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 may also be a story about a man fleeing an insulting wife and shirking his responsibilities as a husband and father. Similarly, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be a story about an enterprising young man who is vanquished by a spectral figure on a dark autumn night. However, to a careful reader, the story is more than that. Throughout the text, almost all of the observations made by the narrator about Crane and his encounters with Katrina Van Tassel, Brom Bones, and the purported horseman, are ironic and tongue-in-cheek.
Although Crane presumably tries not to hurt his weaker students, he has no compunction about doubling the punishment to others, in defiance of pedagogical objectivity. Ichabod fancies himself an amazing vocal talent, yet the text makes it clear that his singing is horrible, just as his dancing is such a sight that the servants gather to ogle him. Although he tries to make himself useful to farmers, it is always to the ones with full larders and pretty daughters who receive his aid. His love of superstition may also reveal the kind of schoolmaster he is; this observation is particularly borne out by his admiration for the Puritan writer Cotton Mather, whose 1693 book The Wonders of the Invisible World served as an apology for the abuses of the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Ichabod is a ravenous eater in the story. His appetite is both literal and figurative. Beyond his physical need to consume, his hunger demonstrates avariciousness and greed. Even his interest in Katrina has very little to do with any kind of romantic attraction to her and much more to do with her father’s possessions and—more to the point—the food her father can provide. His feelings for Katrina are especially piqued after he has seen her father’s great wealth; indeed, the story makes very clear that the extent of Crane’s amorous feelings for Katrina extend only so far as her father’s wealth. He seems to regard her as a food to be consumed, considering her a tempting “morsel,” “plump as a partridge,” and “ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” This conflation of food with sexual and romantic imagery continues when Ichabod attends a feast at the Van Tassel household and observes pigeons “snugly put to bed” and “ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples.”
When considering his courtship of her, Ichabod’s thoughts are not of Katrina or what her feelings for him might be; rather, he considers her father’s lands and plans how he might dispose of them and use the cash gained from the sale. What is more, Katrina is overtly more interested in Brom Bones than in Crane. Although the narrator refers to her as a coquette, the text never once indicates that she gives Crane reasons to suspect she might entertain romantic notions toward him. When he seeks to ply his troth, she rejects him soundly enough that he leaves more like a man skulking after having raided a hen-roost than like a triumphant knight. The supernatural elements of the story are further questioned when a traveling farmer finds out that Crane has left Sleepy Hollow, studied for the bar, and become a politician and justice.
On a figurative level, Crane’s gluttony and greed may again reference the growth of American Manifest Destiny; old folkways and beliefs must fall beneath the encroaching new American way of life. Crane’s defeat and subsequent flight from Sleepy Hollow are, in a sense, a victory for the old Dutch American world. Katrina has married another Dutch man, who settles down with her without leaving the valley and without disrupting the farm or the ancient way of life of the old Dutch denizens of New York.