What's is the importance of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving in American literature?

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Episode 172 of the popular television show, Seinfeld (the number one show on NBC at the time) contains a joke in which an industrial smoothing company has accidentally made the head of a statue too small. One of the characters suggests that the best way to deal with this would...

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Episode 172 of the popular television show, Seinfeld (the number one show on NBC at the time) contains a joke in which an industrial smoothing company has accidentally made the head of a statue too small. One of the characters suggests that the best way to deal with this would be to get rid of the head entirely, put a pumpkin under the statue’s arm and change the inscription to “Ichabod Crane.”

Any reader of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will realize the mistake: confusing Ichabod himself with the headless horseman who terrifies him. This, however, is part of the point: the name of Ichabod Crane and his connection with headless figures and pumpkins is well-known to millions of Americans who have never read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Irving has created one of the select band of literary characters who are instantly recognizable and seem always to have existed: Scrooge, Willy Wonka, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Trunchbull, Holden Caulfield, and so on. Even among major authors, the creation of such a character is very rare. It is worth considering what other character in nineteenth-century American literature is as recognizable and memorable as Ichabod Crane.

It could be argued that there are no American literary characters who are quite as memorable. The closest that compare to him in stature as American icons are probably Melville’s Captain Ahab or Twain's Tom Sawyer.

Although (and partly because) Ichabod is neither a fully-rounded nor a dynamic character, Irving’s characterization is masterly. First, he has the perfect name, the Puritan pomposity of “Ichabod” degenerating into the lanky bird Irving says he somewhat resembles. Moreover, Irving’s physical description is very precise and, once read, is never forgotten:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Washington Irving’s work is important for a number of reasons, but the particular place of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in American literature rests firmly on the narrow shoulders of Ichabod Crane.

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One way of measuring the impact of Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is by looking at its lingering importance in the American cultural imagination. The image of the headless horseman is one most American's know, even if they haven't read the original tale. Every year, there are kids dressed up in costume as the headless horseman for Halloween and the real-life town of Sleepy Hollow, New York is flooded with visitors pilgrimaging to the setting of the ghost story. The tale has been referenced and adapted again and again in American pop culture, perhaps most notably in Tim Burton's film Sleepy Hollow and the recent TV series of the same name. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of the first stories of US origin to become a staple of the popular imagination.

It's clear from Irving's choice to call the story a "Legend" that this lingering cultural impact is exactly what he intended. The story was written and published in 1820 when the United States was still fairly young and lacked its own mythology independent from that of England (and disregarding the long-established traditions and legends of the Native peoples of the US). A legend can be defined as a story passed down through generations that may be believed to have roots in actual historical events. In choosing to refer to this story as such, Irving positions the tale not exclusively as a literary work but as something akin to a historical one also. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of the first stories to begin to form a distinctly American canon/mythology.

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Like "Rip Van Winkle," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is important because it helped to build a positive mythology about the spirit and energy of the new United States. "Legend" is built on the contrast between the European ethos, represented by Ichabod Crane, and the American, represented by Brom Van Brunt. Ichabod is effete, bookish, and backward-looking, and as such, vulnerable to superstition. Even his name—Ichabod—has a crabbed, old-fashioned feel. Brom, on the other hand, is straightforward, robust, and hard-working, a red-blooded and straightforward all-American type, with many male friends.

The two men, representing two different worldviews, compete for the hand of Katrina. Crane lusts after her family wealth, while Brom loves Katrina for herself. As we might imagine, Brom's good sense, good-natured wits, and straightforward realism, reflective of the American spirit, win the day and the girl, driving the fearful Crane out of town. Irving is important for contributing to an ideal of pragmatic and energized (but also, it should be noted, exclusively white and heterosexual) masculinity and "can-do" spirit as representative of the new American ethos.

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Irving is often credited with the creation of the short story in America.  In addition, his characters are indicative of the early immigrants, thus affording Americans something of history.  The story demonstrates the two best qualities for which  Washington Irving is known:  vivid descriptive imagery and humor.

Irving's great tale and his descriptive qualities place him high in the genre of American folklore.

 

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This story was originally published as part of Irving's "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon,Gent." Since Irving was living in England when the book was published, It was also published in England one year later. Audiences in both America and England discovered the book at the same time. Also included in the book was the story "Rip Van Winkle". It became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and was the first book written by an American author to become popular outside the United States. Its publication helped people to take American writers seriously and to consider them as serious, respectable artists.

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