The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Washington Irving
The following entry presents criticism of Irving's short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819).
Considered the first professional man of letters in the United States and the first American author to win recognition abroad, Irving is noted for his contribution to the short story genre. In his most acclaimed achievement, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20), he created charming sketches, tales, and travel reminiscences. Widely read in its time, the book is remembered for the short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the latter of these tales—which details the run-in of a Connecticut schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, with a headless horseman—Irving wove elements of myth, legend, folklore, and drama into a narrative that achieved almost immediate classic status. Critics generally agree that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” provided a model for the modern short story and introduced imagery and archetypes that enriched national literature. While Irving's other historical writings are valued for their graceful prose style and historical interest, critics generally agree that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is—along with “Rip Van Winkle”—his most lasting artistic achievement.
Plot and Major Characters
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” opens with a description of the Dutch New York community of Sleepy Hollow, located in a rural valley near the Hudson River. Irving introduces the tall, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane as a figure of mild derision, a hard-nosed itinerant Yankee from Connecticut who takes himself too seriously and possesses an enormous appetite despite his slight build. Proud of his erudition, at least in comparison to the rustics he encounters in Sleepy Hollow, Crane is described as “an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity.” He quickly discovers Katrina Van Tassel, the lovely daughter of a well-to-do Dutch farmer, Baltus Van Tassel, and resolves to win her heart. His principal rival, Brom Van Brunt, nicknamed Brom Bones, is a burly outdoorsman, strong and somewhat arrogant but with a well-developed sense of humor. Realizing that he cannot best Bones in feats of physical prowess, Crane sets out to woo Katrina by making regular visits to the Van Tassel farmhouse as a singing-master. Over time the competition between Crane and Bones intensifies.
At an autumn party at the Van Tassel home, Crane endeavors to impress Katrina with his singing and dancing. As he seems to gain the upper hand over Bones the conversation turns to local ghost tales—principally that of the Headless Horseman, an apparition of a decapitated Hessian soldier that haunts the area. Bones entertains the crowd by telling of his own adventure with the Horseman; later Crane recites extracts from the works of his favorite author, Cotton Mather. As the party winds down, Crane speaks with Katrina, but his advances are rebuked. Crestfallen, he departs on his horse. Shortly thereafter, while traveling through the darkness, Crane encounters the ghostly Hessian soldier who chases the schoolmaster until the frightened man is thrown from his steed. The following morning, the horse is found without its saddle or rider near the smashed remains of a pumpkin. Crane is never seen again in Sleepy Hollow, though a rumor spreads that he has become a lawyer and a judge in another town. The tale is retold of his harrowing confrontation with the Headless Horseman, which produces a spirited laugh from Brom Bones whenever the pumpkin is mentioned. Irving closes the tale with a postscript describing the original narrator of the story, “one tall, dry-looking old gentleman” who draws some conclusions from the extravagant yarn, but finally claims, “I don't believe one-half of it myself.”
Thematic analyses of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” generally focus on the character of Ichabod Crane and the satirical implications of his rivalry with Brom Bones. Many critics maintain that Crane represents the outcast artist-intellectual in American society; although he has been considered, conversely, as a caricature of the acquisitive, scheming Yankee Puritan, a type that Irving Iampooned regularly in his early satirical writings. Additionally, the work is seen as a regional contrast between Yankee Connecticut and Dutch New York, the latter personified in the figure of the backwoodsman Brom Bones. Other commentators have suggested that Crane represents a morally corrupt capitalist figure. Also, the tension between imagination and creativity versus materialism and productivity in nineteenth-century America is considered a significant theme in the story.
Although much of Irving's fiction is today regarded as little more than petty and derivative, many critics agree that Irving did much to establish the American short story in 1819 with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Commentators concur, moreover, that Irving set the artistic standard and model for subsequent generations of American short story writers with the tale. Among the technical innovations ascribed to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” include the integration of folklore, myth, and fable into narrative fiction; setting and landscape as a reflection of theme and mood; and the expression of the supernatural and use of Gothic elements.
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1819-20
Bracebridge Hall; or, the Humorists: A Medley [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1822
Tales of a Traveller [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1824
The Alhambra [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1832
The Crayon Miscellany [as Geoffrey Crayon 1835
Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others [With William Irving and James Kirke Paulding] (satirical essays) 1807-08
A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [as Diedrich Knickerbocker] (historical parody) 1809
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (biography) 1828
A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (history) 1829
A Tour on the Prairies (travel sketches) 1835
The Works of Washington Irving. 15 Vols. [author's revised edition] (essays, short stories, sketches, history, and biography) 1848-51
Oliver Goldsmith (biography) 1849
The Life of George Washington (biography) 1855-59
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SOURCE: “Prefigurations: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’,” in Form and Fable in American Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 83-96.
[In the following essay, Hoffman explains how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dramatizes a conflict between two cultures—those of the Yankee city-dweller and the backwoodsman—that was to become a major theme in American literature.]
The first important literary statement of the themes of native folk character and superstition was made, fittingly enough, in the first literary work by an American to win worldwide acclaim. When The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. appeared in London in 1819, its author became the first of a long series of expatriate Americans who found their native roots all the more poignant for viewing them from a distance.
