A Catskill Catalog: January 11, 2012

The most famous resident of the Catskills never lived. We can all picture him, though. The beard, the dog, the pipe, the rusty gun.

The most famous resident of the Catskills hunted and was hen-pecked; kept a loyal dog and a comfortable pipe; loafed and drank; slept for 20-crucial years, yet never took an actual breath.
The most famous resident of the Catskills is, of course, Rip Van Winkle.

Rip was born to the world on June 23, 1819, with the publication in the United States of the first paper-bound serial section of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman by Washington Irving, an expatriate from New York, living in London.

The book purported to be the philosophical ramblings, and humorous reflections, of an American gentleman, cosmopolitan and comfortable, in the world, a European traveler who was self-consciously American.

“To an American visiting Europe, the long voyage he has to make is an excellent preparative,” the book begins. Geoffrey Crayon is observant, witty, intelligent, downright funny. A hardcover edition was published in England, and the fictional Geoffrey Crayon appeared to be the most interesting American to visit the old world since the real-life Ben Franklin, a full generation previous.

“Rip van Winkle A Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker,” was the fifth “essay” in Mr. Crayon’s sketchbook. Keeping a sketchbook, a commonplace book, was not uncommon among the gentlemanly caste, a blank book where a gent could write down his thoughts and observations. Readers knew that this gentleman’s sketchbook was the novelistic creation of a bright new writer, this Washington Irving, a real fresh, candid American voice.

“The following tale was found among the papers of the late Dietrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New York, who was very curious in the Dutch history of the province and the manners of the descendants from its primitive settlers.” That’s how “Rip Van Winkle,” begins.

The tale, considered by many scholars to be the first American short story, is packaged as a dusty historical document found among the papers of an obscure, long-dead, local man-of-letters who may have been a bit of a crank, but did find his tale verified by the word-of-mouth testimony of any number of equally obscure, equally long-dead colonial housewives.
It had to be true!

The early 1800s were a time when folklore and the wisdom and the stories of the common people were highly prized among opinion leaders throughout Europe. Napoleon’s Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! captured the imagination of millions, as his armies marched across Europe. Greeks, Germans, Italians, Poles and Slavs felt the first grand stirrings of nationalism. If a nation did not exist among politicians, many reasoned, it did exist among the people, the folk, the often uneducated, but, their thinking went, fundamentally wise folk.

That’s where Dietrich Knickerbocker came in. America did not have any quaint old folklorists collecting ancient folk wisdom from peasant-farmers whose family-presence on a piece of land goes back to the distant past. America did not have a distant past. When Washington Irving published his Sketchbook, he and his country were about the same age, 36.

So, invent it. That’s what Irving did. He invented a folklore that did not exist. And that folklore became our folklore, American folklore, invented, in whole cloth, in the mind and imagination of one New York guy. And he chose the Catskills as the land from which that lore sprang.

For folklore, I think, always springs from the land, from human interaction with the land of a specific place. The Pied Piper of Hamlin leads the rodents out of a seaside town where rats would, logically, be the story. Place matters.

So, Rip, if he is to be suitably folk, needs to come from a suitably folk-saturated place. Irving chose the mountain village of Catskill, called Leeds today, up-hill from der strand, the river landing that, in later years, would usurp the Catskill village name. Leeds is a place suitably out of the way, isolated. Tucked up in the hills above a second-rate harbor landing midway between New York and Albany.

And suitably historic. Catskill-Leeds has a Dutch pedigree. And the mountains provide the wilderness: untamed, mysterious, wildly beautiful and vaguely dangerous. Perfect for folklore.
Irving made Rip something of a comic character, but one, in many ways, recognizably American. He was “a simple, good-natured fellow…a kind neighbor.” Rip, “an obedient henpecked husband,” had a “meekness of spirit which gained him…universal popularity.”

“The great error is Rip’s composition was an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.” Uh, oh. The fatal flaw. Rip was affable and easy going, but lazy. That, and an inability to say no to the offer of a mid-day snort, led to all Rip’s troubles, and to his triumph.

While squirrel hunting, Rip Van Winkle encounters magic in the mountains. Catskill Mountain thunder opens Rip’s experience, and the reader’s imagination, back to Henrick Hudson’s crew, to that glorious Catskill light that “every hour of the day produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of the mountains,” to ancient sport and great events missed, to the simple life of the plain people close to the earth.

He may never have lived, but Rip Van Winkle is one of our most famous, and important, Americans. Cool that he lived here with us.