The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (American History Through Literature)
Washington Irving (1783859) had been living in England for five years when he finished The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819820), a collection of tales, essays, and sketches that would come to be counted as the first internationally successful work by an American author. A New Yorker, the son of a hardware merchant, Irving had dabbled in writing before, most notably producing the satirical A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Americans of the early national period yearned for evidence of cultural independence, but questions abounded regarding the proper form and content for an American literature, and authors would continue to doubt the literary potential of a country that seemed so shallowly new. The Sketch Book reflects these cultural insecurities: most of the sketches deal with English scenes, and the book's narratorial persona, Geoffrey Crayon, suffers acute bouts of Anglophilia. But a handful of selections turn to American settings and subjects, among them "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is presented by Crayon as having come from the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving's fictive historian, the "source" for many of his New Yorkrea tales. Set in a precinct of Tarrytown (about twenty-five miles north of New York City), the tale centers on Ichabod Crane, a Connecticut Yankee who came to predominantly Dutch Sleepy Hollow not long after the Revolution. A devourer of supernatural lore, the lanky schoolteacher spends much of his time swapping spooky tales with the Dutch housewives, especially tales of the "headless horseman" Hessian trooper who lost his head in a battle nearby. Ichabod also falls for the neighborhood belle, Katrina Van Tassel. But the courtship raises the ire of a rival suitor, the broad-shouldered Dutch local wag, Brom Bones. This, along with Ichabod's addiction to ghost stories, proves his undoing in Sleepy Hollow. Riding home one night after a party, he is joined on the road by an shadowy rider, whom he perceives to be headless. The terrified Ichabod finally makes it to the bridge where the horseman is said to disappear, but instead the figure hurls his "head" at Ichabod, and it is Ichabod who vanishes, running off from the village for good. The reader is left with hintsn the shattered pumpkin, in Brom Bones's knowing laughhat perhaps Ichabod's pursuer was less than spectral. But only perhaps.
LITERARY AND CULTURAL INFLUENCES
Clearly readable in the lines of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are influences of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century European cultural movements: a gothic literature featuring supernatural apparitions and a broader Romantic movement characterized by an emphasis on imagination over reason, an attraction to the marvelous, and a longing for the legendary past. Despite claims that U.S. culture should be founded in commonsense rationalism, liberated from Old Worldly superstition, these movements had infiltrated American tastes by the beginning of the nineteenth century. And though initially influenced by urbane British neoclassical writers, Irving to no small degree shared Geoffrey Crayon's Romantic antiquarianism and fascination with supernatural lore. These leanings were drawn out by Irving's immersion in the British literary scene in the 1810s and by the tutelage of
But it would be a mistake to see this story solely as an application of European Romanticism or a grafting of German lore to an American setting. First of all, it is not what might be called a straight ghost story. Indeed, most readers probably find the tale more humorous than horrifying. Irving maintains a suspicion of the imagination and an ironic distance from the ghostly, which has led critics to label his approach to gothic materials as "sportive" or "inconclusive." Without fully disavowing the ghosts, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" suggests the possibility of rational explanation, inviting readers to join in a practical joke on Ichabod Crane in a way that indulged Romantic tastes while also catering to American self-proclaimed pragmatism. Second, while "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" owes something to European models, it also draws from domestic sources. Irving had traveled a good deal in the Hudson Valley (including Tarrytown), and he clearly had at least some knowledge of the Dutch, Native American, African, and British vernacular cultures that contributed to the region's cultural inheritance. Although it is now difficult to trace direct localized sources for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," scholars have located analogs in regional folklore for material in Irving's tales as well as real-life models for Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDS AND SOCIAL COMMENTS
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" also is redeemed from derivativeness by its ties to specific historical backgrounds and to contemporary social and political issues. The story is founded in regional history, most prominently building on the fact that New York was initially a Dutch colony and retained Dutch influences through the nineteenth century. Irving utilizes the "ancient" and "peculiar" Dutch (p. 272) to add apparent depth to American history and to stand as a sort of American folk. Irving also tethers the tale to local events of the Revolutionary War, setting it within what was the "neutral ground" segment of the Hudson Valley caught between the British and American armies for most of the war and plagued with violent infighting among residents. Within this infamous territoryhich also featured in the second success of American literature, James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy (1821)arrytown was particularly notorious as the place where John André, the British officer subsequently executed as a spy for his dealings with the traitorous Benedict Arnold, was captured. The "unfortunate André" (p. 292) was a troublingly sympathetic figure who epitomized ambivalences lurking in Revolutionary memory.
