Washington Irving was the youngest of eleven siblings, three of whom died young. He was born in 1783, the year in which the Revolutionary War ended. Since George Washington was one of the heroes of this war, it is natural that the last name of the longsuffering general should become Irving’s first name.
Since he lived in the state of New York in his early youth, it is not surprising that he became acquainted with the Catskill Mountains and the stories that their mysterious landscape inspired. Nor is it surprising that the Catskills play an important role in “Rip Van Winkle,” one of Irving’s most famous stories.
Rip Van Winkle lived in a small village near the Catskill Mountains. He was a strange creature. He was energetic when his friends and neighbors needed help, but he neglected his own farm. As a result, everyone loved him except his wife, who constantly upbraided him for his laziness. Children especially loved him. They followed him around, climbed on his back, and played various tricks on him. Even the dogs seemed to like him. At least, they never barked at him.
He had several children of his own, including a son called Rip, who was a chip off the old block. He also had a dog named Wolf.
As time went on, the scolding of Dame Van Winkle got worse. Irving makes the humorous comment that “a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use.” So Rip often went squirrel hunting with his dog to escape the vigorous invectives.
One day his hunting excursion took him up the slopes of the Catskill Mountains, or Kaatskill Mountains, as Irving called them. After the sun had descended a considerable distance from its zenith, Rip decided that he ought to return home.
However, he heard someone persistently calling his name. Looking around, He saw an old man climbing the mountain. He was wearing an older style of Dutch clothing and carrying a keg full of liquor. He helped the gentlemen carry his load to its destination. As they went, Rip occasionally heard something that sounded like a peal of thunder.
The two men eventually arrived at a huge amphitheater surrounded by perpendicular precipices. Within this amphitheater, some odd-looking men in quaint clothing were playing ninepins. The sound of the rolling ball reechoed, so that a noise similar to thunder was heard in the region round about.
At a sign from the man whom he had accompanied to the amphitheater, Rip served liquor to the players. He decided to take a sip himself, and one sip led to another, until his senses were overpowered, and he fell asleep.
When he woke up, he was lying on the spot where he had first seen the old man carrying the keg. In place of his excellent gun, an old rusty one was lying beside him, His dog was also missing.
He climbed back to the site of the amphitheater to look for his gun and his dog, but he found solid rock occupying the spot where the entrance to the amphitheater had been. Hunger eventually forced him to return to the village with his rusty gun and without his dog.
As he approached and entered the village, he became more and more perplexed. He did not recognize any of the people whom he met as he walked. He did not recognize any of the dogs either, and they barked at him as he passed. He saw rows of houses which he had never seen before, and there were strange names over the doors. The village was larger than it was before. When he felt his chin, he was surprised at the length of his beard. It had grown a foot long.
When he finally found his own house, no one was there except a half-starved dog that looked something like Wolf. Rip was deeply hurt when the dog snarled at him.
His house was in deplorable condition, and so were other buildings that he recognized. The village inn that he was accustomed to frequent was run down, and the great tree that used to lend its shade to the inn was gone. In its place was a pole with a strange flag on it. The flag was decorated with a number of stars and stripes.
Rips unusual appearance attracted the attention of people who had been engaged in strange conversations about elections and other phenomena. Rip was perplexed when someone asked him whether he was a Federal or a Democrat. He meekly answered that he was a quiet man, a native of the village, and a loyal subject of the King. For some reason, this made people angry. They called him a spy and a Tory.
A man who seemed to be important quieted the crowd. He asked Rip why he had come to the village. In reply, Rip humbly said that he was looking for his neighbors. The prominent citizen asked for their names. Rip mentioned Nicholas Vedder and learned that he had died long ago. He mentioned Brom Dutcher, but he had died in the war. He mentioned Van Bummel the schoolmaster, but he had distinguished himself as a general in the war and was now in Congress.
Finally, he exclaimed in despair: “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?” Several people pointed to a gentleman leaning against a tree.
When Rip saw that the man leaning against the tree looked exactly like himself, at least as he used to be, Rip did not realize that he was looking at his grownup son, and he became incoherent. The people of the village concluded that he was insane. They were planning to take his rusty gun away from him, fearing that he might act erratically and hurt somebody with it.
At this point in time, Rip heard a woman calling her frightened child Rip and assuring him that the old man would not hurt him. Rip asked her who she was. She told him that she was Judith Gardinier, the daughter of Rip Van Winkle, who had disappeared twenty years ago. She also told him that her mother had died recently.
Rip told Judith that he was her father. One old woman in the crowd then recognized him and asked him where he had been all these years. In reply, Rip told them what had happened. Most of the people did not believe him until they consulted Peter Vanderdonk, the oldest man in the village. Peter told them that Hendrik Hudson, who had discovered the Hudson River and the surrounding countryside, occasionally frequented the Catskill Mountains with the crew of his ship, the Half Moon. Peter’s father had once seen them playing ninepins in a hollow of the mountain.
After this, the crowd lost interest in Rip and concerned themselves with the election once more.
Rip had slept through the Revolutionary War, and it was a long time before he understood the resultant political changes. He was not interested in politics.
Rip’s daughter took him home to live with her. Eventually Rip found a few of his old acquaintances, and he became popular with the rising generation, In view of his age, no one blamed him for avoiding profitable labor.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories” by Washington Irving; Penguin Books