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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“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

The following entry presents criticism of Irving's short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1819).

Considered the first professional man of letters in the United States and the first American author to win recognition abroad, Irving is noted for his contribution to the short story genre. In his most acclaimed achievement, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20), he created charming sketches, tales, and travel reminiscences. Widely read in its time, the book is remembered for the short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the latter of these tales—which details the run-in of a Connecticut schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, with a headless horseman—Irving wove elements of myth, legend, folklore, and drama into a narrative that achieved almost immediate classic status. Critics generally agree that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” provided a model for the modern short story and introduced imagery and archetypes that enriched national literature. While Irving's other historical writings are valued for their graceful prose style and historical interest, critics generally agree that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is—along with “Rip Van Winkle”—his most lasting artistic achievement.

Plot and Major Characters

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” opens with a description of the Dutch New York community of Sleepy Hollow, located in a rural valley near the Hudson River. Irving introduces the tall, lanky schoolmaster Ichabod Crane as a figure of mild derision, a hard-nosed itinerant Yankee from Connecticut who takes himself too seriously and possesses an enormous appetite despite his slight build. Proud of his erudition, at least in comparison to the rustics he encounters in Sleepy Hollow, Crane is described as “an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity.” He quickly discovers Katrina Van Tassel, the lovely daughter of a well-to-do Dutch farmer, Baltus Van Tassel, and resolves to win her heart. His principal rival, Brom Van Brunt, nicknamed Brom Bones, is a burly outdoorsman, strong and somewhat arrogant but with a well-developed sense of humor. Realizing that he cannot best Bones in feats of physical prowess, Crane sets out to woo Katrina by making regular visits to the Van Tassel farmhouse as a singing-master. Over time the competition between Crane and Bones intensifies.

At an autumn party at the Van Tassel home, Crane endeavors to impress Katrina with his singing and dancing. As he seems to gain the upper hand over Bones the conversation turns to local ghost tales—principally that of the Headless Horseman, an apparition of a decapitated Hessian soldier that haunts the area. Bones entertains the crowd by telling of his own adventure with the Horseman; later Crane recites extracts from the works of his favorite author, Cotton Mather. As the party winds down, Crane speaks with Katrina, but his advances are rebuked. Crestfallen, he departs on his horse. Shortly thereafter, while traveling through the darkness, Crane encounters the ghostly Hessian soldier who chases the schoolmaster until the frightened man is thrown from his steed. The following morning, the horse is found without its saddle or rider near the smashed remains of a pumpkin. Crane is never seen again in Sleepy Hollow, though a rumor spreads that he has become a lawyer and a judge in another town. The tale is retold of his harrowing confrontation with the Headless Horseman, which produces a spirited laugh from Brom Bones whenever the pumpkin is mentioned. Irving closes the tale with a postscript describing the original narrator of the story, “one tall, dry-looking old gentleman” who draws some conclusions from the extravagant yarn, but finally claims, “I don't believe...

(This entire section contains 832 words.)

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one-half of it myself.”

Major Themes

Thematic analyses of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” generally focus on the character of Ichabod Crane and the satirical implications of his rivalry with Brom Bones. Many critics maintain that Crane represents the outcast artist-intellectual in American society; although he has been considered, conversely, as a caricature of the acquisitive, scheming Yankee Puritan, a type that Irving Iampooned regularly in his early satirical writings. Additionally, the work is seen as a regional contrast between Yankee Connecticut and Dutch New York, the latter personified in the figure of the backwoodsman Brom Bones. Other commentators have suggested that Crane represents a morally corrupt capitalist figure. Also, the tension between imagination and creativity versus materialism and productivity in nineteenth-century America is considered a significant theme in the story.

Critical Reception

Although much of Irving's fiction is today regarded as little more than petty and derivative, many critics agree that Irving did much to establish the American short story in 1819 with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Commentators concur, moreover, that Irving set the artistic standard and model for subsequent generations of American short story writers with the tale. Among the technical innovations ascribed to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” include the integration of folklore, myth, and fable into narrative fiction; setting and landscape as a reflection of theme and mood; and the expression of the supernatural and use of Gothic elements.

Critical Overview

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Most early readers of The Sketch Book praised the volume for its humor and its graceful descriptive writing but did not single out “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for special attention. Francis Jeffrey, in an 1820 review in Edinburgh Review, did note that the legend, along with “Rip Van Winkle,” was among only five or six pieces in the collection of thirty-five that relates “to subjects at all connected with America. . . . The rest relate entirely to England.” But other than pointing out its existence, he had nothing to say about the story. Jeffrey was clearly delighted with the collection and astonished that Irving was able to produce it: “It is the work of an American, entirely bred and trained in that country. . . . Now, the most remarkable thing in a work so circumstanced certainly is, that it should be written throughout with the greatest care and accuracy, and worked up to great purity and beauty of diction.”

More recently, critics have attempted to delineate just what is American about Irving’s fiction. Terence Martin, writing for American Literature in 1959, focuses his attention on the newness of the United States as a nation during Irving’s career and the American tendency at the time to equate “the imaginative and the childish.” Irving’s struggling to control his appetite and to use imagination properly can be seen as mirroring the struggles of the new society to behave maturely. He concludes, “for Irving there is no place, or a very limited place, for the hero of the imagination in the culture of early America.” In The Comic Imagination in American Literature (1973), Lewis Leary traces the influence Irving’s work had on American humor and claims that in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and other early tales, Irving “opened doors which gave access to native varieties of the comic spirit.”

Around the middle of the twentieth century, attention was turned toward finding the sources Irving used in crafting his tales. The most important work was done by Henry A. Pochmann in 1930. In articles in Studies in Philology and PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association), Pochmann demonstrated that Irving had translated and adapted German stories to create “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and other tales. In a 1953 article in PMLA, Daniel G. Hoffman explored Irving’s use of American folkloric sources, finding that Irving used great “originality in interpreting American themes,” and he developed his ideas further in his 1961 book, Form and Fable in American Fiction.

In the last quarter century, some critics have examined the story from a feminist perspective, to examine what the story reveals about Irving’s ideas about the role of women. In her 1975 book The Lay of the Land, Annette Kolodny describes Sleepy Hollow as a feminine pastoral setting. She sees Ichabod Crane as a male aggressor who threatens this community and therefore must be driven away. In 1993, Laura Plummer and Michael Nelson again find that Crane is “an intrusive male who threatens the stability of a decidedly feminine place,” as they explain in an article in Studies in Short Fiction. They describe the story as a conflict between male and female forms of storytelling and point out its “misogynistic bent.”

Other critics have seen Crane as threatening, but in different ways. Writing for American Imago in 1981, Edward F. Pajak explains how the legend is a variation of the myth of Narcissus and describes Crane’s “poorly integrated identity.” Crane’s attraction to Katrina and her father masks his unconscious attraction to Brom Bones, and he can find resolution only by “a rejection of the world.” For Albert J. von Frank, Crane is more than paranoid and regressed. He finds in a 1987 article in Studies in American Fiction that “Irving’s genial reputation largely obscures the evil that Ichabod represents.” Crane’s envy, avarice, sloth, and gluttony, among other sins, threaten the community with “moral taint and eventual destruction,” making it necessary to drive him from the village.

Sleepy Hollow as an Earthly Paradise

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Irving's narrator opens ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' with a brief description of Sleepy Hollow itself, ‘‘one of the quietest places in the whole world,’’ a place of ‘‘uniform tranquillity.’’ Before moving on to introduce his characters he concludes, ''If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.’’ In this opening, Irving establishes Sleepy Hollow as both of-this-world and not-of-this-world, an ‘‘enchanted region'' of unparalleled beauty and fertility. Tapping a literary tradition that stretches back literally thousands of years, he sets his story in a comic American version of what is often called an Earthly Paradise.

A. Bartlett Giamatti explains in his book The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic that ‘‘the desire for a state of perfect repose and life eternal has always haunted mankind, and poets have forever been the spokesmen for the dream.’’ Poets—and, more recently, prose writers—have created ‘‘idylls, eclogues, odes, epithalamia, epics, satires, romances, and occasional verses all [abounding] with descriptions of such an ideal life in an ideal landscape.’’ These works of literature have tended to depict their landscapes using a traditional set of images and ideas, and Irving uses and adapts many of them in creating his own ''enchanted region.''

Stories set in an earthly paradise often take place in a Golden Age, a distant time and way of existence without strife and care. In the eighth century BC the Greek poet Hesiod outlined the five ages of man in his Works and Days; the five were the golden age, the silver age, the bronze age, the age of heroes, and the iron age in which we live now. The golden age was the first, the most simple and noble, and the yearning to return to the golden age has figured in ancient and more recent literature. As Giamatti writes, the image ''never failed, or fails yet, to evoke that time when the world was fresh with dew and man was happy.’’ Even today, Americans look to the past (''those were the days'') as a happier time, and tell themselves that ''things were simpler then.’’ In creating his earthly paradise, Irving comically sets his story in a new nation's version of ancient history, ‘‘in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since.’’

The attractive thing about the golden age landscape is that it does not change. The narrator pines, ''Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.’’ Sleepy Hollow is the kind of place where ‘‘the population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.’’

But it is the landscape, not the society, that makes an earthly paradise. One of the most common ways of depicting paradise is as a garden, for example, the Bible's Garden of Eden. Giamatti finds that ''in a garden, meadow or field poets have always felt Nature most nearly approximates the ideals of harmony, beauty and peace which men constantly seek in some form or other.’’ Another common depiction is the beautiful but somewhat wilder landscape used in pastoral poetry as a setting for love to bloom. Albert J. von Frank sees elements of both the garden and the pastoral in ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’’ In a 1987 article in Studies in American Fiction, he writes, ‘‘Like other ideal settings, the larger Dutch community, Sleepy Hollow, and the Van Tassel farm are enclosed gardens, here concentrically frames, inviting, seductive, and as dangerous to itinerants as the island of the Sirens or the land of the Lotos-Eaters. The societies sheltered by these nested gardens are themselves closed and static ... yet magically productive. Following pastoral convention, Irving describes the land.’’

One example will demonstrate the images that Irving is working with. Theocritus, the third century BC Greek poet who is credited with inventing the pastoral, wrote a series of "idylls," or brief poems about contentment in country life. In his seventh idyll is found this passage:

Many an aspen, many an elm bowed and rustled overhead, and hard by, the hallowed water welled purling forth of a cave of the Nymphs, while the brown cricket chirped busily amid the shady leafage, and the tree frog murmured aloof in the dense thornbrake. Lark and goldfinch sang and turtle moaned, and about the spring the bees hummed and hovered to and fro. All nature smelt of the opulent summertime, smelt of the season of fruit. Pears lay at our feet, apples on either side, rolling abundantly. And the young branches lay splayed upon the ground because of the weight of their damsons.

Although Irving's story takes place in the fertile harvest time of autumn instead of summer, he builds his descriptive passages out of nearly the same images, adding a comic twist here and there. The approach to the Van Tassel farm resembles the opening lines of the Theocritus passage, if a barrel can be asked to stand for the cave of the Nymphs: ''A giant elmtree spread its broad branches over it, at the foot of which bubbled up a spring of the softest and sweetest water, in a little well formed of a barrel.'' Where the Greeks had lark and goldfinch, here in America Irving boasts of a long catalog of birds, ''taking their farewell banquets. In the fulness of their revelry, they fluttered, chirping and frolicking, from bush to bush and tree to tree, capricious from the very profusion and variety around them.'' Even the treefrog appears, not murmuring but giving a ‘‘boding cry.’’

And the food! The fruits of the American paradise are so much more than pears and apples and damsons (plums). There are apples, of course. Ichabod beholds ''vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press.’’ But there are also ''great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts’’ and ‘‘yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun'' and the ''fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive. '' Nearly every feature of Theocritus' s poem is present in Irving's description.

One detail that is missing is the cricket, but Irving handles that in another way. In one of the most vivid images in the story, he shows Ichabod Crane riding off to meet his lady with ''his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers.’’ Theocritus's cricket is brown, but Crane wears ‘‘rusty black.’’

This is not to say that Irving had read Theocritus (though he may have), but rather that Irving and Theocritus had read the same things, and had drawn from the same well of images. The earthly paradise often has other features, some of which Irving adopts or adapts: the landscape is situated on a high mountain (here it is ''a little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills’’), there is a fountain (here the brook which seems to flow past every building in the valley), the west wind blows. In poems of the fourteenth century and later, the earthly paradise may be dangerous, the mountain may be in shadow, as Sleepy Hollow is. Giamatti describes a ''beautiful-seeming earthly paradise where man's will is softened, his moral fiber unraveled, and his soul ensnared. It is the garden where insidious luxury and sensuous love overcome duty and true devotion.’’

The danger appears in a familiar form. Giamatti traces the idea of the danger to the fourteenthcentury Italian poet Petrarch, in whose Triondo d'Amore ''a man is tempted to let down his guard, to succumb to the desire for security and female domination which the garden promises. Man is weakened in such a place ... in the arms of the woman who animates the place.’’ Ichabod lets down his guard—loses his head—in the same way. The narrator claims that ''he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.''

Irving' s use of classical images and themes was not an accident of native talent and inspiration. He was adequately literate in several languages, and had read the important literature of Europe and the classical world. He was well acquainted with Sir Walter Scott, whose own novels and poems were based on legends and myths. As Daniel Hoffman argues in Fame and Fable in American Fiction (1973), Washington Irving was ... something of an antiquary. His early Knickerbocker's History of New York reveals him to be enchanted with the very past he satirized ... Wherever Irving went he collected popular sayings and beliefs; he was prepossessed by a sense of the past, and recognized the power—and the usefulness to a creative artist—of popular antiquities.’’

Irving knew the value of calling up old images. By echoing the ancients he borrowed some of their power, and claimed for his story—even if in a mocking way—a place among them. By adapting European imagery to use American details, he showed in a form of shorthand that America had as much to offer as the Europeans, and more. In this, he was not alone. But he was one of the first, one of the reasons Giamatti can state that ‘‘American literature is constantly read as a record of the quest for happiness and innocence in the great unspoiled garden.''

Source: Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.

Daniel G. Hoffman (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: “Prefigurations: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’,” in Form and Fable in American Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 83-96.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explains how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dramatizes a conflict between two cultures—those of the Yankee city-dweller and the backwoodsman—that was to become a major theme in American literature.]


The first important literary statement of the themes of native folk character and superstition was made, fittingly enough, in the first literary work by an American to win worldwide acclaim. When The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. appeared in London in 1819, its author became the first of a long series of expatriate Americans who found their native roots all the more poignant for viewing them from a distance.

Washngton Irving was fortunate, granted his special though restricted gifts, to be alive and in England at that moment in the history of literature. He sought out, and was taken up by, Sir Walter Scott, who was showing how the sentiment of nostalgia for the past could infuse fiction and become its informing principle. In his novels Scott projected that sense of historical continuity which formed a curious undercurrent of sensibility even before the Romantic movement began. Little though the Augustans attended the medieval or more recent past, there were important eighteenth-century successors to such early antiquarian works as Sir Thomas Browne's collection of Vulgar Errors (1648) and Samuel Pepys' collection of broadside ballads. Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and John Brand's Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1795) laid the groundwork for the two directions British folklore study has followed ever since. Scott took his prominent place in both with his ballad collection, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) and his comprehensive Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830). Much more influential, however, than these formal studies in introducing a whole generation of readers—and authors—to such materials was his use of folklore in his own fiction. One of Scott's earliest and most popular disciples along this line was a young American littérateur, the London representative of P. E. Irving & Co., New York dealers in hardware.

Washington Irving was already something of an antiquary. His early Knickerbocker's History of New York reveals him to be enchanted with the very past he satirized. In The Sketch Book Irving used several themes to which he would again and again recur: the Gothic tale in the German manner of ‘The Spectre Bridegroom,’ the antiquarian nostalgia of the four sketches on English Christmas customs, the character sketch of ‘The Village Angler.’ The two selections destined for most enduring fame, however, were careful reconstructions of the scenes of Irving's own boyhood in the Dutch communities of the Hudson Valley. One of these retells a German folktale in this American setting, in which Rip Van Winkle sleeps away his twenty years after a heady game of bowls with the ghostly crew of the Half-Moon. In the other tale, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Irving brought into belles-lettres for the first time the comic mythology and folk beliefs of his native region. In Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones he dramatized that clash of regional characters—the Yankee versus the Backwoodsman—which would soon become a major theme in our literature, as well as a continuing motif in a century and a half of folktales, and in our national history.

It is surprising that the extent to which Irving drew upon native folklore has scarcely been acknowledged. The chief reason for this seems to be Henry A. Pochmann's convincing demonstration, in 1930, of the extent of Irving's indebtedness to his German contemporaries. Stanley T. Williams, in his definitive biography, gives us a further exploration of Irving's methods of composition.1 When we see the extent to which Irving depended on other men's books, often translating without acknowledgment, we can understand why recent critics are reluctant to grant him credit for originality in interpreting American themes.

The foremost students of American humor have strangely overlooked ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ Walter Blair does call it ‘a characteristic piece of American humor,’ but his remark is relegated to a footnote. And Constance Rourke, writing with her usual felicity, remarks that ‘in the Knickerbocker History and in Rip Van Winkle Irving created a comic mythology as though comic myth-making were a native habit, formed early …... But his Dutch people were of the past, joining only at a distance with current portrayals of native character.’2 Why did Miss Rourke not mention ‘Sleepy Hollow’? I do not know; but I hope to show that in Ichabod and Brom Bones, Irving gave us portrayals of current native character projected backwards in time, rather than merely historical types unrooted in contemporary folklore.

There are of course good reasons why Brom and Ichabod have not been so recognized. For one thing, Irving's style is hardly what we expect in a folk document. For another, the Hudson Valley Dutch have long been thought an alien people by the Anglo-Saxons who conquered, surrounded, and outnumbered them. But the third and principal reason is Irving's own treatment of his Dutch materials. Almost everywhere except in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ he deliberately altered the traditional characteristics of the Dutch for the purposes of his own fiction. As a consequence of Irving's popularity and of widespread ignorance of what the Dutch were really like, his caricatures were widely accepted as portraits of the Dutch-Americans. Paulding, writing The Dutchman's Fireside twenty-two years after the Knickerbocker History, imitated his friend in attributing chuckleheadedness and indolence to the brothers Vancour. In Cooper's Satanstoe (1845), however, we get a more realistic picture of the Dutch; his Guert Ten Eyck amply fulfills the historian Janvier's description: the Dutch ‘were tough and they were sturdy, and they were as plucky as men could be.’3 Only in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ did Irving give a Dutchman these attributes; everywhere else he made them fat, foolish, pompous, and pleasure-loving. Here his usual Dutchman does appear (Van Tassel), but only in the background. Brom Bones is his realistic Dutch frontiersman, who meets and bests a Yankee in the traditional conflict of our native folk humor. Why did Irving choose this theme, so different from his usual preoccupations?

When we admit his dependence upon books, we must look at the kinds of authors on whom he depended. Othmar and Musaeus were collectors and redactors of folktales and märchen. Irving knew personally a third folklorist, Dr. Karl Böttiger, ‘who undoubtedly was able to give him expert advice on his folklore studies.’4 Wherever Irving went he collected popular sayings and beliefs; he was prepossessed by a sense of the past, and recognized the power—and the usefulness to a creative artist—of popular antiquities. Brom and Ichabod had their beginnings in local characters he had known as a boy;5 what made them take their singular form, however, was the direction in which Irving's imagination impelled them. And that direction was toward the fabulous. The fabulous was Irving's milieu.

In a reminiscence twenty years after The Sketch Book, Irving revealed that Diedrich Knickerbocker had learned the legend of Sleepy Hollow from an old Negro who gave him ‘that invaluable kind of information, never to be acquired from books,’ and from ‘the precious revelations of the good dame at the spinning wheel.’6 Of Musaeus' Volksmärchen he says nothing. But he may well indeed have heard such stories in the old Dutch chimney corners. H. W. Thompson recounts similar motifs in York State folklore: nightly visitations by a shrieking woman ‘tied to the tail of a giant horse with fiery eyes’; and ‘a curious phantom … uttering unearthly laughter, lights shining from her finger tips.’ There were revenants aplenty in Catskills. Still another important part of Dutch folk culture was the lusty practical joking7 which Cooper used in some of the most spirited pages in Satanstoe. Both aspects of Dutch folk life—the villagers' superstitions and their humor—are immortalized in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’


Irving sets his story in a folk society: ‘It is in such little retired Dutch villages … that population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.’ And again: ‘The neighborhood is rich in legendary lore … Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered long-settled retreats.’ Into this community comes Ichabod Crane, ‘a native of Connecticut, a State which supplied the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest.’ Ichabod is Irving's Connecticut Yankee, the fictional ancestor of Mark Twain's Hartford mechanic. But his nearer descendants are Sam Slick, Jack Downing, Hosea Biglow. Before any of these was born in print Ichabod had already been a country teacher, a singing master, a sometime farmer; later he is to undergo still further metamorphoses which link him still more closely to these heroes of popular legend and literature. Like Ben Franklin, like Hawthorne's Holgrave, like the schoolmaster in Snowbound and Melville's marvelous Confidence Man, he was a jack of all trades. Metamorphosis is always magical, but now, in an egalitarian society, the magic is the power of self-reliance, not of Satan.

