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Terror in the Catskills

In response to:

Love in the Catskills from the February 5, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

It is true that for many years after its publication, Irving’s Sketchbook was one of the most popular American books; but there is no evidence that nineteenth-century readers singled out either the story or character of Rip Van Winkle as profoundly meaningful to their own experience. Commentary on the story centered on the mysterious bowling game in the mountains. The imagination they admired was not Rip’s but Irving’s, with its very different qualities of versatility and balance. Thus, when Richard Ellmann [NYR, February 5] repeats the critical truism that Rip is “one of the great figures of the nineteenth-century imagination,” he is really talking about a nineteenth-century character who has proved attractive to the twentieth century, or more accurately, to certain twentieth-century critics—a different matter entirely.

Similarly, the pre-eminent Dame Van Winkle is a creation of twentieth-century misogynist paranoia, the post-Wylie fear of “mom.” For when you read Irving’s text, you discover that Dame van Winkle doesn’t say one word in it (although Ellmann states that the story is “noisy with Rip’s termagant wife”). She doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t appear in the story; she is referred to three times in all but Irving makes no attempt to bring her on stage. It violates the proportions of the story to magnify three passing references into a major character.

Nina Baym

University of Illinois

Urbana, Illinois

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