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Washington Irving, born in New York of Scottish-English parents, grew to admire refined European cultures after traveling extensively in Europe for seventeen years. He also admired the Dutch culture that was prevalent in what is now known as Manhattan.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is not so much a product of this Dutch culture that Irving grew to love as it is a defense of it and other European cultures threatened by the new frontiersmen represented by Ichabod Crane. In a most interesting essay by Albert J. von Frank, entitled, ‘‘The Man That Corrupted Sleepy Hollow,’’ in Studies in American Fiction, von Frank argues that Irving's satire is aimed at Ichabod because he wishes to exploit the van Tassels and take Katrina to the uncouth wilderness of Kentucky. Indeed, it is Ichabod who is the villain in this story as he threatens the "blooming Katrina" with "his uncouth gallantries."
Further, von Frank writes,
The treatment of lechery in ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ is understandably circumspect, and yet it is very close to the effective center of the satire.
Ichabod Crane, he contends, is the subversion and perversion of a wonderful culture. For instance, earlier in the narrative Ichabod spares the weaker, but "the claims of justice" are inflicted on the stronger by "inflicting a double portion on some little, tough, wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin." Then, he follows some of the smaller children home who have "pretty sisters" or "good housewives for mothers" and enjoys their cooking. This channeling of his prurient desires into food disguises Crane's lechery, von Frank argues.
The fact that Ichabod is a portrait of perverse and misdirected sexuality is arguably the author's final comment on his representative Yankee. Here Irving supplies two general contexts for Ichabod's behavior: one is the fertile feminine land that the schoolmaster threateningly lusts after, and the other is the prevailing sexuality of the Dutch, which is, for the most part, no sexuality at all.
Von Frank feels that these are "general contexts’’ because they are "inertly present all the while," but they assume greater significance in conjunction with specific details such as those mentioned as well as others. The expulsion of Ichabod Crane by Brom van Brunt, then, is the community's defense against "moral taint." Moreover, it is the "expulsion of 'Yankee sexuality' of perverse and aggressive lust" of one who would corrupt their culture.
[See the link below for the complete essay by von Frank]
It is clear that this text is inextricably bound up with the context in which it was written. There are numerous references to the location of Sleepy Hollow and its history and importance in the introduction to the text, and in particular it is presented as a location where Dutch settlers chose to establish themselves:
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar
character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the
original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been
known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country.
The story therefore of these settlers and the particular culture that they evince, captured in the Dutch pastries and food that he enjoys so avidly, is central to the tale and reflects the culture from which the tale originated. It is also important to recognise the way that thematically, Irving is picking up on central motifs that were very much in evidence during his time of writing, such as the conflict between the city and the country, captured in the characters of Ichabod and Brom. Ichabod is depicted as being a man who is different from the "rough country swains," but ultimately he is humiliated by Brom Bones, who is very much a product of his rural upbringing. Irving's decision to base his story in this setting and to develop this theme in his tale of folklore and legend is yet another ample demonstration of the culture and context within which this tale originated.
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