In response to:
Love in the Catskills from the February 5, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
After reading “Love in the Catskills” [NYR, February 5], few would disagree with either Professor Ellmann’s reassertion of the value of biographical criticism or his observation that Rip Van Winkle “was a parable, and largely a conscious one, of Irving’s life.” The problem with both, however, is well illustrated in Ellmann’s interpretation, for the meaning of the story, like the flavor of soup, can vary enormously depending upon which elements you decide to use. Stanley Williams, who wrote the definitive biography of Irving, saw the author’s maudlin complaints about the dead Matilda as excessive protesting caused by a guilty joy at his consequent freedom from marriage and all the responsibilities it involved. Irving always regarded his interest in writing as a form of dereliction a good husband would avoid. Hence Rip Van Winkle, named after the printer of The Sketch Book—a man whose fondness for stories causes his farm to fall into disrepair and leaves him with a shrewish wife he takes to the hills to avoid.
Irving’s much emphasized depression over the collapse of his family’s business should not be allowed to obscure his trips to London for the spirited fellowship of Washington Allston, Gilbert Stuart, C.R. Leslie, and several others. This group, which Irving called the “lads,” had many homosexual overtones, but, more important, its members, like Irving, were all expatriates who had left America and the work-a-day responsibilities they associated with it for perilous careers in painting and writing. Since the merriment of their activities was crossed by the melancholy of professional uncertainties and pressures which carried individual members away, they provide a biographical explanation of Henry Hudson’s curious crew which is far less generalized than Professor Ellmann’s. Rather than dispute which interpretation is superior, however, it might be wiser to recall how the schoolmaster Icabod Crane, with his overactive imagination, was routed by Brom Bones whose impersonation of the headless horseman dramatized the dangers of failing to maintain clear distinctions between fact and story.
Thomas H. Pauly
University of Delaware
Richard Ellmann replies:
Professor Baym is dead wrong about the nineteenth century’s failure to single out “Rip Van Winkle.” Not only was the story translated all over the world, as I indicated, but there is abundant other evidence of its popularity, such as Joseph Jefferson’s touring the dramatized version all over the country for years and years. In saying that Rip Van Winkle was one of the great characters of the nineteenth-century imagination, however, I was not counting nineteenth-century heads but noting its lasting impact.
Professor Baym’s second point is that Dame Van Winkle is not pre-eminent in the story, or a major character. No one said she was. There is only one major character. That Dame Van Winkle is not quoted directly is scarcely strange in a story which has virtually no direct quotation. But whenever she is mentioned, her shrewish chatter is mentioned, and Rip’s recollection and dread of it are repeatedly emphasized. In this sense she is all noise, and unpleasant noise.
Professor Baym’s reference to twentieth-century “momism” is outlandish. The termagant wife is a stock character from classical comedy on. She did not have to be invented in either the nineteenth or the twentieth century. Professor Baym’s comments seem to derive from some unspecified grudge against someone unidentified. I am glad it is not me.
Mr. Pauly’s interpretation of the story gets nowhere. The extraordinary quality about the bowlers is not their gentlemanly mixture of merriment and melancholy, as he seems to think, but the contrast of their grotesque features and lively game with their impassivity and silence. It is this contrast which terrifies Rip Van Winkle.
As to Irving’s expression of his grief, it may be maudlin, but it is rare. He writes it soon after Matilda Hoffman’s death, and he writes it again eight years later. In between, he writes virtually nothing else. Explanation is not assisted by Mr. Pauly’s series of unconnected random comments which ignore the close knit of the argument.
May 13, 1976