Time Travel Short Story Review

Rip Van Winkle, a Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker
by Irving Washington


In this classic American tale, a hen-pecked Rip Van Winkle wanders off with his dog Wolf into the Catskill mountains for some peace and quiet only to discover a group of strange characters playing nine-pins and drinking a even stranger brew. Despite warnings not to imbibe the drink, Rip sneaks a taste and falls into a deep sleep. Upon waking Rip discovers Wolf has wandered off and thinks someone has played a prank on him when he finds a rusted out weapon at his side instead of his own rifle.

Wandering back into the village Rip Van Winkle is shocked to realize he no longer recognizes anyone and that things seem unfamiliar. Suspicions are arosed that Rip may be a Tory spy loyal to the crown since his knowledge of current affairs and politics is sadly lacking. He manages to establish his identity after being recognized by both his daughter and Peter Vanderdonk, the most ancient inhabitant of the village. Still incredulous of Rip's explanation for his twenty-year absence, the villagers allow Rip to return home with his daughter and live in peace.


The term "Rip Van Winkle" has come to mean someone who is oblivious to social change. That is to say someone who is stuck in his or her own time and have not kept up with the times, intentionally or not. Washington's Rip Van Winkle may be the first popular example of a character that is "frozen in time" and who's reawakening is used to contrast two time periods. The story telling device is used throughout the genre of time travel as a means of transporting a character to a different time period. The movie "Austin Powers International Man of Mystery" and the television series "Futurama" both employ cryogenic freezing to bring their characters into the future.

In the case of Rip Van Winkle the two time periods Irving Washington is contrasting is the twenty years overlapping the American Revolution. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep in a period when the colonies are ruled by England and awakes in a period of American Independence. As Rip enters the village he notices a number of differences, among them the tavern where he spent much of his time had greatly changed.

"He recognized on the sign, however, the ruby face of King George, under which he had smoked so many a peaceful pipe; but even this was singularly metamorphosed. The red coat was changed for one of blue and buff, a sword was held in the hand instead of a sceptre, the head was decorated with a cocked hat, and underneath was painted in large characters, GENERAL WASHINGTON."

In addition to contrasting the political shifts over twenty years, the story also alludes to the economic shift from a more rural based economy to an increasingly urban one in Rip's view. While Rip's view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains is a highly romanticized one, his shock at the change in the pace and style of life upon returning to the village is genuine as evident in the quotes below.

"The very village was altered; it was larger and more populous. There were rows of houses which he had never seen before, and those which had been his familiar haunts had disappeared."

"The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity"

Irving Washington (1783-1859) in addition to writing "Rip Van Winkle, a Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker" also penned the classic tale the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow".

A wealth of information exists on Washington's writings and Rip Van Winkle in particular. I've included a number of links below that may useful to students and fans alike.

R E L A T E D   L I N K S

The Virtual Bookshelf -- Rip Van Winkle, a Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker
This page contains the complete text of the story with very imaginative illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The navigation is a bit awkward, but well worth the trouble.


Rip Van Winkle: Twenty Years of Missing Time - A literary perspective
by Raymond W. Cecot

This is an interesting essay on the similarities of Rip Van Winkle's "missing time" and alien abductions hosted by the Independent Researchers' Association for Anomalous Phenomena.


Review Posted 2003-05-04 Review Modified 2005-10-19 - Links fixed.

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