Even as the story cultivates a sense that the United States had worthwhile, usable history and folk traditions, Irving still recognizes that tales of haunting can also reflect a disconnection from the past. This double-edged sense of haunting is epitomized by the headless horseman. The ghost is linked to historical fact (Hessian mercenaries fought for the British during the Revolutionary War), yet it also signals a sense of historical obscurity and uncertainty headless and thus unidentifiable figure killed in a "nameless" battle, surrounded by "floating facts" (p. 273), who, after all, seems little related to either the Dutch or the Yankee protagonist currently inhabiting the area. The haunting at the core of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is directly connected to social and historical dislocations attendant upon a contemporary phenomenon that at first would seem antithetical to ghost stories: a "great torrent of migration and improvement" (p. 274) that had particular salience in the New York area. Ichabod Crane represents a tidal wave of New Englanders pouring into New York, causing the state population to quadruple between 1790 and 1820 and transforming the social, economic, and cultural dimensions of the region. And though Irving jokes about the fore-shortening of historical memory he associates with this torrent, he also paints Ichabod as essentially a devourer potentially community-destroying force implicitly associated with capitalistic progress. Ichabod's attraction to Katrina Van Tassel is really based on his hungry-eyed appraisal of her father's farm; at one point he envisions selling it off for cash and then moving on to conquer new frontiers.
But here is the twist. Ichabodhe representative of the race of hardheaded, restless pioneers who have the capacity to overrun local custom and historys essential in activating the ghost story. In part this is because Ichabod is not really all that hard-headed. He "potently believe[s]" in Cotton Mather's witchlore, and his "appetite for the marvellous" is only matched by his extraordinary "powers of digesting it" (pp. 27677). Also, his susceptibility to perceiving the uncanny in his surroundings is increased by his fundamental unfamiliarity with the neighborhood and the neighbors. The Dutch are comfortable in this place in ways the itinerant Ichabod is not. Specifically, because they know that Brom Bones is given to midnight trickery, they might have reason to be suspicious of ghostly intervention, whereas Ichabod is disposed, both by what he knows (spooky stories from New England and New York) and by what as a stranger he does not know, to see ghosts in the Sleepy Hollow shadows.
One can easily see Ichabod's "odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity" (p. 277) as a two-pronged attack on Yankeend by extension, Americanharacter, lamenting the disruptive tendencies of profit-driven capitalism while also belying conceits of superior rationality. One might also see in the representation of Ichabod a gentle mocking of individuals overly devoted to imagination self-satirization, perhaps, on Irving's part, as well as a register of his own doubts about the possibility of being a "man of letters" (p. 276) in an American context. Ichabod's imaginative endeavors tend to align him with the feminine in the story, the women "spinning" by the fire (p. 277), especially in contrast to the brawny Brom Bones. And the story explicitly exposes strains of anti-intellectualism in American culture: after Ichabod's disappearance his books are burned by the farmer he last boarded with, who also declines to send his children to school anymore because "he never knew any good come of . . . reading and writing" (p. 295).
Perhaps more seriously, Ichabod's gullibility also opens into a political comment. Irving leaned toward what might be called a Federalist ideal of a benignly hierarchal society, rooted in grounding traditions and respect for established authority. This ideal was confronted in Irving's time by the democratic ferment which would lead to the "Jacksonian revolution" and the expanded suffrage of the 1830s. In this light "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" can be seen to reflect concerns that also color the work of Charles Brockden Brown and James Fenimore Cooper, about the potential within a transient democratic society for people to be swayed by charismatic voices, by stories that may or may not be true. Though outright references to politics are few in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," politically loaded questions of authority and authenticity surface throughout the tale, especially in the way the story is framed, coming through a series of intermediating narrators, each of questionable reliability. Knickerbocker, one learns in the postscript, heard the story at a city meeting from an unidentified teller who may merely be trying to entertain in order to earn his wine; this teller himself confesses, in the story's last line, that he does not "believe one half of it myself" (p. 297). It is even unclear who is the author of the story as the reader receives it: If the postscript explicitly was "Found in the Handwriting of Mr. Knickerbocker" (p. 296), then whose hand wrote the foregoing tale? Irving establishes a whole machinery of provenance and authenticationiving the tale the semblance of a historical documentnly to undercut it at every turn. In the end, the reader, like Ichabod Crane, cannot be sure of anything. Thus on one level "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" represents an attempt to invest the American countryside with cultural foundations of legends; on another level the story uses issues of authenticity common to ghost stories to raise doubts about American social and political stability.
Though Irving fell into critical disfavor in the early twentieth century, his tales have received appreciative reappraisals by later generations, who have recognized "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as a pioneering work in numerous ways. In addition to showing that American materials could be worked into successful literary form, even in a predominantly Romantic cultural moment, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," along with "Rip Van Winkle," has been credited with inventing the short-story form. Its humor has been described as anticipating the "tall tale" genre that surfaced most famously in the work of Mark Twain (Ichabod's hands "dangled a mile out of his sleeves," while his feet "might have served for shovels" [p. 274]). Its innovative plays on gothic materials have been seen as prefiguring works by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, and the questions of narratorial reliability it raises resonate with postmodern critical approaches.
But the story's place in literary history is only part of its cultural legacy. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was also a pioneering work of American popular culture. Not only has it been widely read, but the sketch has also been so thoroughly adopted as bona fide American folklore that many know the story of Ichabod Crane and the headless horseman without having any idea that it comes from a story written by Washington Irving. There is something marvelously ironicne might say slybout this: commenting on the potential for restless Americans to be sold unreliable stories, Irving produced a story that would come to stand as authentic American lore, something he also wholeheartedly encouraged.
See also Folklore; Gothic Fiction; Humor; Literary Nationalism; "Rip Van Winkle"; Romanticism; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Short Story; Tall Tales
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