Rip Van Winkle, Revisited

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

You know this story already. But I wonder—probably you haven’t read it for a long time—if you remember how it begins:

Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river swelling up to such noble height and lording it over the surrounding country. Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by good wives far and near as perfect barometers.

On re-reading these first few sentences (as I’ve just done—it had been a long time since I last read “Rip Van Winkle,” and, having referred to the story, I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was talking about), a few things strike me as worth pointing out: first the strange use of the word “dismembered,” which does in fact describe the remoteness of the Catskills from other mountains, but which also seems to me an apt way to talk about Thebes, which cut itself off from the rest of the world, and also about my family, the Rowlands, who were prone to dismember themselves, figuratively—and, in at least one instance, literally—the permanent rift between my mothers, the Celestes, and my grandparents, being probably the best example of this. This is a story about dismembered people, which is one reason among many, I guess, why it makes sense to tell it this way, in pieces. Or to add dismembered pieces to it, I mean, now that the telling is done.

I call your attention also to the connection Irving draws between the mountains and the weather. To the best of my memory, he’s right, more right that I am, in fact: I seem to have called the mountains “gray” where in fact they are multicolored, now blue now purple, now green now red and orange, now brown with winter—but never all the same brown; there was the lighter brown of the ground and the darker brown of the trees. The mountains are perhaps not barometers but they are certainly mirrors of the sky, and the sky over Thebes was always changing—which was one reason, perhaps, why my grandfather objected so strenuously to Joe Regenzeit’s plan to control the weather. That sky, he must have felt, had its own magic; it should never have been subjected to our ground-bound wishes. So, this is another point on which Irving anticipates me, without my having known it: this is going to be a story about people and the weather. About, if you like, the magic of the sky and the art, or artifice, of the ground. But I am becoming too theoretical—I won’t say anything more about it here.

Irving’s mention of “good wives” is also significant. “Rip Van Winkle” is, if you remember, about a man with a bad wife, or at least a wife who won’t leave him alone—Dame Van Winkle is always after Rip to work his land, and she’s always lecturing him about how lazy and useless he is. Here too I find a parallel to my own story. Not that Alice is a shrew—far from it; she seems to belong very much to the live-and-let-live camp, which makes me wonder what she is doing with Erin now. But that is a story to be told later, if at all.

I have said far more than I meant to about this.

© 2008-2021 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.