Irving (1783-1859) was America's first man of letters, devoting much of his career to literature. In his short stories, he usually starts with standard characters--the lazy husbands, for instance, and the termagant wife. He is able, however, in his better stories to place them in a home-like situation and in surroundings that give the stories a kind of vitality. Irving's choice of incidents and descriptive details adds a note of symbolism to the basic themes, creating an almost Gothic atmosphere.
Irving got the idea for his most famous story, "Rip Van Winkle," from a German legend about a sleeping emperor, which he points out in a mock-scholarly note added at the end of the story. According to the note, the tale originated with Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old Dutch gentleman of New York, who is really a fictional character created by Irving. (The old gentleman's name was later adopted by a group of New York writers of the period, among whom Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant were the foremost Knickerbockers.) "Rip Van Winkle" is found in Irving's longer work, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published serially in the United States from 1819 to 1820.
The Dutch of New York were just as thrifty as the Puritans from whom Benjamin Franklin got many of his ideas. The Dutch, too, believed in working hard and in saving every cent possible. However, Washington Irving makes the hero of his famous story the complete opposite of the ideal. Even Rip's nagging wife cannot make him change.
Rip Van Winkle, at one point in the story, gets lost in an enchanted forest, but the ghosts he meets prove to be merely silent and indifferent. Beneath the apparent comic burlesque qualities of the tale, signs of decay, sterility, and impotence indicate that it deals with the loss or surrender of manhood. In effect, while Rip falls into a 20-year sleep, he exchanges the best years of his life for a peaceful old age. Meanwhile, his compatriots fight a war and establish a new nation.
But Rip is flexible enough to turn his misfortune into an advantage, First, he escapes 20 years of nagging by his insistent wife. Second, he makes great success as a man who neither minds his own business nor maintains his reputation as a hard worker. Rather, he is a loafer, a gossip, a dreamer, and someone who helps his neighbors and who is liked by children. Rip would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound.