The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Essay - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Early in the story, the reader encounters the legend of the headless horseman, a ghost with which the residents of Sleepy Hollow are familiar. Beheaded by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War, he searches nightly for his head. This anecdote--humorous in itself--provides the key to the trick by which the schoolmaster is driven from the town.

The schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, is also the local singing master and, in that role, meets and falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel, the only child of a well-to-do Dutch farmer. In fact, Irving’s complete catalog of the wealth of Baltus Van Tassel implies that Crane’s desire to marry Katrina is partly monetary.

Crane has a rival, however, Brom Bones, whose ingenuity finally drives the superstitious schoolmaster away from Sleepy Hollow. Impersonating the headless horseman, Bones rides after Crane one night and finally throws a pumpkin, which Crane believes to be the horseman’s head. The schoolmaster abruptly departs, leaving Bones to marry Katrina.

Irving uses this plot as a vehicle for commenting on the primacy of the imagination. Not only does the central story contain many references to legend and folklore, but also there is a frame around the tale that complements these references. As the story opens, the reader meets a nameless narrator whose description of Sleepy Hollow implies that it is a realm of the imagination, a retreat where dream and reality meet. A postscript explains how the story came to be known by a “Mr. Knickerbocker,” the name of a fictional character in other works by Irving. By such devices the reader is constantly reminded that in this story--as, perhaps, in life--imaginative fiction exists side by side with everyday reality.


Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Good introduction to Irving’s work. Bowden examines the first edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within the context of its place and importance in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Hedges seeks to substantiate Irving’s relevance as a writer, define his major contributions, and detail aspects of his intellectual environment. The work presents “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as proof that Irving was a pioneer in the renaissance of American prose fiction.

Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. This study surveys Irving’s American period of creativity, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” demonstrating that his last experiment creates a comic vision of America.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Critical revisionist view of Irving and his work primarily seen in psychological terms. It dissects Irving’s personal problems and political orientation as reflected in his writings, particularly in a substantive chapter discussing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Solid collection of sixteen essays that survey the breadth of Irving’s work from early sketches to his final biographies. Two essays, Terence Martin’s “Rip and Ichabod” and Daniel Hoffman’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” scrutinize the story in depth and view it as a unique creation.