The first sentence of Fred Lewis Pattee's history of the American short story states authoritatively, "The American short story began in 1819 with Washington Irving." Claiming that with his craftsmanship, originality, and style, Irving made short fiction popular by stripping away the form's moral and didactic element and by adding richness of atmosphere, unity of tone, humor, definite locality, and individual characters; Pattee concludes that in Irving the "Addisonian Arctic current was cut across by the Gulf Stream of romanticism," to give birth to the American short story, "a new genre, something distinctively and unquestionably our own in the world of letters."
Actually, a number of genres and narrative conventions come together in the work of Irving: travel sketch, folktale, gothic romance, historical romance, and neoclassical essay. The first problem to consider is the effect of linking a descriptive genre--the sketch--with a narrative genre--the folktale--in Irving's two most famous short fictions. It is well-known that the plots for "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" came from German legend. However, in a letter dated September 4, 1824, Irving made it clear that these plots were merely vulgar vehicles for what he considered a respectable rhetorical purpose: "I wish, in everything I do, to write in such a manner that my productions may have something more than the mere interest of narrative to recommend them, which is very evanescent; something, if I dare use the phrase, of classical merit, &c., which gives a production some chance of duration beyond the mere whim and fashion of the day."
One of the most important results of Irving's devaluation of the tale and elevation of style and tone is that tale conventions are foregrounded and parodied by the sophisticated teller who mocks the supernatural basis of the tale. Furthermore, because sketch conventions focus more attention on specific detail than the primarily narrative tale form, the formerly projective and plot-based gothic tale is altered by the presence of a skeptical narrator who is more concerned with expressing his own impressionistic perspective than with telling a story. Moreover, because the teller is highly self-conscious of his use of realistic techniques of the sketch to present psychological projections of the tale, the resulting story tends to foreground, and thus thematize, storytelling elements; this is a very common effect when a work self-consciously adopts the conventions of previous genres as a means of parodying them. Finally, the self-conscious skeptical narrator tends to probe beneath the supernatural base of the story to expose its origins in dream and wish fulfillment.
"Rip Van Winkle" is the most obvious example of this exposure of the wish-fulfillment base of the traditional story. If the folklore source of "Rip Van Winkle" is undisclosed, its self-conscious literary source is foregrounded in the prologue, which attributes the tale to Diedrich Knickerbocker, an historian who, although he does his research among the folk, treats the folk as though they were the "clasped volume of a black-letter" book which he studies with the "zeal of a book-worm." The tone here is not that of the folklore teller, but of the ruminative sophisticate who considers the meaning of what he tells, in this case meditating on how shrewish wives may make the tempers of their husbands pliant, concluding, with an ironic Addison/Steele style aside: "A termagant wife may, therefore, in some respects be considered a tolerable blessing; and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice blessed."
That Rip's disappearance into the mountains is the result of his desire to escape his wife, not just for a day, but forever, is suggested by the fact that his departure is simultaneous with the depth of his despair when he is psychically ready for deliverance; and indeed, just as he looks down into a deep mountain glen, "wild, lonely, and shagged," an embodiment of his despondency, he sighs and hears his name, the identify he finds intolerable, called out. The most significant leap of time in American fiction--the twenty years that Rip sleeps--is made in the space between the end of one paragraph and the next, which begins, "On waking." And on waking, Rip is, of course, not where he was when watching the men playing, but rather back at the edge of the wild glen where he felt such despair and heard the name called of an identity he will now have reason to doubt.
As is typical of other nineteenth-century short-story characters who undergo experiences they cannot naturalize precisely because their experiences exist within the realm of a different genre from the one they seem to inhabit, Rip feels "perplexity" and wonders whether he is bewitched or if the world is. Time has passed as time must, but Rip, much like Cervantes' jealous Hidalgo, sleeps in the realm of one story while events go on around him in the realm of another. And since one's identity is determined by the story he inhabits, Rip believes he is not himself but someone else. When he sees his son, who has lived in the time-bound world of reality while he has lived in the timeless world of dream and folktale, Rip says "That's me yonder." Like Hawthorne's Wakefield, he has stepped aside into a story of his own desire for escape and thus has been displaced in the world of phenomenological reality.
It is poetic justice and narrative inevitability that just as Rip has objectified his deepest desire in oneiric story, on awaking his new identity would become that of storyteller. And like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Rip does tell his story, over and over again, to anyone who will listen, sometimes varying its details, which the skeptical narrator, in typical Hawthorne fashion, says is "doubtless owing to his having so recently wakened." The narrator concludes with an essayistic meditation on the wish-fulfillment source of the story: "It is a common wish of all henpecked husbands..... that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon."
Even more than in "Rip Van Winkle," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" sustains a world of dream where story contagion is in the air. Just as the deep glen is an objectification of Rip's deepest desire to escape despair, Sleepy Hollow is a place that does not exist except in the imagination, a timeless region located in space, a placeless place where one could steal away and dream his life away. It is dreamy, bewitched, spellbound; people are given to marvelous beliefs, are subject to visions, see strange sights; it is tale-haunted world, an enchanted region, a region of shadows. By placing such a timeless story in the realm of the time bound Irving creates a hybrid tale quite different than what has gone before. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a story about fiction's ability to alter the nature of reality, self-consciously particularizes a timeless legend by localizing it in space and grounding it in social reality.
The most obvious sign of the story's hybrid nature is the pervasive overdetermination in the story; everything is extreme, overdone, multiplied. Katrina is plump as a partridge; Brom is Herculean; Ichabod is American literature's quintessential grotesque. One of the most puzzling of these overdeterminations is the fact that Katrina's sending Ichabod away after the party makes Brom Bones' headless horseman trick unnecessary. However, whereas practical explanations may suffice in a realistic tale, they will not do in a folk legend, for the short story convention insists that Ichabod's story world must be actualized. "No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow." Thus, the skeptical narrator leaves the conclusion of the story--whether the headless horseman or Brom Bones chased Ichabod out of the valley--open, leaving the mix of two types of stories--folktale of headless goblins or realistic story of one man getting rid of a rival--in suspension.