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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What is the author's purpose in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

Washington Irving's purposes in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" include the presentation of colorful and memorable characters, the criticism of superstition and ignorance, and the exploration of the nature of folklore.

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In the absence of a writer's explicit statement about the purpose of a particular work, we must infer the writer's intentions from what we know about his or her life, travels, interests, and influences. In Washington Irving's case, for example, we know he was born in the late-eighteenth century and grew up in New York City in the early-nineteenth century, and so he would have become familiar with locales close to the city, such as a town now known as Sleepy Hollow (Kinderhook in Irving's days). We also have an interesting comment Irving made about his youth:

My holiday afternoons were spent in rambles about the surrounding country....I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed, or a ghost seen. I visited the neighboring villages and added greatly to my stock of knowledge by noting their habits and customs, and conversing with their sages and great men. (The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, "The Author's Account of Himself")

Based on this, it is likely, if not certain, that Irving would have picked up local legends that he would eventually use to help create a uniquely American mythology. Whether he intended to create a distinctive "American" story or not, he succeeded in immortalizing a small part of the Hudson Valley with his creative use of Tarry Town, Sleepy Hollow, the Catskills, and their Dutch and English inhabitants.

Along with Irving's exposure to stories centered in the Hudson Valley, Irving, who left America and spent several years in England, is a product of the Romantic Movement in England and was influenced by writers like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Scott, in particular, used his Scottish background and heritage to frame many of his novels.

Among the characteristics of Romantic literature are an interest in the past, a fascination with the supernatural and mysticism, and a love of nature. Irving's experiences in New York City and its environs, based on his own words, would have given him sufficient material to create stories that fit nicely into the Romantic Period's fascination with the past and the mystical, framed by the natural elements within the Hudson Valley.

In his essay "The Mutability of Literature," a comic argument between Irving and a book in Westminster Abbey about the fate of books that are kept in libraries and no longer read, the book, which is angry that it hasn't been read for years, says:

Books were written to give pleasure and to be enjoyed, and I would have a rule passed that the dean [of Westminster Abbey] should pay each of us a visit at least once a year. (Par. 5)

Although the argument between Irving and the book is couched in humorous terms, Irving likely put his own view on display in the frustrated words of the book he is arguing with—writers have many motivations for writing, but a common purpose is "to give pleasure" to the reader.

In sum, then, although we may never identify with certainty a

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In sum, then, although we may never identify with certainty apurpose for a particular work, we can reasonably conclude that Irving wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" because the story reflects his own history, his affinity for Romanticism, and, quite possibly, a desire to create something unique to the young United States.

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Irving is part of an early generation of American writers establishing what we might call an American mythology asserting US cultural superiority over Europe. His purpose is to show the fresh, energetic spirit of the United States defeating the effete, nervous spirit of the European.

Ichabod Crane represents the European mindset: he is thin and effeminate and wants to marry his way to wealth. He is tied to the books and traditions of the past, including a belief in superstitions.

Brom Bones, in contrast, is a red blooded all-American he-man. He hangs out with the guys—unlike Crane, who surrounds himself with women—and the reader won't find the muscular Brom reading a book. He represents the vigor, the wit, the ingenuity, and the pragmatism of the new country. He is hardworking and forward-looking—and he wins the girl and the day.

All of this represents the fresh new American spirit winning the day, which beyond writing an entertaining story, is the message Irving hopes to convey.

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While a fun and entertaining story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has many layers and many interpretations. This story is part of a larger book entitled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman. Irving uses this fictional gentleman as the "collector" of a number of humorous stories and retellings of old legends.

The narrator is this story is the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, a scholar invented by Irving to tell the story of Dutch people in America. Knickerbocker satirizes the Dutch, poking fun at their lifestyles and behaviors, and Irving uses the persona here to do just that. Irving is doing more than just telling an old tale.  The tone of the story is full of irony and sarcasm. Ichabod Crane is a ridiculous figure, overly superstitious, full of his own importance, and at odds with the people of this rural town. He is a greedy man, hungry for food and for wealth, which is why he sets his eyes on the local girl Katrina Van Tassel. He admires her not only for her looks but "more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion." Ichabod is an outsider looking to take advantage of the rural people, but he gets run out of town by his own superstition. Brom Bones, Ichabod's rival, is a stereotype of the all-brawn country guy, so much so that he is described as possessing the "gentle caresses and endearments of a bear."

The sense of irony is reinforced in the postscript, where we see that Knickerbocker is telling this story of the country from the city of Manhattan. The narrator clearly thinks the story is a joke, saying to his audience, "Faith, sir . . . As to that matter, I don't believe one-half of it myself."

So while Irving is entertaining us all, he is also poking fun at the lifestyles of the American people. He takes away any belief we may have had in the ghost story and leaves us with a fun story about an arrogant teacher and the popular town guy who scared him off.

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When an author writes, they usually have a specific purpose in mind.  The purpose can be to inform, to entertain, or to persuade the reader.  In the case of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving's purpose was to entertain the reader.

We know that the author's purpose is to entertain because The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a narrative.  It tells the story of Ichabod Crane and the events leading up to his encounter with the Headless Horseman.  His flight from the Headless Horseman is then described in a narrative format.  The story contains few facts, which shows the reader that the purpose is not to inform.  The story also does not seek to persuade us of a specific message, which shows that Irving's purpose was not persuasive.

Near the end of the narrative, Irving writes that Ichabod's story is an "account of [a] ghostly adventure."  This is textual evidence which describes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as a "ghostly adventure," proving that the purpose would be to entertain.

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There is seldom a single purpose in a work of fiction, and Washington Irving, certainly by the standards of his time, is not a didactic or moralizing writer with a rhetorical aim in mind. Clearly, one of his purposes in convey the story of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is to amuse the reader with colorful characters, incidents, and descriptions. Irving spends a lot of time in describing the physical environment of the Hudson Valley and the appearance and personality of Ichabod Crane. Indeed, part of the purpose of the story is to introduce this iconic character, who has become one of the most recognizable in American literature.

If Irving has a more conceptual purpose in writing the story, it is to ridicule superstition and credulity. Most of the people in Sleepy Hollow, including Ichabod himself, are guilty of this fault, making it easy for Brom Bones to play his trick of impersonating the legendary headless horseman. Irving also makes fun of the pomposity and intellectual pride of those with little education, who think themselves as superior to those with slightly less. Ichabod has read very little, and his favorite reading is Cotton Mather's book on witchcraft, the study of which only increases his superstitious tendencies. However, he looks down on the supposedly ignorant people of Sleepy Hollow, including Brom Bones, who proves to have considerably more strategic intelligence than Ichabod does.

Irving also explores the nature of folklore in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with his use of layered narration. The story is told by Geoffrey Crayon, a narrator who stands in for Irving himself in many of his fictions. Crayon's story, in turn, is sourced from Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker, in turn, was told the story by a man at a business meeting in New York, and presumably that man received the story from another source in turn. This convoluted nesting of narration with narration suggests the unreliability of folklore and also hints at the way oral storytelling—by which a story is altered as it moves from one storyteller to the next—shapes folk tales in the first place.

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