drawing of the headless horseman holding a pumpkin and riding a horse through the woods

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

by Washington Irving

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How does Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" connect with the American Romanticism period?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a story about the superstition and fear surrounding the Headless Horseman. It focuses on a man named Ichabod Crane, who was known for his vanity and narcissism. He takes a job as schoolteacher in the town of Sleepy Hollow, where he falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of wealthy farmer Abraham Van Tassel. This causes a rift between him and Brom Bones, another suitor for her hand. Both men are then challenged to race each other to determine who will win Katrina's hand in marriage. However, the story is more than that – it also weaves themes of American Romanticism into its plot:

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow connects with the American Romantic period in its use of the staple themes of Gothic literature, much similar to actual Romantics such as Poe, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, etc.

The typical themes of Romantic/Gothic literature include:

  • The use of the supernatural
  • Dark atmospheres symbolizing a fear of the unknown
  • The inevitability of fate and death
  • A path leading to tragedy
  • Nostalgia and Fear
  • The battle of good versus evil

Whether Irvin was an actual Romantic or not usually does not impede that his works would possess qualities of another period or style. Sleepy Hollow follows the same lines of form and depth as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and most of Poe's works.

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Washington Irving served as a kind of role model and mentor for many of the American Romantics writing in the late 1800's--chiefly among them Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Although not exactly a Romantic himself, Irving paved the way for many who were and serves as a kind of "bridge" between the Romantics and those that came before.

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" we see the ideas and themes that eventually become hallmarks of the Romantic movement. Namely, the embracing of individualism and the rejection of strict religious intellect. The focus is much more on emotional response, rather than logic.

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