Last month, I read Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, one of the excellent books in the Oxford History of the United States series. His first paragraph begins with Washington Irving’s acute observation that his native land was not the same place that it had been a generation earlier. Wood pointed out that “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.” Wood goes on to say that basically his (Wood’s) 700+ page book is a similar project to Irving’s—that is, to identify the changes that occurred from the time of the Revolution until about 1800.
Several times during my education, I read “Rip Van Winkle” as an assignment, but nowhere did anyone mention that it was anything other than a fictional story. The additional background information provided by Wood changes everything. I’m now looking forward to rereading “Rip Van Winkle.”