Washngton Irving was fortunate, granted his special though restricted gifts, to be alive and in England at that moment in the history of literature. He sought out, and was taken up by, Sir Walter Scott, who was showing how the sentiment of nostalgia for the past could infuse fiction and become its informing principle. In his novels Scott projected that sense of historical continuity which formed a curious undercurrent of sensibility even before the Romantic movement began. Little though the Augustans attended the medieval or more recent past, there were...
(The entire section is 4675 words.)
SOURCE: “Irving's Headless Hessian: Prosperity and the Inner Life,” in American Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 2, Pt. 1, Summer, 1963, pp. 167-75.
[In the following essay, Bone considers the theme of materialism in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]
While the body of this essay is concerned with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I have tried to touch upon a central theme in our national letters: the relentless pressure of commodities on the American imagination. Walden is the classic statement of this theme. Thoreau went to the woods to escape the pressure of house and barn and mortgage; to free his soul from the tyranny of commodities. Since his aim was to confront essentials, his first requirement was to reduce the clutter of worldly goods which threatened to forestall the act of contemplation.
Nothing would seem more remote from contemporary sensibility than this ascetic strain. Yet consider the voluntary poverty of the Beat poet. Where Madison Avenue enjoins us to consume! consume!, the Beatnik demurs with a modern version of Thoreau's simplify! simplify! Deep in the American psyche, it would seem, lies a curious ambivalence toward the things of this world; a suspicion that material prosperity may be an impediment to the inner life.
It is not difficult, I think, to trace this conflict to its source in New England Puritanism. Seventeenth-century Americans were...
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SOURCE: “Post Mortem Effects,” in Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving, Kennikat Press, 1976, pp. 155-69.
[In the following excerpt, Roth examines the conflict between “the active and the imaginative life” in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is Irving's last attempt to preserve a festive America. Like The History and “Rip Van Winkle,” it is a tale of a Yankee invasion, but in it the Yankee is temporarily defeated, and his defeat is due primarily to the Yankee-American inability to assign any value to the world of dreams and imaginings. There is a hint of this theme toward the end of “Rip Van Winkle”: the villagers who doubt the reality of Rip's tale and insist “that Rip had been out of his head, and that this was one point on which he always remained flighty” (Washington Irving: Representative Selections, 1934; Hereafter RS, 95) are the new Yankees who have conquered the sleepy community of Hudson, New York, and converted it into a secular logocracy. They can only identify imaginative vision as madness (which, in a positive sense, it is).
The identification of the American Cockaigne as the proper field for imaginative activity had been implicit in The History and “Rip Van Winkle,” but in this tale it is manifest:
A drowsy, dreamy atmosphere...
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SOURCE: “The Man that Corrupted Sleepy Hollow,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 129-43.
[In the following essay, Frank describes Ichabod Crane as a morally destructive force that enters Sleepy Hollow.]
Washington Irving's reputation as a genial writer—as, indeed, America's most genial writer—has been firmly established for a century and a half, despite general agreement that his most enduring works are satires. Knickerbocker's History maintains its good humor largely by making its narrator appear foolish, but it is harder to say what keeps “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from seemingly overtly caustic, since in the portrait of Ichabod Crane Irving comes rather closer than in the History to adopting the controlling assumption of Augustan satire that the ridiculous and the evil are one. If Irving's genial reputation largely obscures the evil that Ichabod represents, it must also obscure the mythical structure of the story and, consequently, its formal relationship to such later works as “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and a score of others. That Ichabod is evil needs all the more to be said since several modern readings of the story have made impressive moral claims on his behalf, or, alternatively, have transformed him into a pathetic hero, a figure more sinned against than sinning. One urges that...
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SOURCE: “Irving's ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 15-17.
[In the following essay, Benoit explores Ichabod's loss of the imaginative bond between man and the world in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]
“There used to be gods in everything, and now they've gone … all the lonely summer night's become but fact” (19). These lines from Howard Nemerov's poem “The Companions” could have served as an epigraph for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” for that legend is ultimately concerned with the loss of wonder and of a sense of life-as-mystery in the slow unraveling of imaginative attachment between man and things with the rise of human consciousness. Freud's words describe the process, for which Irving's fiction is in many respects an “objective correlative,” that culminates when Ichabod, on his way home after Katrina's rejection has left him “with an air quite desolate and chopfallen” (290), reaches Major André's tree. Freud said: “Originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue to a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (15). Until the evening at Van Tassel's, Ichabod's feeling is indeed an “all-embracing” experience,...
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May, Charles E. “Metaphoric Motivation in Short Fiction: ‘In the Beginning Was the Story.’” In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey, pp. 62-73. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Examines “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as part of an assessment of the early development of the short story in American literature.
Piacentino, Ed. “‘Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving's Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal XXX, No. 1 (Fall 1997): 27-42.
Considers the impact of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on subsequent works of nineteenth-century southern frontier humor.
Pryse, Marjorie. “Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet.” In Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, pp. 17-37. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
Considers Irving's construction of the American storyteller and American literary hero as male in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within a discussion of women regionalist writers.
Stone, Edward. “William Faulkner.” In A Certain Morbidness: A View of American Literature, pp. 85-120. Carbondale: Southern Illinois...
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