Cold Spring Diary: “Rip Van Winkle”

by David St.-Lascaux


Front cover and title page of Washington Irving’s 1819 “Rip Van Winkle,” republished in 1921.

March 7, 2014

TO STATE THE OBVIOUS, the History of Everything is the story of change. That’s what narrative is, and a definition of time. Some welcome progressive change; others change for its own sake; others fatalistically regard change as inevitable. Not coincidentally, the multi-limbed, multi-tasking Indian Kali was goddess of change, time and death. Following her lead, economist Joseph Schumpeter famously remarked on capitalism’s “creative destruction” – apparently destructive change that might most generously be claimed to be analogous to the changing of the seasons or the cycles of life, or correlated to the recurring recessions and depressions that plague that economic system. That humans are the world’s main change agents is indisputable; how much change people and societies will tolerate and endure is another matter: the end results of flash-frying and frog-boiling are the same.

The history of the Hudson Valley is a story of change, apparently slow over the thousands of years in which the earliest humans lived here; then rapid upon the rapacious, resource-ravenous Europeans’ arrival. In Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors: The Transformation of Rural Society in the Hudson River Valley, 1720-1850 (2001), Thomas S. Wermuth chronicles the arrival of the Dutch West India Company in the early 1600’s (according to Peter Schaghen, the Dutch “purchased the Island Manhattes from the [Canarsie] Indians for the value of 60 guilders” in 1626), “primarily interested in the potential profits of the fur trade.” We thus see the local history of America (excluding its extracontinental imperial activities) as originating in resource exploitation. The other two factors were real estate and its profitable subdivision, and the then very modern concept of manufacturing-related human labor exploitation (the so-called “moral” philosopher Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [1776], a rose-colored justification for selfishness and consumption at the dawn of the appropriately named Industrial Revolution, was hot off the press at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence). The foundational role of private property in America – both physical and human – explains the fervid historical defense of both by its ideological adherents.

Noting the decline of the fur trade, Wermuth’s scholarly monograph otherwise omits the human and environmental despoliation that preceded and followed the bucolic period he analyzes, not to mention his elision of the Peach Tree and First and Second Esopus Wars. (By 1720, the Hudson Valley’s autochthonous inhabitants had long been violently dispossessed of their lands, the beaver population decimated [in brazen mockery, the beaver is both New York State animal and resident on the seal of the City of New York], primeval forests had long been cut down; and environmentally-destructive factories [notably in Philmont], were in place in the Valley by the mid-1800’s.) Yet these are the most obvious qualities of the exurban areas we’ve explored – towns like Cold Spring, whose former raisons d’être can only be guessed by passersby; lingering eighteenth- and nineteenth-century main streets whose buildings must be imaginatively reconstituted for marginal modern purposes; long-shuttered, decaying factory buildings, typically concealing brownfields, alongside scenic streams; decrepit houses, old and new; abandoned railroad tracks; and everywhere postwar John Wayne ranch house developments and McMansions in the woods, where rugged American individuals go it alone, dependent upon expensive petroleum-fueled, foreign cars to access processed food, shoddy goods and distant jobs, living in ironically conformist, materially-redundant, resource-inefficient isolation, and singing Hymns to Themselves and the lesser gods Convenience and Status.

Wermuth’s title refers to Hudson Valley resident Washington Irving’s 1819 short story, “Rip Van Winkle,” a missed opportunity by Irving to comment on the profundity of the changes that had occurred in the region in the period following the American Revolution, as farming became connected to distant markets, and transportation expanded and advanced technologically, with Robert Fulton’s North River (as the Hudson was called) steamboat’s maiden voyage between New York City and Albany in 1807. This diary’s reproduction of David McKay Company’s 1921 monograph of Irving’s then century-old story, illustrated by the great N.C. Wyeth, respects the intellectual private property copyright law (works published before 1923 are in the public domain) for which Irving was an early advocate.

Had Irving a more perspicacious vision, he might have commented on how profoundly things change for everyone – individuals, families, communities and nations – in the course of decades, and lifetimes. The last generation, for example, has seen catastrophic economic globalization and automation, as evidenced by the cataclysmic industrialization (including the intentional de-ruralization) of China; the advent of personal computers (1981); plastic shopping bags (1982); the World Wide Web (1991); a whole lot of creative destruction in the financial sector (2008+); and dangerous levels of atmospheric CO2 particulates (2013). The previous generation saw the early operations of the CIA (founded in 1947) and American global domination; the rise of industrial agriculture; the transistor (1947) and television (color in 1954); ideological consumerism and enabling consumer credit; black civil- and women’s rights; contraception (1960); the mainstreaming of drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. The characterization of certain of the above items as representing “progress” would require creative definition.

On the other hand, the current generation has seen huge social leaps forward: the collapse of previously persistent prejudices – racism, and sexism against both woman and gays; fear of physical and property crimes in many neighborhoods; ease of travel; and access to knowledge and information through Wikipedia and the Internet, respectively.

Actually, Edward Bellamy, Irving’s authorial kin, perhaps naïvely prescribed progressive change in his Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), an homage to Irving’s “Rip.” In the best-selling, must-read Looking Backward, Bellamy’s narcoleptic hero witnessed an egalitarian future in response to the disparities of America’s Gilded Age, which ran concurrently with the Long Depression – from 1873 through 1879 and again, 1893-1896 (“Laissez le bon temps rouler!”). Bellamy envisioned America as a socialist utopia in which the very real follies and cruelties of industrial capitalism, as well as private property, would be discarded by sensible, informed citizens:

It was the sincere belief of even the best of men at that epoch that the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together, and that all human associations would fall to pieces if anything were done to blunt the edge of these motives or curb their operation. In a word, they believed – even those who longed to believe otherwise – the exact reverse of what to us seems self-evident; they believed, that is, that the antisocial qualities of men, and not their social qualities, were what furnished the cohesive force of society…. It seems absurd to expect anyone to believe that convictions like these were ever seriously entertained by men.”

WHAT SOMEONE FALLING ASLEEP and waking up forty – or one hundred thirteen – years from now will make of Americans’ current, modal way of living bears concerned conjecture. We are hopeful that the resurgent, if sporadic agrarian culture we see in Putnam County will lead to a reawakening of sustainable practices at a future time in which people will live in harmony with the land (if not each other), as the region’s autochthonous peoples did for almost 10,000 years.

* * *

March 8: Maple Sugar Bounty; the Languages of Birds

Text copyright © 2014

Comments are closed.