“Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.”

Most of my students bring to Washington Irving’s story an assumption that Rip Van Winkle slept for a hundred years. Irving was writing a folk tale (for The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), but today’s students have been raised on cartoon versions of fairy tales, and most people who fall asleep in fairy tales sleep for a century, I believe. Furthermore, today’s students are more likely to have seen an animated version of this story than to have read it in a book. And images of the famous sleep-off-the-gin-binge gentleman depict him as very old indeed, from the earliest images we have. Take a look, for example, at John Quidor’s painting. John should have known: he himself was born in Tappan, New York, just across the Hudson River from Washington Irving’s Irvington farm, “Sunnyside,” and not far from the site of Rip’s al fresco nap in the Catskills. How close to the thing itself can you get?

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Now, observe him. Look how ancient he seems.

And I imagine that’s what was operating in the delightful mind of this student writer.

I happen to love the name “Rip Van Winkle.” It really does strike the American ear as very Dutch, appropriately enough for a resident of the banks of the lower Hudson River. I also think of winkles—first of all, the oyster-killing marine snails, themselves edible; then the verb for getting the little buggers out of their shells for a human snack. The periwinkle is one kind of winkle. The periwinkle is also a ground-cover plant with blue flowers, and I must thank the Crayola company for introducing me to “Periwinkle Blue” before I ever saw the flower (or the snail). Can you imagine Rip Van Winkle perhaps gradually disappearing beneath a carpet of periwinkles? What of all this free-associating did Irving want me to indulge in when he named his protagonist? Who can say? But the sound of the word and the creatures who share it as a name are small, unimportant (except perhaps to an oyster). Irving says Rip was fun-loving but “hen-pecked” (his term, not mine!) and consequently meek. And of course there’s “wink” sitting right there in the name: the flirtatious eye-twitch and also a name associated with naps: forty winks. The -le suffix makes it diminutive. Rip from-the-little-nap. Only twenty winks.

But my student had seen some cartoon version. Or perhaps he had gone to the National Gallery. Or maybe he had read the Classic Comic. In these depictions, Rip looks like a very very old man when he wakes. This despite the story, wherein Rip is father to two children when he wanders off into the Catskills and hoists a few with Henrik Hudson’s ghostly bowlers, and discovers on his return that the children have become adults. So he’s far from a sexagenarian when he begins his adventure, and hence far from a snowy-bearded old fogey when he returns. Irving also says that during his absence his beard has grown “a foot long,” indicating that he started off clean-shaven, and describes that beard as gray. But Quidor (and the other depictors) gives him a lot more than twelve inches of Van Winkle whiskers, all Santa-white.

So: when he wakes up, he has become, or taken on the appearance of, an old, old man, according to the pictures.

The village, the society, the culture have all changed a great deal during his absence. But that’s because the American Revolution has happened, not because things have been slowly evolving.

Anyway, you KNOW what’s coming. If any auto-correct was going on when my student was writing his paper, it was in his mind’s eye, not in the word-processing program.

There in Rip’s name, as on his face, wrinkles. Rip Van Wrinkle.

Well, of course.

Now, I dare you: Say my student’s version of the name three times, and then try to remember what Irving wrote.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

13 responses to ““Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.”

  • yourothermotherhere

    I like that story.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    The only thing wrong with Rip Van Wrinkle is that I wish I had thought of it!
    Amusing, apt, classic!

  • Stacey

    My first reaction is to call up the Gertrude Stein quote, “We are always the same age inside.” Second reaction is to wonder what a conversation between WI and GS would be like. I grew up, up the hill from Tappan Beach and I love this story. Admittedly, I haven’t read the original for years, and so, I admit to the possibility that I, too, may have appropriated the tale and twisted it to conform to my own personal mythology. Perhaps this is a complement to the author?! or a call for a reread!

    • RAB

      Now, Stein and Irving would be quite a conversation. Do reread the story—I love Irving’s narrative voice!—and see if you too think the name should have been “Wrinkle” instead of “Winkle.”

  • whitt88

    …which goes to show how lucky we were to be taught to learn, read and study before television and comic books came along. Before, developing the imagination was essential. Today, distractions and entertainment are replace real thought. People find it impossible to drop off the internet for twenty days, or wait for more than twenty minutes to message or tweet. A horror. Welcome back, RIP. You were an short-story idea that lasted me a lifetime. And you are brave, RAB, to face these issues. 🙂

    • whitt88

      …and I still forget to proofread.

      • RAB

        I was tempted to attribute Rip Van WRinkle to a spellcheck program, but it was written in an exam answer. I’m afraid for that hapless student “Wrinkle” was in there from the beginning. Are you blaming yourself for “an short-story idea”? I assume “short-story” arrived after “an idea.” That’s the kind of proofreading I forget about too!

    • RAB

      I’m with you, whitt.

      • whitt88

        If I start attributing blame, my imagination will go bananas. You can see why I’m ill equipped for the new world of instantaneous everything 🙂 Anyway, three or four grammar mistakes, just ripe for your picking. Your sense of humor makes you a memorable teacher. And yes, you are right, I felt I needed to qualify ‘the idea which lasts a lifetime.’

      • whitt88

        Fun to have such good company, thank you. Your stories take me back to such a happy time, when ‘try and try again until you get it right’ made so much difference. When we stop to think about where we are today, so much of depends on who we had as teachers. A noble profession.

  • RAB

    Whitt, your kind remarks are much appreciated. I agree, teachers matter. I can still SEE most of mine, let alone hear them. I feel them in the bones of my thought, if though can be said to have bones.

  • This is Saturday and I Don’t Have a Beard | Numbering the Stars, and Other Impossibilities

    […] “Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.” (youknewwhatimeant.wordpress.com) […]

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