what rip van winkle found when he woke up -- 6/23/16

Today's encore selection from -- Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood. Rip Van Winkle, who was author Washington Irving's vehicle for conveying the lightning pace of change in early America -- the period in which Americans became the first people to expect and to prize change -- and during which business and working for profit became more praised and honored than in any other country in the Western world:

"During the second decade of the nineteenth century, writer Washington Irving developed an acute sense that his native land was no longer the same place it had been just a generation earlier. Irving had conservative and nostalgic sensibilities, and he sought to express some of his amazement at the transformation that had taken place in America by writing his story 'Rip Van Winkle.' Irving had his character Rip awaken from a sleep that had begun before the Revolution and had lasted twenty years. When Rip entered his old village, he immediately felt lost. The buildings, the faces, the names were all strange and incomprehensible. 'The very village was altered -- it was larger and more populous,' and idleness, except among the aged, was no longer tolerated. 'The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility' -- a terrifying situation for Rip, who had had 'an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour.' Even the language was strange -- 'rights of citizens -- elections -- members of Congress -- liberty ... and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.' When people asked him 'on which side he voted' and 'whether he was Federal or a Democrat,' Rip could only stare 'in vacant stupidity.'

lithograph of famous actor Joe Jefferson playing
Rip Van Winkle

" 'Rip Van Winkle' became the most popular of Irving's many stories, for early nineteenth-century Americans could appreciate Rip's bewilderment. Although superficially the political leadership seemed much the same -- on the sign at the village inn the face of George Washington had simply replaced that of George III -- beneath the surface Rip, like most Americans, knew that 'every thing's changed.' In a few short decades Americans had experienced a remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and, like Rip and his creator, many wondered what had happened and who they really were.

"Before the Revolution of 1776 America had been merely a collection of disparate British colonies composed of some two million subjects huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast -- European outposts whose cultural focus was still London, the metropolitan center of the empire. Following the War of 1812 with Great Britain -- often called the Second American Revolution -- these insignificant provinces had become a single giant continental republic with nearly ten million citizens, many of whom had already spilled into the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The cultural focus of this huge expansive nation was no longer abroad but was instead directed inward at its own boundless possibilities.

"By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them. And this transformation took place before industrialization, before urbanization, before railroads, and before any of the technological breakthroughs usually associated with modern social change. In the decades following the Revolution America changed so much and so rapidly that Americans not only became used to change but came to expect it and prize it.

"The population grew dramatically, doubling every twenty years or so, as it had for several generations, more than twice the rate of growth of any European country. And people were on the move as never before. Americans spread themselves over half a continent at astonishing speeds. Between 1790 and 1820, New York's population quadrupled; Kentucky's multiplied nearly eight times. In a single decade, Ohio grew from a virtual wilderness (except, of course, for the presence of the native Indians, whom white Americans scarcely acknowledged) to become more populous than most of the century-old colonies had been at the time of the Revolution. In a single generation, Americans occupied more territory than they had occupied during the entire 150 years of the colonial period, and in the process killed or displaced tens of thousands of Indians.

"Although most Americans in 1815 remained farmers living in rural areas, they had become, especially in the North, one of the most highly commercialized people in the world. They were busy buying and selling not only with the rest of the world but increasingly with one another, everyone, it seemed, trying to realize what Niles' Weekly Register declared 'the almost universal ambition to get forward.' Nowhere in the Western world was business and working for profit more praised and honored."


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment