Last week we unmasked Washington Irving as a plagiarist, Rip Van Winkle as a Teutonic shepherd named Peter Klaus, and the Catskills as a hornets’ nest of folkloric sleeper cells from Scandinavia, Japan, Ireland, Greece, and Turkey. In this last mentioned locale, during the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius ca. 250 CE, seven Ephesian Christians were given a chance to recant their faith. They instead gave their possessions to the poor and retired to a mountain cave to pray and there, as they slept the night, Rome’s soldiers walled the mouth of the cave with stones. More than a century later, during the reign of Christian emperor Theodosius I (379-395) or II (408-421) — one ought not press too hard for the factual base of this tale, especially as Aristotle had written of the “Sleepers of Sardes” some seven centuries earlier — the cave was unsealed and therein the masons found seven Ephesians awakening from what they believed to be a single night’s slumber.
One of these seven sleepers, Malchus, walked into town and was startled by the crosses atop several buildings. Like Rip, he had slept through a revolution.
Attempting to buy bread with his ancient coin, Malchus was interrogated by the townfolk, who suspected that he had come across an ancient treasure and was holding out on them. A bishop intervened to save Malchus from mayhem and returned with him to the cave, where he was amazed to see the other six with “theyr visages lyke unto roses flouryng,” as the story was recorded in The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, a popular medieval celebration of the lives of the saints, written ca. 1260 (though the story had been recorded in Syriac as early as the year 500). The seven tell their tale to the bishop and then die praising God.
These Seven Sleepers of Ephesus — Maximian, Martinian, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine, in addition to Malchus — were honored as saints for centuries thereafter. During the Crusades their remains were removed to the Church of Saint Victoire in Marseilles, where pilgrims flocked. In 1927-28 an excavation at Ephesus, underneath the ruins of a church, revealed several hundred graves from the fifth and sixth centuries, some with inscriptions referring to the Seven Sleepers. This grotto remains a tourist destination today, even though the sleepers’ feast day of July 27 was suppressed as mythical (i.e., of pagan origin) with the reform of the Roman Catholic liturgy in 1969.
Luckily, that was the year of the Woodstock Music Festival, the height (or should we say Haight) of all hippiedom. And our beset and bedraggled Catskillian hero was ready to become its patron saint, even if this ripeness is evident only in retrospect. Rip was the quintessential hippie, the one who made a success of failure by tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.
Irving’s genius had lain not in his stealthy adoption of the nondescript Peter Klaus as his archetype, but in creating Rip with a twist, as an apolitical antihero, a henpecked laggard, at the very moment in history when America was most insufferably vainglorious. Irving had left native soil in 1815, created Rip in 1819, and did not return until 1832. An Addisonian stylist with no hatred of Mother England — like Rip, Irving was apolitical—he had struck a popular chord with American readers with his evocations of a Knickerbocker tradition that was nearly vanished. And by making ethnic jokes of the Dutch—as a dwindling minority, they were popularly portrayed as dumb, cowardly, and gluttonish—he indirectly flattered those of English stock.
By making Rip literally a good-for-nothing Irving created a role model not only for a distant counterculture but also for art — which, like play, may have no purpose but itself or it becomes no longer itself. In the years after Irving’s death, America became ever more practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, reinventing itself with every generation, relentlessly conflating change with progress. The seeming idler — the writer, the painter, the philosopher, prized in past times for performing his work far from the madding crowd — increasingly was termed the useless man. For the artist — the man outside — Rip provided the perfect symbol.
Mind you, Irving did not intend his hero this way. It was for the next generation of writers like Whitman, Hawthorne, and Melville to see in their own commercial struggles, their own ineffectuality, the specter of Rip.
For Melville in particular, Rip possessed untapped allegorical, even spiritual possibilities. His star had fallen from the firmament of American authors after Typee (16,320 copies sold in his lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic) and Omoo (13,335). His masterwork, Moby-Dick, published in 1851, sold only 3,715 copies. His last attempt at fiction, The Confidence Man, sold even more poorly and his 1866 volume of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, sold a pathetic 471 copies, compelling the author to reimburse the publisher for its production costs. In that same year he gave over all hope of making a living from his writing and accepted a job as an outdoor customs inspector, a post he held for 19 years.
Melville’s death in 1891 passed almost unnoticed. But in 1919 it emerged that he had never stopped writing, and had left behind work that future generations would cherish: the novella Billy Budd, today perhaps his most widely read book, and a volume of poems titled Weeds and Wildings with a Rose or Two. One of the sections in this astounding volume is called “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac,” an experimental combination of prose and poetry that transforms and elevates Rip to nothing short of sainthood.
Melville introduces a new character, a “certain meditative vagabondo” who comes upon Rip’s vacant but picturesque abode some years before the hero’s awakening. “And the gray weather-stain not only gave the house the aspect of age,” Melville wrote, “but worse; for in association with palpable evidences of its recentness as an erection, it imparted a look forlornly human, even the look of one grown old before his time.” Yet the vagabondo is drawn to the ramshackle ruin of fallen willow, roof-shingle mosses and Lilac (Melville always capitalizes it) gaily sprouting from Rip’s planting on the day he last saw home. Exhorted by a passing stranger —“gaunt, hatchet-faced, stony-eyed”— to paint a trim white church in the distance rather than the shambles before him, he demurs, only to have the stranger press on:
“You will stick to this wretched old ruin, then, will you?”
“Yes, and the Lilac.”
“The Lilac? And black what-do-ye-call-it — lichen, on the trunk, so old is it. It is half-rotten, and its flowers spring from the rottenness under it, just as the moss on those eaves does from the rotting shingles.”
“Yes, decay is often a gardener.”
When Rip returns to his broken-down home some years hence he recalls having set a Lilac on the day of his departure for the hills:
That Lilac was a little slip,
And yonder Lilac is a tree!
The poet here intrudes:
But why rehearse in every section
The wildered good-fellow’s resurrection,
Happily told by happiest Irving
Never from genial verity swerving;
And more to make the story rife,
By Jefferson acted true to life.
Me here it but behooves to tell
Of things that posthumously fell.
Many years after Rip was “remanded into night,” the Lilac continued to bloom:
Each June the owner joyance found
In one prized tree that held its ground,
One tenant old where all was new,--
Rip’s Lilac to its youth still true.
To the end of his life, Melville had kept on his desk this motto: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”
And the poem concludes:
See, where man finds in man no use,
Boon Nature finds one—Heaven be blest!
In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel--Art.
--Herman Melville, 1891