Ichabod's native shrewdness and perseverance are somewhat compromised by his credulity. ‘No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.’ Ichabod devoutly believed in all the remarkable prodigies retailed in Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft (that is, the Magnalia Christi Americani). There he found spectral ships manned by ghostly women, heretics giving birth to monsters, revenants pursuing the innocent with invisible instruments of torture. But of all the ghostly tales in the valley, the one Ichabod Crane most liked to hear was that of the Headless Horseman.

Meanwhile, we remember, Ichabod falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel; more exactly, seeing her father's prosperous farm, he envisages ‘every roasting pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth.’

Considerations of this sort lead Ichabod into a most interesting reverie: he imagines ‘the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or Lord knows where.’ Here we have Ichabod Boone—Connecticut's pioneer of the wilderness as well as of the mind. Traditionally the American frontiersman has resented the mercantile civilizer; in a thousand folktales the shaggy woodsman frightens the Yankee clear out of the district.

Ichabod's fatuous dream of pioneering prepares the way for his rival's entrance: ‘a burly, roaring, roistering blade … Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood.’ He had ‘a mingled air of fun and arrogance,’ and was ‘always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition.’ Famous for horsemanship, ‘foremost at all races and cockfights’ was Brom; ‘and when any madcap prank, or rustic brawl, occurred in the vicinity, [the neighbors] always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.’

Making allowances for Irving's smoothly flowing style, what we have here described is a Catskill Mike Fink, a Ring-Tailed Roarer from Kinderhook. While Irving was writing these lines in London, the real Mike Fink was somewhere west of Pittsburgh, shooting the heel off a nigger to make his foot fit the shoe, scalping Indians for the pure hell of it, roistering in towns along the Ohio. In Brom Bones's good-natured mischief there is a tinge of Mike Fink's brutality, if not of his sadism. That other favorite frontiersman, Davy Crockett, had not by 1819 become a national figure; yet the type—the swaggering frontier braggart, the prodigious hunter and strong man, the daredevil, the mischief-maker—was already well established in oral tradition. Irving's depiction of Brom Bones certainly gave these characteristics new clarity as they are combined for the first time in a fictional portrait of the genus frontiersman.

Irving now pits his rival suitors against each other. Ichabod, the Yankee, ‘had a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature.’ Although he is caricatured unmercifully, he is not entirely unworthy of our grudging admiration; a thoroughly self-reliant citizen, he adapts his strategy to meet the case. ‘To have taken the field openly against his rival would have been madness,’ so Ichabod insinuates himself into Katrina's notice while masquerading as her singing-master. Here he outwits Big Brom in the contest, perennially fresh in American comic lore, between wit and strength. But Ichabod forces Brom Bones to draw upon his own resources—the rough fancy of the frontiersman—as well as upon brute strength. This proves a dangerous combination for the scholar.

At Van Tassel's quilting frolic, when the old Negro tunes the fiddle and rosins the bow, Ichabod finds his métier, fair grounds whereon he can excel Brom Bones. The ungainly form of the pedagogue achieves animation if not grace, for he is from Down East in Connecticut and is sufficiently sophisticated to know how to dance with a lady. Brom, the bumpkin, ‘sorely smitten with love and jealousy, sat brooding by himself in one corner.’

The dancing over, talk now turns to the recently concluded Revolutionary War. Old soldiers' exploits become more heroic at each telling, as Irving skillfully moves us from the reality of the dance to mildly comic exaggerations of heroic truth, then to the supernatural itself. We are near Sleepy Hollow, and ‘there was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region.’ The mythology of war blends with that of the otherworld, lending credence to the supernatural, as we learn that ‘mourning cries and wailings [were] heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken’; and we hear of ‘the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock,’ who ‘was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.’ But the presiding spirit at this haunted conference was the Headless Horseman, who tethers his horse in the graveyard, haunts the church, and chases travellers. Brom Bones has met him. Riding his horse, Daredevil, Brom challenged the ghost to race for a bowl of punch—‘and should have won it too, for Daredevil beat the goblin horse all hollow, but, just as they came to the church-bridge, the Hessian bolted, and vanished in a flash of fire.’

Here is the bravado of the American hero, so confident of his own powers that he will risk everything for nothing, as Sam Patch did when he jumped Niagara just to prove that ‘Some things can be done as well as others.’ Such reckless daring makes the Faustus legend seem native in this land; Irving tried his hand at that in ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’ a generation before Hawthorne gave the devil's compact more sombre treatment, a century before Stephen Vincent Benét outdid him in this comic mode.

But Ichabod reasserts the dominance of evil over American self-reliance: he quotes Mather on witches, and describes the ghosts he has seen himself. The homely Puritan cannot accept the bravado of the backwoods Natural Man; Ichabod and Brom inhabit different worlds although they live in the same village. When Ichabod bids Katrina good night, he is chagrined to find that his hopes for a prosperous match have somehow gone awry. Perhaps, having observed her rival swains' reactions to supernatural perils, she has decided not to be a Puritan's bride, however nimbly he may dance the quadrille. Ichabod steals away heavy at heart.

Now, in the best-known part of the story, comes Irving's debt to Musaeus. But the stylistic control of the atmosphere shows Irving's own talent at its best, while the conclusion of the story is of signal importance in the literary development of an American myth. The darkness deepens; all the tales of ghosts and witches crowd into Ichabod's brain. Now he crosses the stream where André was captured, a haunted brook. Ichabod is appalled to find he no longer rides alone. A silent horseman splashes beside him. Coming out of the valley, Ichabod gets a look at his companion and discovers, in terror, that he carries his head in his hands! Crane rushes toward the church-bridge, where the Hessian, pursuing Brom, had disappeared. Reaching the bridge, Ichabod turns ‘to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule’—a fine pedantic touch!—but sees instead ‘the goblin rising in his stirrups … hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late.’ He falls from his horse, ‘and the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.’

Ichabod was never seen again in Sleepy Hollow. His landlord burns his copy of Mather's Witchcraft and determines to keep his own children from school, ‘observing that he never knew of any good come of this same reading and writing.’


Here in this York State valley, Irving's Dutch braggart concocts the perfect backwoodsman's revenge on the Yankee.8 This first statement of the theme is among the most memorable it has ever received in our literature; it is with us yet and ever has been, in Davy Crockett outwitting peddlers, in a thousand dime novels and popular magazines in which the yokel gets the best of the city slicker.9

The rustic hero may be naïve and honest, with only his common sense to help him make his way in the world; so he appears as Jack Downing, as Hosea Biglow, as Robin in Hawthorne's My Kinsman, Major Molineux, as Huckleberry Finn. Or he may be a swashbuckling braggart, half horse, half alligator, like all the ring-tailed roarers and Thorpe's Big Bear of Arkansas. No matter; in either form he represents the American élan, the pioneer, the Natural Man rebelling against the burden of guilt of the ages. It was he who cut the cords that bound him to the English throne, to all king-ridden Europe. Naked he stands in the wilderness, bereft of the past, confident that all human history begins—with him.

Who is his adversary? Perhaps an insufferable fop from the city to the East—traditions, culture, lineage, class distinctions always come from the East in American mythology: from New England, from Europe. Perhaps he is a shrewd, narrow-nosed Yankee peddler. No matter; in either form he stands for that ancient heritage of useless learning and inherited guilt against which the American, in each succeeding generation, must rebel.

Such are the roles in this ever-recurring fable of the American destiny. Washington Irving, whose birth coincided with that of the Republic, formulated a theme of its national literature with his dramatization of the Republic's dominant myth. Even Henry James is in his debt.

But what of Ichabod Crane? Did the pumpkin kill him? Of course not! Our folk heroes never die. Wearing the magic cloak of metamorphosis, they stave off death forever by simply changing their occupations. The ungainly pedagogue is no more—long live the New York City lawyer! For that is what Ichabod becomes after he makes his way from Sleepy Hollow. And onward and upward he goes: from the bar into politics, from his office to the press, thence to the bench. Far be it from Washington Irving to analyze or criticize the great American myth; where he finds a mythology of humor, he improves it on its own grounds. Responding instinctively to his fabulous materials, he makes Ichabod unforgettable in a stunning caricature. Brom, who is much more like life, is not so memorable, even though Americans always love a winner.

Yet Ichabod is not ultimately the loser in this legend. All he has lost is a farm girl's love and a measure of self-respect; the former was no real passion, the latter can be repaired. Ichabod Crane is a sorry symbol of learning, of culture, of sophistication, of a decayed religious faith, of an outworn order in the world. His very name suggests decrepitude: ‘And she named him Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel’ (I Sam. iv. 21). But Ichabod Crane is no Israelite; although an anachronism in all other respects, he is yet an American. And therefore he is immortal. Back to the city he goes, to find success.

Brom Bones stays in the village and gets the girl. He deserved her more than Ichabod did, for while the scholar danced and counted his stuffed pigs, Brom experienced two human emotions: jealousy and love.

Ichabod also knew two emotions, and two only. His were fear and ambition. He is not the loser, because he leads a full and prosperous life, experiencing to the brim the two emotions which give meaning to his existence: fear, in Sleepy Hollow, and ambition, in New York City. For it is the same ambition which led him to court Katrina Van Tassel that takes him later to the bar and the polls, to the editor's chair and the juror's bench. Ambition of this magnitude requires for its satisfaction a culture sufficiently complex to be capable of corruption. It cannot be gratified in the folk society of Sleepy Hollow Village, where the good people are as pure as the air.

Fear and ambition are Ichabod's, but not love. That is because Ichabod Crane is not wholly human. A sterile intellectual, his head aswim with worthless anachronisms, his heart set on material gain, Ichabod is gracelessly devoid of the natural human affections. He is the bumpkin's caricature of what life in the seat of a corrupt civilization can make of a man.

When one compares ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ to the bulk of Irving's work it seems anomalous that he could have mustered the imaginative power to enrich us so greatly, for most of Irving's writing betrays a lack of creative energy, a paucity of invention. Irving, after all, was never able successfully to transcend the limited aims of a ‘sketch,’ and he continued to rework his old themes in new disguises,10 telling a tale now set in old Dutch New York, now in Germany, now in England, now in Spain. Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, most of Wolfert's Roost and The Sketch Book itself make tedious reading today. They show all too plainly Irving's faults: his dependence upon secondary sources, and the restricted range of emotional experience from which he was able to create fiction. But in the characters of Ichabod and Brom Bones, Irving found archetypal figures already half-created by the popular imagination. Among all of Irving's characters only Rip Van Winkle has as great a power to move us; and Rip, too, is what the highly developed but narrow gift of a storyteller whose milieu was the fabulous has made of a character from folklore. Although the original Peter Klaus was German, the themes of Rip Van Winkle are universal: the pathos of change, the barely-averted tragedy of loss of personal identity. And, as Louis LeFevre has pointed out,11 Rip is indeed close to an aspect of the American national character—that yearning for escape from work and responsibility which is exemplified by a host of gadgets and the day-dream dramas of contemporary popular culture. Irving's Knickerbocker Dutchmen were, as Miss Rourke observed, remote caricatures resurrected from a distant past. But when Irving dramatized the homely comic figures he found in native American folk traditions, his Ichabod and Brom pass so readily into the reader's own imagination that they seem to be persons we have always known. ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ sketches the conflict of cultures which the rest of our literature has adumbrated ever since. One could predict that from Irving's story; both Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones lived lustily ever after. They are rivals yet.


  1. Irving's use of folk traditions of piracy is noted by W. H. Bonner, Pirate Laureate: The Life & Legends of Captain Kidd (New Brunswick, N. J., 1947), pp. 151-65; Leonard Beach discusses Irving's use of American themes and recognizes Ichabod as ‘Irving's judgment of Puritanism’: ‘Washington Irving,’ University of Kansas City Review, XIV (1948), 259-66. Pochmann notes ‘Irving's German Sources in The Sketch Book,’ Studies in Philology, XXVII (July 1930), 477-507; see also ‘Irving's German Tour and Its Influence on His Tales,’ PMLA, XLV (Dec. 1930), 1150-87. Pochmann shows, with parallel texts, that in ‘Rip Van Winkle’ Irving translated and expanded the story of Peter Klaus, a German goatherd who fell asleep for years, which he found in the Volkssagen of Othmar; and in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ he demonstrates Irving's indebtedness to the Rübezahl legends in Volksmärchen der Deutschen, by Musaeus. See also Williams, The Life of Washington Irving (New York, 1935), I, 177-86.

  2. Blair, Native American Humor, p. 16, n. 3. Basing his judgment of Irving as a native humorist on the Knickerbocker's History of New York, Blair considers Irving as primarily ‘a disciple of neoclassicism,’ and concludes (p. 14) that ‘he employed a technique which, admirable though it was, differed from that of typical American humor.’ Rourke, American Humor, p. 77.

  3. Thomas A. Janvier, The Dutch Founding of New York (New York, 1903), p. 4; Janvier takes issue with Irving's characterization of the Dutch on pp. 1-3, 9, 14, 46, 105, and 131-2.

  4. Pochmann, ‘Irving's German Tour,’ PMLA, XLV, 1153-4.

  5. Brom Bones was identified by Pierre M. Irving as a wag of Tarrytown who ‘boasted of once having met the devil … and run a race with him for a bowl of milk’ (Life and Letters of Washington Irving, London, 1892, I, 282). See Williams, Life, I, 429, n. 90, for a similar account; on p. 430, n. 91, he names Brom Van Allstyne of Kinderhook as the original of Irving's character. Ichabod Crane, Williams finds (p. 109), was modelled upon ‘Jesse Merwin, the homespun wit’ and village schoolmaster, as well as upon Fielding's Partridge and the schoolmaster in Goldsmith's Deserted Village.

  6. ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ in Biographies and Miscellanies, ed. Pierre M. Irving (New York, 1866), pp. 514-16.

  7. Thompson, Body Boots & Britches (Philadelphia, 1939), pp. 119-21; Carl Carmer, The Hudson (New York and Toronto, 1939), p. 35, lists some typical pranks.

  8. The perfection of Irving's ‘Legend’ becomes even more apparent by comparison with ‘Cobus Yerks,’ Paulding's imitation of ‘Sleepy Hollow.’ Instead of Yankee vs. Backwoodsman, we find a stupid, superstitious Dutchman frightened by a ghostly dog, otherwise Tim Canty, a merry Englishman. Now the story is reduced to its supernatural motif only; the richness which Irving's ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ holds for us, its reverberations on the themes of national and regional character, are entirely lacking in Paulding's caricature. Tales of The Good Woman, ed. W. I. Paulding (New York, 1867), pp. 285-99.

  9. Mark Twain's first newspaper sketch was a version of this motif, called ‘The Dandy Frightening the Squatter,’ reprinted in Tall Tales of the Southwest, ed. F. J. Meine (New York, 1930), pp. 447-8; discussed by Bernard DeVoto in Mark Twain's America (Boston, 1932), pp. 90-91.

  10. Much later Irving was to return to the frontier materials he used for Brom Bones in ‘The Early Experiences of Ralph Ringwood,’ a fictionalized biography of Governor Duval of Florida (Wolfert's Roost, New York, 1865. pp. 294-341). Some of the supernatural lore from ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ turns up here too, notably an apparition of a horse as a devil (pp. 298-9). Of his late frontier sketches Beach notes, ‘Strange that Irving should have come so close to Longstreet's and Craddock's property! Strange too that he should not have known what to make of it’ (‘Washington Irving,’ University of Kansas City Review, XIV, p. 266). Perhaps the key to this puzzle is that Ralph Ringwood, a Kentuckian, meets only Westerners and hence there is no opportunity for Irving to give this sketch the dramatic power which the conflict of regional characters made possible in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ In view of the popularity, as well as the artistic success, of the earlier sketch, it is indeed surprising that Irving should have followed it with so poor an effort.

  11. ‘Paul Bunyan and Rip Van Winkle,’ Yale Review, XXXVI (Autumn 1946), pp. 66-76.

Girls Can Take Care of Themselves: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

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Discussions of Washington Irving often concern gender and the artistic imagination, but these topics are usually mutually exclusive when associated with the two most enduring stories from the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20): ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ and ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'' Many readings of the former focus on gender, while discussions of the latter most often explore its conception of the artist's role in American society. ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ does indeed address this second theme, but also complicates it by making art an issue of gender. Ichabod Crane is not only a representative of bustling, practical New England who threatens imaginatively fertile rural America with his prosaic acquisitiveness; he is also an intrusive male who threatens the stability of a decidedly female place. For Irving, the issue of art is sexually charged; in Sleepy Hollow, this tension finally becomes a conflict between male and female storytelling. A close look at the stories that circulate through the Dutch community shows that Ichabod's expulsion follows directly from women's cultivation of local folklore. Female-centered Sleepy Hollow, by means of tales revolving around the emasculated, headless ''dominant spirit'' of the region, figuratively neuters threatening masculine interlopers like Ichabod to ensure the continuance of the old Dutch domesticity, the Dutch wives' hearths, and their old wives' tales.

Although Irving often places the feminine in a pejorative light—the "feminine" in Ichabod is his unmanly, superstitious, trembling, and gullible side— he himself seems, in this tale, begrudgingly to acquiesce to the female sphere of Sleepy Hollow. And this sphere has none of the abrasiveness so blatant in ''Rip Van Winkle.'' We have no shrewish wife, whose death in a ‘‘fit of passion’’ allows for Rip's carefree dotage upon his return to the village. Rather, we are left with a sense of relief at Ichabod's removal, at this snake's relegation to the mythology of the Hollow. Thus the tale presents a stark contrast to ''Rip Van Winkle.'' In that story, women attempt and fail to confront men openly; in Sleepy Hollow, female behavior is much more subversive, and effective.

In ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ Irving's conservatism subverts itself, since conservation of the existing power structure means the continuance of a female (though certainly not feminist) hierarchy. Irving's tale is one of preservation, then, of maintenance of the feminine, and the landscape is the predominant female. Sleepy Hollow lies ''in the bosom’’ of a cove lining the Hudson, the valley is ‘‘embosomed in the great state of New York,’’ and the vegetating families of Sleepy Hollow are rooted in its ‘‘sheltered bosom.’’ Clearly the repose and security of the place rest in the maternal landscape—an assumption so pervasive that even our male narrator attests to it. For as he observes, in this tale of a Dutch Eden even the adamic act of naming falls to women. ‘‘The good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days,'' have named the nearby "rural port'' ''Tarry Town''; the name and the power of naming thus operate as a gently sardonic means of reproaching unruly husbands and of preserving female dominance over the valley.

The narrator is not simply an idle observer, however. He comes to the Hollow to hunt:

I recollect that when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel shooting was in a grove of tall walnut trees that shades one side of the valley. I had wandered into it at noon time, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun, as it broke the sabbath stillness around, and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know none more promising than this little valley.

The tale thus begins with a paradigm of masculine experience in the maternal bosom of Sleepy Hollow: an acquisitive, intrusive male both perpetuates female influence over the region and also acquiesces to constraints on male behavior. As the narrator remarks, the Hollow is his choice for ''retreat’’ and security. But although the return to Sleepy Hollow is therefore a return to the womb, unfortunately, he is no longer welcome there.

For as he praises the soporific atmosphere of the Dutch valley, the narrator also admits it has repulsed him. It is clear that Mother Nature here produces a bower not to be disturbed by the masculine aggression of hunting, regardless of its tameness in the case of this "stripling." Hunting is not permitted, and trespassers will be startled into submission. Our gun-toting narrator is surprised not only by the roar of his own gun, his own masculine explosion into the place, but also by the sense that his behavior is inappropriate. This womb-like grove is for nurturing dream, not bloodsport; to be treated with respect due the sabbath, not rent asunder by blunderbuss ejaculations. Indeed, the ‘‘angry echoes'' from the landscape suggest a rebellious reaction to such flagrant poaching. Indolent as the epigraph may make the place seem, Sleepy Hollow does not take kindly to intruders; hence the narrator is properly awed into acquiescence.

The youthful exploit of this opening scene is echoed by the actions of Ichabod and the Headless Horseman. For like the narrator, both Ichabod and ‘‘the dominant spirit’’ of Sleepy Hollow—‘‘the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head''— are masculine, mercenary interlopers in this feminine place. The bony schoolmaster's desire to liquidate heiress Katrina Van Tassel's wealth, invest it ''in immense tracts of wild land,'' and take Katrina from the Hollow mirrors both the narrator's childhood intrusion and the former Hessian trooper's attempt to win Sleepy Hollow for Royalist forces ''in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war.’’ They embody the essence of masculine imperialism: war, fortune hunting, and even squirrel hunting are all expressions of the same will to conquer. Gun, Hessian sword, or birch in hand, the narrator, the Horseman, and Ichabod all bear authority; and all three seek the spoils—political, material or sexual—of invading Sleepy Hollow.

Irving's bawdy imagery strongly suggests that all male intrusions in this female place are ultimately sexual. Ichabod, for example, is described in insistently phallic terms:

He had, however, a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature; he was in form and spirit like a supple jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away— jerk!—he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever.

The pedagogue's ‘‘pliability and perseverance’’—Ichabod is elsewhere accredited with possessing ‘‘the dilating powers of an Anaconda’’— suggest that he will not be as easily scared or awed as the narrator. It will take more than just the roar of his gun to frighten this persistent "jack."

Storytelling is also a part of male imperialism. Of the numerous tales that circulate through Sleepy Hollow, those told by men concern their own fictionalized exploits. ''The sager folks'' at Van Tassel's farm sit ‘‘gossiping over former times, and drawling out long stories about the war"; "just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each storyteller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.'' These stories are designed to increase the teller's status in the minds of his listeners by linking him to the heroic, historic, and masculine past.

True to this male practice of self-aggrandizing storytelling, Ichabod regales his female companions with scientific ‘‘speculations upon comets and shooting stars, and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsyturvy!’’ Though fantastic in themselves, these stories are to Ichabod the height of learning and scholarly achievement. Even his tales of the supernatural show him as ‘‘a perfect master of Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft.’’ Ichabod's familiarity with the subject attests to his book learning and his reliance on the great masters of American thought, not to his understanding of folklore. Boastfully displaying his knowledge of worldly matters, this ''travelling gazette'' brings word of the ' 'restless country'' of ''incessant change'' outside Sleepy Hollow. Part of the pioneer's repertoire, carried from town to town, his stories are meant to recommend him to each new audience by proving his erudition.

While male storytelling is a part of the will to compete and conquer, storytelling for the women of Sleepy Hollow moves beyond self-image to counter that male will. The ‘‘witching power’’ the narrator fails to define fully is a female influence that gently molds the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow through the folklore that emanates from that exclusively female, domestic province, the hearth:

Another of [Ichabod's] sources of fearful pleasure was, to pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, with a row of apples roasting and sputtering along the hearth, and listen to their marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow, as they sometimes called him.

Spinning, cooking, and spinning tales are simultaneous acts; the convergence of folklore and the domestic imbues everyday events with the supernatural.

The effectiveness of this domestication of the supernatural is clear from the extent to which folklore affects local inhabitants' behavior. At the tale's close, the bridge where the Horseman confronted Ichabod is no longer used, the schoolhouse is abandoned, and Ichabod's ‘‘magic books’’ have been burned in Hans Van Ripper's censorial flames; the community has accepted that the spirit world is larger than themselves, that despite their boasts and challenges, the lore of the place is still supreme and affects nearly every facet of their lives.

Perhaps the most convincing proof of the pervasiveness of female influence in Sleepy Hollow is that all the men have set themselves to challenging it. Accordingly, the narrator not only concedes the connection between women and spirits, but he also establishes women as the greatest source of fear for men:

[Ichabod] would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man, than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.

Although this passage is supposed to be humorous, it nonetheless reveals Irving's characteristic misogyny and the male fear of disempowerment played out again and again throughout the tale. In contrast to Rip Van Winkle, however, the Hollow men displace this fear from women to characters of folklore. It is a misunderstanding that, as in the case of Ichabod, ensures men's continued thraldom.

Given the misogynistic bent of ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,'' it is not surprising that despite the tale's narrative complexity, Irving suppresses actual female speech; in fact, the only narratives directly or indirectly related are spoken by men. This conspicuous absence of female narration underscores the way in which males both fear and resist the feminine. Thus, the narrator is at a loss to relate what Katrina says to Ichabod in their teteatete after the frolic: ''What passed at this interview I will not pretend to say, for in fact I do not know.’’ The war stories told at the Van Tassel frolic, like the narrative as a whole, are told by men. And it is Sleepy Hollow men who tell ghost stories at the frolic. Tales from the female sphere must be validated by male retelling. That is, the story of the Headless Horseman originates in a tradition kept by women; storytelling sessions with women make Ichabod susceptible to local superstition; but men first reinforce, and then—as we shall see in the confrontation between Ichabod and Brom Bones—capitalize on the fears and superstitions engendered by women.

The ultimate irony concerning gender and storytelling, then, is that the very female stories males debunk influence their lives, often through their own telling of them. The men who continually joust fictionally with the Headless Horseman not only inflate their prowess, but also repeatedly confront in narrative the threatening world formed, unbeknownst to them, by the alliance of female and spirit. Fighting mock battles in which they defeat what they mistakenly consider their greatest adversary, men actually strengthen the female hold on the community by reinforcing and perpetuating the narratives through which women maintain order.

Indeed, Brom Bones and Ichabod provide an example of males literally enacting these stories. In his role as the Headless Horseman, by means of which he intends to humiliate his rival, Brom unwittingly serves as the means to achieve the goal of the female community: the removal of Ichabod and himself as threats to Sleepy Hollow's quietude. Posing as the Headless Horseman of legend, Brom plays upon Ichabod's superstition and credulity to eliminate his opponent. And it is Ichabod's association of legend and place, engendered in his mind by the female-controlled mythology, that proves his undoing. Riding home alone from the Van Tassel farm at ''the very witching time of night,'' ' 'all the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon, now came crowding upon his recollection"; "he was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid.'' Thus Brom Bones has at his disposal a carefully scripted and blocked drama with which to exploit Ichabod's credulity and superstitious fear.

The phallic language of this passage reiterates Ichabod's sexual threat and clearly indicates that the gullible pedagogue is essentially neutralized or neutered by figurative castration. Bones, masquerading as the Headless Horseman, appears as ‘‘something huge, misshapen, black and towering'' ''like some gigantic monster,’’ while Ichabod flees in terror from the apparition ‘‘stretch[ing] his long lank body away over his horse's head, in the eagerness of his flight.'' Indeed, in this drama of competing masculinity, Ichabod's fear is of dismemberment. Ichabod, ‘‘unskilful rider that he was!’’ has trouble staying on his mount, slipping and bouncing from one side to the other ''with a violence that he verily feared would cleave him asunder.’’ Ichabod's fear is nearly realized when Brom hurls his pumpkin/head at the schoolmaster, ‘‘tumbl[ing him] headlong into the dust.’’

Brom Bones triumphs in this phallic contest of horsemanship and sexual potency—Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again—but ironically this ejaculatory coup de grace effects his own emasculation. His impersonation of the Horseman prefigures his domestication: donning the garb of the dismembered spirit, and ultimately throwing away his head, Brom insures that his days as a ''roaring, roystering blade'' are numbered. The ultimate beneficiary of Brom's midnight prank is the Dutch community itself, the maintenance of whose dreamy repose and domestic harmony is the province of women.

The altercation between Brom and Ichabod and its inevitable outcome meet with tacit approval from the female sphere. Brom Bones, the ‘‘hero of the country round'' with ''more mischief than ill will in his composition,’’ appears not to share the schoolmaster's desire to take Katrina and her wealth out of the Dutch community. Since marriage is a most soporific state for the men of Sleepy Hollow, it is more than likely that Brom, who ‘‘had for some time singled out the blooming Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries,’’ will soon become as content and domesticated, and as plump and vegetable-like, as Katrina's father. Accordingly, there are no ‘‘angry echoes’’ to greet Brom's adventures; indeed, ‘‘the old dames’’ of the country, content with merely remarking ‘‘aye, there goes Brom Bones and his gang,’’ indulge him in his revels and pranks. For Brom Bones would be a threat to Sleepy Hollow only if Ichabod should succeed in his suit, thus extending Brom's bachelorhood indefinitely (and enabling Ichabod to make off with the Van Tassel fortune).

Ichabod's expulsion from Sleepy Hollow, then, results from subtle manipulation of local folklore by women. ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ thus provides a foil to the open male-female confrontation of ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’; the story is a darker, more paranoid vision of female power. Indeed, the narrative frame shows the lengths to which men go to find plausible alternatives to the female version of Ichabod's disappearance, which relegates him to the cosmos:

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day, that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favourite story often told about the neighborhood round the evening fire.

The male account asserts that Ichabod:

had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a Justice of the Ten Pound Court.

This version translates the jerky young man into the self-reliant American jack-of-all-trades and self-made success. Yet this story is also an import; it arrives via ''an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after.’’ The ending is brought into Sleepy Hollow from New York, and by a man; it dismisses the supernatural perspective with a very plausible account of Ichabod's fear and mortification as impetus for his speedy removal, and places Ichabod in a respected occupation.

In similar fashion, Diedrich Knickerbocker attempts in the tale's postscript to lend credibility—a factual backbone—to his story, by placing it within a masculine sphere:

The preceding Tale is given, almost in the precise words in which I heard it related at a corporation meeting of the ancient city of Manhattoes, at which were present many of its sagest and most illustrious burghers.

These wise old men are intended to lend credence and authority to a story that operates on a plane beyond that of burghers and business meetings. And, as Knickerbocker relies upon the authority of ‘‘precise words,’’ we are reminded of the narrator's having told us early in the narrative that his aim is to be ' 'precise and authentic.’’ Something there is in these male storytellers that doesn't love a ghost.

The narrator's sardonic comment that ‘‘the old country wives ... are the best judges of these matters’’ is clue enough to a rather disparaging attitude; resenting the authority of women is nothing new to Irving's fiction. Yet this remark does not alter the fact that the community listens to the women's stories. And this particular one is a favorite in Sleepy Hollow because it both warns and neutralizes threatening males. Ichabod becomes the community's most recent lesson by example, the shivering victim of his own acquisitive fantasies and proof positive of the truth of legend.

The postscript to the tale reiterates the gender conflict present in the story proper and the narrative frame. Diedrich Knickerbocker focuses on the confrontation between the narrator and a cynical listener that ends in the narrator's parodic syllogism and his ambiguous admission concerning his story that ''I don't believe one half of it myself.'' Their verbal jousting is reminiscent of Brom's and Ichabod's own rivalry. And Diedrich Knickerbocker's description of the narrator is most telling: he is ''one whom I strongly suspected of being poor, he made such efforts to be entertaining.''

This, too, allies the narrator with Ichabod and the men of the Dutch community; his performance stands as a final example of male self-aggrandizing storytelling. Indeed, the tale proper becomes the object of male desire and competition; it is the game our youthful narrator has waited the length of a ''troubled life'' to carry off. In turn, Diedrich Knickerbocker the antiquarian, and Geoffrey Crayon the sketch writer, extend this instance of storytelling as appropriation to fill the entire frame of the tale: its inclusion in The Sketch Book. The presence of gender as a central conflict is further buried under layers and layers of male acquisitiveness and competition.

But in ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ stories, like wealth and game, are not exportable. It is the association of lore and place, of supernatural and practical, that gives the legend of the Headless Horseman its power and efficacy in controlling males within the Dutch community; the very title of the sketch reinforces the primacy of place in storytelling. Like the Horseman himself, the tale is powerless outside a circumscribed area. The ability to tell it in New York, where its supernatural elements are so easily debunked, attests not to the power of the male storyteller who does the debunking—as the postscript would have us believe—but to the element of female storytelling in Sleepy Hollow that insures the success of the female order: its subtle, self-effacing nature. Diffused throughout the folklore and the practical, everyday world of a particular place, the source of power in the Hollow—women—is disguised, making belief in the supernatural a matter of course, not compulsion. When the tale is told outside this female-controlled landscape of the naturalized supernatural, the effectiveness of the story dissolves, leaving only a Hollow husk.

Source: Laura Plummer and Michael Nelson, '‘‘Girls can take care of themselves': Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,'’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, 1993, pp. 175-84.

Robert A. Bone (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “Irving's Headless Hessian: Prosperity and the Inner Life,” in American Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 2, Pt. 1, Summer, 1963, pp. 167-75.

[In the following essay, Bone considers the theme of materialism in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]

While the body of this essay is concerned with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I have tried to touch upon a central theme in our national letters: the relentless pressure of commodities on the American imagination. Walden is the classic statement of this theme. Thoreau went to the woods to escape the pressure of house and barn and mortgage; to free his soul from the tyranny of commodities. Since his aim was to confront essentials, his first requirement was to reduce the clutter of worldly goods which threatened to forestall the act of contemplation.

Nothing would seem more remote from contemporary sensibility than this ascetic strain. Yet consider the voluntary poverty of the Beat poet. Where Madison Avenue enjoins us to consume! consume!, the Beatnik demurs with a modern version of Thoreau's simplify! simplify! Deep in the American psyche, it would seem, lies a curious ambivalence toward the things of this world; a suspicion that material prosperity may be an impediment to the inner life.

It is not difficult, I think, to trace this conflict to its source in New England Puritanism. Seventeenth-century Americans were in many respects the heirs of the middle ages. Like their medieval ancestors, they regarded temporal affairs as a distraction from the serious business of salvation. Still in the grip of an otherworldly vision, the Puritan imagination experienced commodities as temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Superimposed on this medieval base was the acquisitive drive of New England Puritanism. Maule's curse, after all, was not called forth by a morality of abstention. The main thrust of the Protestant Reformation was in a worldly direction, and in America the Protestant ethic was reinforced by the compelling needs of a frontier society. Faced with these cross-currents, the Puritan patriarchs devised a compromise formula which Perry Miller has described as “loving the world with weaned affections.” In the spirit of the new age, one could love the world, if the primary commitment of the soul remained elsewhere.

Inevitably, as Puritan values were subverted by the growing prosperity of the colonies, this precarious equilibrium was upset. In the eighteenth century, the contemplative and acquisitive aspects of the Puritan temperament precipitated out. Autobiography, if not yet fiction, gave us two figures symbolic of the new division.

Here is a passage from the Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards:

The whole book of Canticles used to be pleasant to me, and I used to be much in reading it, about that time; and found, from time to time, an inward sweetness, that would carry me away, in my contemplations. This I know not how to express otherwise, than by a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world; and sometimes a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God.

The key word in this passage is vision. In Edwards, the imagination is an active faculty serving the soul in its communion with God.

Consider now a passage from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in which the author attempts to dissuade a young man from writing poems:

He continued to write frequently, sending me large specimens of an epic poem, which he was then composing, and desiring my remarks and corrections. These I gave him from time to time, but endeavor'd rather to discourage his proceedings. One of Young's satires was then just publish'd. I copy'd and sent him a great part of it, which set in a strong light the folly of pursuing the muses with any hope of advancement by them.

Here the key word is advancement. In Franklin, the imagination is firmly subordinated to the acquisition of commodities.

By the early nineteenth century, the utilitarian ethic of Benjamin Franklin had emerged as the cultural norm. All value came to be defined in terms of use. By this measure, contemplation could scarcely be considered valuable, nor meditation, nor poetry, nor fiction. Increasingly the American writer found himself in an atmosphere of trade and commerce profoundly hostile to his art. In self-defense he turned to the Romantic movement, at the heart of which lay a spirited defense of the imagination.

During the Romantic period, the concept of imagination was itself transformed. Closely associated with devotional practices in the past, it now became more or less secularized. The contemplative principle was revived, as we have seen, in Thoreau, but devoid of specific theological content. Transcendentalism was perhaps the closest approximation to the spirit of Jonathan Edwards which a secular society would allow. As the role of the artist became increasingly differentiated from that of the clergyman or philosopher, the stage was set for a new phase in the history of the American imagination. Henceforth the pressure of commodities would be experienced as a threat to the artistic process as such.

It is Washington Irving's distinction first to have explored this theme. His interest in folklore, myth and legend provides him, in his best work, with a means of confronting the prosaic temper of his time. The folk tale, with its elements of fable and of fantasy, is an ideal medium, and it is here that Irving's creative powers reach fulfillment. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is at once his finest achievement and his most enduring contribution to our literary history. For in the mythic encounter of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, the crisis of the modern imagination is first revealed.

The story begins with an epigraph from “The Castle of Indolence,” by the Scottish poet James Thomson:

A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
For ever flushing round a summer sky.

These lines serve primarily to establish the drowsy atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow, but are not without thematic relevance. “Dreams,” “castles in the clouds,” are suggestive of the imaginative faculty which is Irving's real concern. Moreover, the poem deals at length with the economic foundations of the arts; that is, with the question of patronage. This is one of the central issues which Irving means to raise.

Thomson is a spiritual cousin of Ben Franklin, and the poem amounts to a Calvinist homily on work. It is an allegorical attack on the slothful propensities of the leisure classes, and a sturdy defense of the Protestant ethic. Thomson is a poet, however, and he cannot suppress certain misgivings about the benefits of industry and progress. In particular, he deplores the loss of patronage which attends the passing of a cultured aristocracy. A jarring note thus intrudes upon his celebration of the Protestant virtues. In the old order, indolence brought social stagnation, but afforded a leisurely pursuit of art. The rise of the middle class portends great material prosperity, but leaves the fate of the poetic imagination in doubt.

This is precisely the mood of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Dimly, uneasily, Irving sees the precarious position of the artist in bourgeois society. He is therefore of two minds as he contemplates the demise of Dutch colonial America. Fundamentally he approves of movement, activity and progress. Yet the story is saturated with nostalgia for the sheltered, protected, embosomed world of Sleepy Hollow, where dreams and reveries, ghosts and apparitions, still nourish the “visionary propensity.”

Tarry Town emerges as a symbol of the colonial past, in which we tarry for a moment before moving on. The atmosphere is simple, uncomplicated, pastoral. It is established by such adjectives as quiet, listless, drowsy, dreamy, and such nouns as murmur, lull, repose, tranquillity. Captivated by the mood he has created, the narrator recalls his first exploit in squirrel hunting:

I had wandered into [a walnut grove] at noon time, when all nature is peculiarly quiet, and was startled by the roar of my own gun as it broke the Sabbath stillness around, and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes. [“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” p. 475. All quotations are from The Works of Washington Irving, Author's Revised Edition, Vol. II, The Sketch Book (New York, 1880).]

It was a shot heard round the world. The disruptive roar of the gun heralds the introduction of the Hessian trooper, “whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.” To the quiet repose of the opening pages, Irving counterposes the furious speed of the galloping Hessian. He is seen “hurrying along in the gloom of the night, as if on the wings of the wind.” He embodies the sudden violence of the Revolution, which brought the pastoral phase of the national life to an end. A new spirit is abroad in the land, the mercenary spirit of a Hessian soldier.

At this point it may be well to review the basic features of the plot, so as to establish a solid foundation for a symbolic interpretation. In essence, we have a romantic triangle. Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones are rivals for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a prosperous Dutch farmer. Ichabod is defeated under comic circumstances, and as a result, his values are profoundly altered. Humiliation and defeat transform his life, but what is the inner meaning of these events?

As the three principals are introduced, certain details of characterization point to Irving's theme. To begin with, Ichabod's New England origins are heavily underscored:

He was a native of Connecticut, a state which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodsmen and country schoolmasters. (p. 478)

His favorite book is Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft. Great stress is laid upon his appetite, which is at once natural and supernatural, encompassing both the gustatory and the marvellous. In this he reflects the dilemma of his Puritan ancestors: the contest in his soul might be said to turn upon the question of which appetite will come uppermost.

The ascetic circumstances of his existence are suggested by the shabbiness of his schoolhouse and the itinerant character of his life. As he moves from home to home among his pupils' families, he carries “all his worldly effects tied up in a cotton handkerchief.” His poverty, however, is not without its compensations. Because of his itinerant habits, he is welcomed as a bearer of news and gossip. He is esteemed by his neighbors as a man of letters, “for he had read several books quite through.” He instructs the young people in psalmody, and his tales of the supernatural are a popular feature of village entertainment. Ichabod embodies, in short, the primitive impulse of a frontier society toward culture.

Since culture is viewed with suspicion in frontier communities, Ichabod is thought, “by all who understand nothing of the labor of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy time of it.” Highly vulnerable to criticism, he is forced to justify his existence on utilitarian grounds:

That all this might not be too onerous on the purses of his rustic patrons, who are apt to consider the costs of schooling a grievous burden, and schoolmasters as mere drones, he had various ways of rendering himself both useful and agreeable. (p. 481)

There is something in the comic absurdity of Ichabod's situation which raises echoes of Cervantes. At one point, in fact, Ichabod rides forth “like a knight-errant in quest of adventures,” astride a broken-down plough horse. In the light of these allusions, the character of Ichabod acquires a new dimension. Like Don Quixote, he is comic in appearance and behavior, but he must be taken seriously as a symbol of man's higher aspirations. Such a portrait requires a certain complexity of tone. For Ichabod is at once a comic and a tragic figure; he is, in Wallace Stevens' phrase, “A clown, perhaps, but an aspiring clown.” In a portrait which is permeated with self-irony, Irving caricatures the position of the artist-intellectual in American life. Ichabod Crane is the first example in our literature of the comedian as the letter C.

