Van Winkle

The Return of Rip Van Winkle by John QuidorRip dusts his broom

There is an interesting confluence of imagery between Evans’ short story, “Brooms” and “Van Winkle”, the second poem in the “Powhatan’s Daughter” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

It seems likely that Evans had read it before he wrote his story; it shows the larger issues behind the choice of sweeping utensils.

There is something Oedipal about the questions invoked. Evans buys a vacuum cleaner, where Crane places the same instrument in different hands, in a different place and time, wondering about the amnesia involved. For some reason, my brain wants to connect this all with Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember.

But there are eddies and currents beneath the surface that I can’t help but swim in. Photography is a relatively new technology, but the ocean is quite old.

The question is one of method, against a backdrop of change. Crane reaches out to embrace the inner thoughts, whereas Evans deigns to repudiate them. In both cases, it seems to be a response to tradition. The tradition of photography was shallow at this time, but the tradition of literature was deep. Although, it must be remembered that Hart Crane was a self-educated high school dropout who perhaps wasn’t all that attached to what we now call “canonical literature.”

Recall that the question that haunts “Harbor Dawn” is “Who is that woman with us in the dawn?”


The heart of the beats pounds in the bookended lines of “Van Winkle”. The choice of words is perhaps a bit obtuse to a modern reader: “Macadam, gun-grey as the tunny’s belt, / Leaps from Far Rockaway to Golden Gate.”

Macadam is a paving material composed of broken stones, bound together by asphalt. Tunny is just a synonym for tuna. I suppose it might be an echo of the Christian ethos, being a fish and all.

Of great interest to me were the literary references in the third stanza, because upon close examination they all pertain to “woman troubles”.

Van Winkle

Macadam, gun-grey as the tunny’s belt,      
Leaps from Far Rockaway to Golden Gate:     Streets spread
Listen! the miles a hurdy-gurdy grinds—     past store and
Down gold arpeggios mile on mile unwinds.     factory — sped
      by sunlight
      and her
Times earlier, when you hurried off to school,     smile . . .
— It is the same hour through a later day —      
You walked with Pizzaro in a copybook,      
And Cortes rode up, reining tautly in —      
Firmly as coffee grips the taste,— and away!      
There was Priscilla’s cheek close in the wind,      
And Captain Smith, all beard and certainty,      
And Rip Van Winkle bowing by the way,—      
“Is this Sleepy Hollow, friend — ?” And he —     Like Memory,
      she is time’s
And Rip forgot the office hours,     truant, shall
                                    and he forgot the pay;     take you by
            Van Winkle sweeps a tenement     the hand . . .
                                                way down on Avenue A,—      
The grind-organ says . . .Remember, remember      
The cinder pile at the end of the backyard      
Where we stoned the family of young      
Garter snakes under . . .And the monoplanes      
We launched — with paper wings and twisted      
Rubber bands . . .Recall — recall      
                                                    the rapid tongues      
That flittered from under the ash heap day      
After day whenever your stick discovered      
Some sunning inch of unsuspecting fibre —      
It flashed back at your thrust, as clean as fire.      
And Rip was slowly made aware      
                that he, Van Winkle, was not here      
        nor there. He woke and swore he’d seen Broadway      
                            a Catskill daisy chain in May —      
So memory, that strikes a rhyme out of a box,      
Or splits a random smell of flowers through glass —      
Is it a whip stripped from the lilac tree      
One day in spring my father took to me,      
Or is it the Sabbatical, unconscious smile      
My mother almost brought me once from church      
And once only, as I recall — ?      
It flickered through the snow screen, blindly      
It forsook her at the doorway, it was gone      
Before I had left the doorway, it was gone      
Before I had left the window. It      
Did not return with a kiss in the hall.      
Macadam, gun-grey as the tunny’s belt,      
Leaps from Far Rockaway to Golden Gate . . .      
Keep hold of that nickel for car-change, Rip—      
Have you got your “Times” —?      
And hurry along, Van Winkle — it’s getting late!      

The hazy nature of memory, of childhood and education, flits past as the traveler gets on his way. The mysterious “she” is “times truant,” and these fragments of information may mean very little, or they could mean a lot. Cortes and Pizzaro require little explanation, as explorers of the new world. But what of Pricilla’s cheek?

I believe it must be Pricilla Mullens, as glorified by Longfellow in The Courtship of Miles Standish. As her suitor John Alden described her in Longfellow’s poem: “There is no land so sacred, no air so pure and so wholesome, / As is the air she breathes, and the soil that is pressed by her footsteps.” Interestingly enough, all the references in this stanza are slanted toward tales of courtships won or lost, including Rip Van Winkle. Rip’s story is more of courtship come to a bad end, for numerous reasons. First of all, Rip had no care for himself but only of other people’s needs (instead of his family’s). And he was hen-pecked; upon waking up his first thought is “what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle!” Van Winkle finds a victory through his sleep though, because that wife is long gone when he wakes up. The John Smith reference should be apparent to those familiar with Pocahontas, because in his telling of the tale the young girl was smitten by him.

The reference to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow drives deeper, because more than a ghost story, it is the story of a courtship thwarted. What I found most interesting in Sleepy Hollow was the description of two types of women:

I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access; while others have a thousand avenues, and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great triumph of skill to gain the former, but a still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for the man must battle for his fortress at every door and window.

Through doors and windows, the woman of the poem escapes at the waking; poor Van Winkle sweeps a tenement down on Avenue A, and must rush out the door to pay the toll. Modern life and history merge when we wake; this is such a powerful invocation to “a day in the life.”

If the “she” here is taken as the literary tradition, then the poet positions himself as a somewhat henpecked suitor who has slept through too much and is in pursuit of a difficult and elusive target. When Van Winkle awakes though, he is free. Though as the gloss suggests, she is there to take you by the hand, somewhat echoing the role of Dante’s Virgil. Great literature deepens when you read it carefully. I love this stuff!