Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Rip Van Winkle's Wicked Flagon

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Rip Van Winkle's Wicked Flagon

Article excerpt

It may not be coincidental that Washington Irving's tale "Rip Van Winkle" was published at just the moment that American alcohol consumption hit its all-time peak. Rip, who we often remember as having slept for twenty years, actually passed out after drinking heavily from a

flagon that contained a powerful but mysterious and heretofore unidentified liquor. This playful, historically informed essay examines the cultural history of American alcohol consumption in order to ask what kind of liquor was actually in Rip's magical flagon. Among the contenders are beer, wine, cider, rum, gin, and com whiskey, each of which is considered and evaluated within the multiple contexts provided by a nineteenth-century author's fictional account of an eighteenth-century character who claims to have gone on a drinking binge with seventeenth-century Dutchmen.


Although Washington Irving, who was arguably the most celebrated American author of the early nineteenth century, is not widely read today, our culture has long since assimilated a number of his memorable fictional characters, most notably the gangly, terrified schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, and Rip Van Winkle, who is usually depicted carrying his rusty flintlock and gazing out from behind the long, grey beard that grew during his famous twenty-year nap in the deep woods of the Catskills. Ah, that sweet, sweet sleep, which so few of us forget! But I find more fascinating the cause of Rip's famous snooze, which so few of us remember: he was stone cold drunk. Absolutely bombed. In fact, Rip never falls asleep at all; instead, he simply passes out.

"Rip Van Winkle" first appeared in The Sketch Book, Irving's illustrious short story collection, which was published serially in 1819-20 though internal textual evidence suggests that Rip's trip to the woods occurs sometime between 1763 and 1769. The tale of course concerns a happy-go-lucky man who was beloved in his small, rural village, but who nevertheless had a number of very good reasons to drink. Some of these were personal; others were related to the cultural pressures of the historical moment in which he lived. Within his domestic sphere, Rip was a deeply unhappy man who was mercilessly henpecked by his wife, Dame Van Winkle, a figure so termagant that her character inspired what may be Irving's most famous aphorism: "[A] sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use." Repeatedly assailed by this indefatigable nag, Rip retreats to the corner bar, where to this day one may find men seeking shelter from their responsibilities generally, and from their wives specifically. Rip's local tavern is named for "His Majesty George the Third"--a fact that becomes important later in the story. But although Rip is perfectly satisfied with drinking and "telling endless sleepy stories about nothing," Dame Van Winkle ultimately drives him from the inn as well, and it is only then that Rip is provoked to head for the hills. Rip's journey to the woods is no Thoreauvian pilgrimage; if he could, he'd much rather sit lazily in the tavern, tippling his way through his tough day.

And it was a tough day for American farmers on the eve of the Revolution. In addition to the ongoing challenges of eking out a living on the frontier, families like the Van Winkles were also being asked to choose sides in a brewing conflict that threatened to erupt into war. Even Crevecoeur, whose pastoral idyll of the American Farmer profoundly shaped American nationalist identity, was himself a Tory loyalist which suggests that choosing sides in the looming conflict with England was far from easy. For these reasons, and many others, pre-Revolutionary Americans experienced profound social, cultural, political, and economic instability. Especially for struggling frontier farmers, it was enough to make one want to take a strong drink, or perhaps a long nap.

And so it is under these embattled personal and cultural circumstances that Rip pulls up to the bar, and is then driven out of it by his wife. …

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