Ichabod's antagonist is Brom Bones, “the hero of the country round.” Brom's symbolic role is defined by a series of associations with the Headless Horseman. He is linked to the goblin rider by his skill in horsemanship and by the hurry-scurry of his midnight escapades. Like the Hessian, he scours the countryside with a squad of hard riders who dash about “like a troop of Don Cossacks.” As the story reaches a climax, Brom becomes the literal incarnation of the Hessian trooper, for it is he, disguised as the Headless Horseman, who pursues Ichabod to his doom. Symbolically, Brom is the embodiment of the Hessian spirit, of mercenary values which threaten to engulf the imagination.

While Ichabod exists on the periphery of his culture, Brom occupies the very hub. Invisible spokes radiate from him to the entire male population of Sleepy Hollow. What is the “tough, wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch” but a schoolboy version of Brom Bones? Brom's gang, whose behavior suggests the juvenile-delinquent phase of male development, harries the schoolmaster by smoking out his singing school and breaking into his schoolhouse after dark.

In Sleepy Hollow, hostility to learning is by no means confined to the young:

Old Baltus Van Tassel was a perfect picture of a thriving, contented, liberal-hearted farmer. He seldom, it is true, sent either his eyes or his thoughts beyond the boundaries of his own farm. … (p. 486)

Toward the end of the story, Hans Van Ripper disposes of Ichabod's literary effects by a time-honored method. In his treatment of the scene, Irving betrays an animus ordinarily concealed beneath a gloss of genial humor:

These magic books and the poetic scrawl were forthwith consigned to the flames by Hans Van Ripper; who from that time forward determined to send his children no more to school; observing, that he never knew any good come of this same reading and writing. (p. 517)

Katrina is a pivotal figure; she provides the measure of Ichabod's social worth. The bestowal of her favors amounts to a kind of community sanction, for if Ichabod's society takes him seriously it must supply him with a wife. It is of course Brom Bones that she chooses; she has been flirting with the schoolmaster only to arouse the jealousy and ardor of his rival.

Irving's sketch of Katrina blends humorously with his description of her father's farm. She is “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father's peaches.” She wears “ornaments of pure yellow gold” whose colors call to mind the golden ears of Van Tassel corn, and “the yellow pumpkins … turning up their fair round bellies to the sun.” As Ichabod surveys his future prospects, the metaphors proclaim his gustatory love:

In his devouring mind's eye … the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. (p. 488)

Faced with such temptations, Ichabod is defeated from within. Consider the implications of his name. “Ichabod” is from the Hebrew; it means “inglorious,” or literally, “without honor.” Ichabod is a turncoat; in pursuit of material comfort, he betrays a spiritual tradition. Confronted with the opulence of the Van Tassels, he succumbs to the sins of covetousness and idolatry. His imaginative faculty is perverted, deflected from its proper object:

… his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where. (p. 489)

Here is the New England imagination turned mercenary, placed in the service of the westering impulse. Brom Bones has only to bury the body.

Ichabod's encounter with the Headless Horseman is the dramatic climax of the story. The stage is set so carefully, however, that a closer look at the backdrop is in order. Dominating the landscape is an enormous tulip tree known in the neighborhood as Major André's tree. André was a young British officer, appointed by his superiors to consummate with Benedict Arnold negotiations for the betrayal of West Point. Captured by American militiamen after a midnight interview with Arnold, he was executed as a spy. In effect, he was a scapegoat, hanged for Arnold's crime. As a result, he occupies an ambiguous position in American history. This ambiguity seems to be the point so far as Irving is concerned:

The common people regarded [Major André's tree] with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill-starred namesake. … (pp. 510-11)

It is just this note of sympathy which Irving means to strike. Systematically he links “the unfortunate André” with “the unfortunate Ichabod,” using the historical figure to control his tone. Let there be no mistake: Ichabod betrays the race of Cranes. The betrayal occurs at the quilting party, as he contemplates the possibility of becoming lord of the Van Tassel manor:

Then, he thought, how soon he'd turn his back upon the old schoolhouse; snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade! (p. 503)

But Irving wishes to soften the effect of this betrayal by shifting the burden in large part from Ichabod to his society. The reader is to respond to Ichabod rather as an André than an Arnold: not entirely guiltless, but largely the victim of circumstance. Yet the veiled threat remains. Irving recalls, by his allusion to Arnold, a famous episode in which the nation's neglect and ingratitude was repaid by treason. Be niggardly with your patronage, he warns the Hans Van Rippers, and your artists will desert to the enemy camp.

At the very spot where Major André was captured, Ichabod is accosted by the Headless Horseman. The schoolmaster is an unskillful rider; he attempts an evasive maneuver, but to no avail. With a fizzle and a sputter, Gunpowder ignites from the spark of his rider's fear, and off they fly, with the apparition in hot pursuit. As they near the safety of the bridge, the goblin rider rises in his stirrups and hurls his head at Ichabod, tumbling him into the dust.

What is the meaning of this parable? Ichabod is overwhelmed by the new materialism, but at an awesome price to society. For in order to conquer, the Hessian must throw away his head. The next morning a shattered pumpkin is found in the vicinity of the bridge. The organ of intellect and imagination has become an edible. The forces of thought have yielded to the forces of digestion.

Defeated by the spirit of the age, Ichabod reconstructs his life along more worldly lines. As rumor has it,

… he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time, had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court. (p. 518)

It is hardly necessary to recall the unfortunate Irving's legal career to sense the diminution of spirit which the author intends. “The Ten Pound Court” unmistakably conveys the pettiness and triviality of Ichabod's new occupation. The community suffers a loss, the nature of which is defined by Ichabod's curious estate. A book of psalm tunes, a broken pitch pipe, Cotton Mather's History of Witchcraft, a book of dreams and fortune-telling, and an abortive attempt at verse in honor of Katrina: these crude tokens of the imaginative life are left behind as the schoolmaster vanishes from Sleepy Hollow.

The postscript is an ironic defense of the literary imagination. The time is “the present,” and it is clear that the descendants of Brom Bones are in the saddle. Folklore and legend, ghost stories and old wives' tales, have been superseded by an age of reason and common sense. Fiction itself has become suspect. Writing in a hostile climate, Irving supplies his fictional world with the trappings of historical research and objectivity. Hence the “Postscript, Found in the Handwriting of Mr. Knickerbocker.”

This postscript recapitulates the theme; the dramatic situation alone has changed. The scene is “a Corporation meeting of the ancient city of Manhattoes, at which were present many of its sagest and most illustrious burghers.” The role of Ichabod-Irving is played by a shabby narrator with a sadly humorous face, who is an entertaining storyteller, but is “strongly suspected of being poor.” He has just told a tale called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The role of Brom-Hessian is assumed by the sleepy aldermen who comprise his audience, and in particular by a literal-minded burgher who inquires as to the moral of the story, and what it goes to prove?

The narrator avoids a direct reply. The meaning of the story, Irving intimates, will not yield to purely logical methods. The art of fiction has nothing to do with “the ratiocination of the syllogism.” The reader's imagination must supply the moral:

The story-teller, who was just putting a glass of wine to his lips, as a refreshment after his toils, paused for a moment, looked at his inquirer with an air of infinite deference, and, lowering the glass slowly to the table, observed, that the story was intended most logically to prove:—

That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures—provided we will but take a joke as we find it:

That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.

Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress, is a certain step to high preferment in the state. (pp. 520-21)

Principal Works

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The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1819-20

Bracebridge Hall; or, the Humorists: A Medley [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1822

Tales of a Traveller [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1824

The Alhambra [as Geoffrey Crayon] 1832

The Crayon Miscellany [as Geoffrey Crayon 1835

Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others [With William Irving and James Kirke Paulding] (satirical essays) 1807-08

A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [as Diedrich Knickerbocker] (historical parody) 1809

A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (biography) 1828

A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (history) 1829

A Tour on the Prairies (travel sketches) 1835

The Works of Washington Irving. 15 Vols. [author's revised edition] (essays, short stories, sketches, history, and biography) 1848-51

Oliver Goldsmith (biography) 1849

The Life of George Washington (biography) 1855-59

Critical Evaluation

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Washington Irving, the first professional writer in the United States, was by inclination an amused observer of people and customs. By birth, he was in a position to be that observer; the son of a New York merchant in good financial standing, he was the youngest of eleven children, several of whom helped Irving take prolonged trips to Europe for his health and fancy. He was responsible for the evolution and popularity of two genres in American literature: the regional, legendary tale and the historical novel. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” belongs to the first genre. The two best-known of Irving’s stories are “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which appeared originally in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–1820), a collection of tales and familiar essays. Both stories were adapted by Irving from German folklore to a lower New York State setting and peopled with Dutch American farmers.

On one level, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” reveals Irving’s love for and use of folklore. As he had in “Rip Van Winkle,” Irving employed the fictional folklorist Diedrich Knickerbocker as an external narrator looking back on old tales. Ichabod Crane is an outsider, a Yankee schoolmaster among the canny Dutch farmers. As such, Crane becomes the butt of local humor and the natural victim for Brom Bones’s practical jokes. Most of the humorous sallies of the Sleepy Hollow boys are in the vein of good-natured ribbing, but Brom’s practical jokes are somewhat more serious because of the rather unequal rivalry between Brom and Ichabod for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

Several dichotomies are established in the story between Ichabod and the local men. On the one hand, Ichabod is of Connecticut stock, a New Englander, and an educated man, in contrast with the locally bred Sleepy Hollow men. He scorns the rougher male pursuits of the local men of Dutch heritage and instead spends his time working his way into the hearts of the women. He is a representative of the larger America that lurks outside the confines of Sleepy Hollow, a walking figure of the need of the growing United States to acquire and assimilate every element of the continent in its reach for Manifest Destiny. As is often the case in folklore, the local parties are validated and the interloper is vanquished.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” operates on more than one level, however. As in “Rip Van Winkle,” the primary tone in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is irony. “Rip Van Winkle” may be a story about a man who drinks from a flagon and sleeps for twenty years in the mountains, but it may also be a story about a man fleeing an insulting wife and shirking his responsibilities as a husband and father. Similarly, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be a story about an enterprising young man who is vanquished by a spectral figure on a dark autumn night. However, to a careful reader, the story is more than that. Throughout the text, almost all of the observations made by the narrator about Crane and his encounters with Katrina Van Tassel, Brom Bones, and the purported horseman are ironic and tongue-in-cheek.

