Washington Irving, the first professional writer in the United States, was by inclination an amused observer of people and customs. By birth, he was in a position to be that observer; the son of a New York merchant in good financial standing, he was the youngest of eleven children, several of whom helped Irving take prolonged trips to Europe for his health and fancy. He was responsible for the evolution and popularity of two genres in American literature: the regional, legendary tale and the historical novel. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” belongs to the first genre. The two best-known of Irving’s stories are “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which appeared originally in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820), a collection of tales and familiar essays. Both stories were adapted by Irving from German folklore to a lower New York State setting and peopled with Dutch American farmers.
On one level, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” reveals Irving’s love for and use of folklore. As he had in “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving employed the fictional folklorist Diedrich Knickerbocker as an external narrator looking back on old tales. Ichabod Crane is an outsider, a Yankee schoolmaster among the canny Dutch farmers. As such, Crane becomes the butt of local humor and the natural victim for Brom Bones’s practical jokes. Most of the humorous sallies of the Sleepy Hollow boys are in the vein of good-natured ribbing, but Brom’s practical jokes are somewhat more serious because of the rather unequal rivalry between Brom and Ichabod for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel.
Several dichotomies are established in the story between Ichabod and the local men. On the one hand, Ichabod is of Connecticut stock, a New Englander, and an educated man, in contrast with the locally bred Sleepy Hollow men. He scorns the rougher male pursuits of the local men of Dutch heritage and instead spends his time working his way into the hearts of the women. He is a representative of the larger America that lurks outside the confines of Sleepy Hollow, a walking figure of the need of the growing United States to acquire and assimilate every element of the continent in its reach for Manifest Destiny. As is often the case in folklore, the local parties are validated and the interloper is vanquished.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” operates on more than one level, however. As in “Rip Van Winkle,” the primary tone in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is irony. “Rip Van Winkle” may be a story about a man who drinks from a flagon and sleeps for twenty years in the mountains, but it...
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