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.