbarrow for your neighbor or contributing an invention or artistic product for the enjoyment of the public. Author Lewis Hyde places the story of Rip Van Winkle within a crucial sweep of time when the very form of the public sphere was taking shape. Men like Benjamin Franklin were publishing technical details of profitable inventions anonymously in newspapers, without asking for a penny in return. Others were building bridges in their hometowns out of a sense of civic duty. For Hyde, it is this lost history of civic republicanism that might offer today’s globalized nation-states and international economy alternative visions of independence to celebrate.

Rip Van Winkle himself was a man of the town, a public person. If he invented a lightning rod or a cooking stove, he would no doubt share the invention with the townsfolk, regardless of the personal profits to be made. Dame Van Winkle would throw a fit, and perhaps for good reason! After all, the house was falling apart.

This is the enduring question of the commons. It is a realm reliant upon tranquil personalities who consider personal identity a pluralistic and public construction, whose existence pre-dates and grounds the emergence of the private estate. The Founding Fathers were steeped in civic republicanism and the pluralistic interpretation of personal identity: Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, &c.

Beyond that, the enduring feature of Washington Irving’s tale is Rip Van Winkle’s enduring sense of personal joy. Despite waking up 20 years in the future, Rip manages to befriend the new villagers and become once again “universally popular” for his willingness to assist his neighbors. His idleness, once ridiculed, now is accepted as a natural feature of his advanced age. The fool has persisted in his folly and found wisdom, it seems.

Indeed, “it is a common wish of all hen-pecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon.”

And my!, the enormity of what can happen in 20 years’ time. Governments can fall, names can change, and clothing and tools and houses!

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