Although Crane presumably tries not to hurt his weaker students, he has no compunction about doubling the punishment to others, in defiance of pedagogical objectivity. Ichabod fancies himself an amazing vocal talent, yet the text makes it clear that his singing is horrible, just as his dancing is such a sight that the servants gather to ogle him. Although he tries to make himself useful to farmers, it is always the ones with full larders and pretty daughters who receive his aid. His love of superstition may also reveal the kind of schoolmaster he is; this observation is particularly borne out by his admiration for the Puritan writer Cotton Mather, whose 1693 book The Wonders of the Invisible World served as an apology for the abuses of the Salem witch trials of 1692.

Ichabod is a ravenous eater in the story. His appetite is both literal and figurative. Beyond his physical need to consume, his hunger demonstrates avariciousness and greed. Even his interest in Katrina has very little to do with any kind of romantic attraction to her and much more to do with her father’s possessions and—more to the point—the food her father can provide. His feelings for Katrina are especially piqued after he has seen her father’s great wealth; indeed, the story makes very clear that the extent of Crane’s amorous feelings for Katrina extend only so far as her father’s wealth. He seems to regard her as a food to be consumed, considering her a tempting “morsel,” “plump as a partridge,” and “ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” This conflation of food with sexual and romantic imagery continues when Ichabod attends a feast at the Van Tassel household and observes pigeons “snugly put to bed” and “ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples.”

When considering his courtship of her, Ichabod’s thoughts are not of Katrina or what her feelings for him might be; rather, he considers her father’s lands and plans how he might dispose of them and use the cash gained from the sale. What is more, Katrina is overtly more interested in Brom Bones than in Crane. Although the narrator refers to her as a coquette, the text never once indicates that she gives Crane reasons to suspect she might entertain romantic notions toward him. When he seeks to ply his troth, she rejects him soundly enough that he leaves more like a man skulking after having raided a hen-roost than like a triumphant knight. The supernatural elements of the story are further questioned when a traveling farmer finds out that Crane has left Sleepy Hollow, studied for the bar, and become a politician and justice.

On a figurative level, Crane’s gluttony and greed may again reference the growth of American Manifest Destiny; old folkways and beliefs must fall beneath the encroaching new American way of life. Crane’s defeat and subsequent flight from Sleepy Hollow are, in a sense, a victory for the old Dutch American world. Katrina has married another Dutch man, who settles down with her without leaving the valley and without disrupting the farm or the ancient way of life of the old Dutch denizens of New York.

Martin Roth (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “Post Mortem Effects,” in Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving, Kennikat Press, 1976, pp. 155-69.

[In the following excerpt, Roth examines the conflict between “the active and the imaginative life” in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is Irving's last attempt to preserve a festive America. Like The History and “Rip Van Winkle,” it is a tale of a Yankee invasion, but in it the Yankee is temporarily defeated, and his defeat is due primarily to the Yankee-American inability to assign any value to the world of dreams and imaginings. There is a hint of this theme toward the end of “Rip Van Winkle”: the villagers who doubt the reality of Rip's tale and insist “that Rip had been out of his head, and that this was one point on which he always remained flighty” (Washington Irving: Representative Selections, 1934; Hereafter RS, 95) are the new Yankees who have conquered the sleepy community of Hudson, New York, and converted it into a secular logocracy. They can only identify imaginative vision as madness (which, in a positive sense, it is).

The identification of the American Cockaigne as the proper field for imaginative activity had been implicit in The History and “Rip Van Winkle,” but in this tale it is manifest:

A drowsy, dreamy atmosphere seems to hang over the land and to pervade the very atmosphere … the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air (RS, 143).

Like almost all of the major American writers of the nineteenth century, Irving was concerned with the question of whether the creative imagination could take root in a country of such thin traditional soil; a country, moreover, which had been devoted by Adams and Jefferson to the practical arts alone. They had reasoned that the level of economic luxury necessary to foster a class of fine artists was incompatible with the nature of a democracy. But Irving did provide a formula for art in America. And while it may be difficult to take seriously the conception of an American culture growing out of Lubberland, the location of art (especially a comic art) within the context of creatural comfort, ceremony, festivity, and play does have validity.

On the other hand, Irving's aesthetic vocabulary—the passive and self-indulgent concept of the imagination suggested by words like reverie and dream, and the folk or fairy-tale vocabulary of spells, bewitching, and entrancement (which would be taken over by Hawthorne)—introduces yet again that note of ambivalence which is always found when Irving touches this subject.1 In other essays in The Sketch Book, particularly “Westminster Abbey,” Irving's doubts take the form of a fiction in which the imagination is unable to function at all. And in the later “Stout Gentleman” (the inner fusion of sense data and associations), it is not merely ineffectual, it is also morally reprehensible, resented by the stout gentleman, who, at the end of the tale, rebukes the artist by thumbing his ass at him without ever giving him a sight of his face:

This was the only chance I would have of knowing him. I … scrambled to the window … and just caught a glimpse of the rear of a person getting in at the coach-door. The skirts of a brown coat parted behind gave me a full view of the broad disk of a pair of drab breeches. … and that was all I ever saw of the stout gentleman!

At any rate, Sleepy Hollow is a dreamer's paradise, and the narrator sees it as “a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life” (RS, 142-43).

The Yankee of The History and “Rip Van Winkle” had consisted of a body of generic traits associated with a name; in “Sleepy Hollow,” it is a single individual, Ichabod Crane, a “native from Connecticut.” Crane has many of the qualities of Irving's earlier Yankees, and it will be useful to draw attention to these similarities, since criticism of the tale has raised questions about Irving's attitude toward Crane.

The first thing we are told of Ichabod is that he “sojourned, or, as he expressed it, ‘tarried,’ in Sleepy Hollow” (RS, 144), and the first thing that we are told of the earlier Yankee type is that he “is in a constant state of migration; tarrying occasionally here and there” (A History of New York; 1809; Hereafter HNY, 161). While Crane believes that he might one day possess Katrina Van Tassel's fortune, he dreams of investing the money “in immense tracts of wild land and shingle palaces in the wilderness”:

Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where (RS, 152).

This is precisely the life story of the earlier Yankee: “His whole family, household furniture and farming utensils are hoisted into a covered cart … which done he … trudges off to the woods. … A huge palace of pine boards immediately springs up in the midst of the wilderness … ”

… He soon grows tired of a spot, where there is no longer any room for improvement—sells his farm, air castle, petticoat windows and all, reloads his cart, shoulders his axe, puts himself at the head of his family, and wanders away in search of new lands—again to fell trees—again to clear corn-fields—again to build a shingle palace, and again to sell off, and wander (HNY, 163).2

In The History there is even a specific anticipation of Ichabod Crane in the “long sided Connecticut schoolmaster” who kidnapped and severely flogged Knickerbocker's grandfather when he was a boy (HNY, 263).

It has been argued by several critics that Sleepy Hollow dramatizes the conflict between the active and the imaginative life, and that Ichabod, despite the ridiculous figure he is made to cut, is a Quixotic projection of the artist—deliberately ridiculous as an emblem of the slightly comic position of the artist in America.3 If, after fifteen years of trying, Irving finally managed to paint his enemy in rich colors, this can hardly be taken as evidence of an awakened sympathy for the type. For Ichabod Crane is definitely the enemy. Crane is not only a Yankee of Franklin's stamp, he also possesses many of the qualities of his earlier Puritan ancestors. Both attitudes involve a manipulation of nature, one for the purpose of accumulating material wealth and the other for the purpose of arousing piety through terror.

Irving's comic feud with schoolmasters and natives of Connecticut can be seen as early as The Corrector, and it was sustained throughout his subsequent works. The treatment of neither in “Sleepy Hollow” suggests any grounds for sympathy. Ichabod also corresponds to several other negative types in Irving's work. He is, for example, the sophisticated foreigner who debauches the tastes of the simple country girls (RS, 147), the homegrown equivalent of the French émigré in Salmagundi.

Ichabod Crane simply cannot be identified with the artistic imagination; there is too much sound evidence against this association. We are told “in fact” that Ichabod was “an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity” (RS, 148); these qualities are not imaginative, but they do relate directly to the Yankee-Puritan coupling referred to above.

Three times in the tale, Ichabod is seen engaged in “artistic” pursuits: he would amuse the maidens on Sunday by “reciting … all the epitaphs on the tombstones” (RS, 147), and a sheet of paper is found, “scribbled and blotted in several fruitless attempts to make a copy of verses in honor of the heiress of Van Tassel” (RS, 171). The third instance plays with the terms of creativity:

As the enraptured Ichabod fancied all this, and as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow-lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat and Indian corn, and the orchards burthened with ruddy fruit … his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested (RS, 151-52; italics mine).

Ichabod Crane is a petty capitalist and speculator.

Arguments linking Crane and the imagination generally hinge on his capacity for swallowing tales of the marvelous. Old Dutch wives tell him “marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman, or galloping Hessian of the Hollow.”

He would delight them equally by his anecdotes of witchcraft, and of the direful omens and portentous sights and sounds in the air, which prevailed in the earlier times of Connecticut; and would frighten them wofully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round (RS, 149).

Ichabod's voracious appetite for the supernatural is both “gross” and “monstrous.” It is associated with his insatiable physical hunger which, as we shall see, is essentially sterile, an absorption which does not nourish.

There is a sense in which Crane does “create,” however; he works at night, transforming nature into a place of terror:

What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path. … How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! … and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token (RS, 149, 148).

This is comparable to the world of Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown”; Crane is not imagining; he is projecting the terror of his isolation (the spiritual isolation of the mobile and manipulative Yankee) upon the neutral darkness of nature. By transforming nature into a place of terror he expresses his fear of the natural and his own body, just as the transformation of the abundance of the Van Tassel farm into the neutral sterility of money expresses a similar fear. And the images that are evoked by his “excited imagination” terrify him in turn: “His only resource on such occasions, either to drown thought, or drive away evil spirits, was to sing psalm tunes” (RS, 148). True creativity in “Sleepy Hollow” is represented by the Van Tassel farm and by Brom Bones.

Brom Bones, Ichabod's opponent, is Irving's final version of the traditional buck of The Spectator. He is a sympathetic character: “with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good-humor at bottom” (RS, 154). Although Ichabod Crane is not an artist, a case could be made for Bones—an artist, moreover, whose productions suggest Irving's own. After all, Brom Bones creates the legend of Sleepy Hollow out of the rumors of the community; its plot is the defeat of a Yankee, and its form is a hoax. Bones is a parodist—he “had a scoundrel dog whom he taught to whine in the most ludicrous manner, and introduced as a rival of Ichabod's … in psalmody”—and a burlesque artist—he “broke into the school-house at night … and turned everything topsy-turvy” (RS, 156).

Although the conflict at the center of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is comparable to that of The History, Irving uses the symbolism of the earlier work in a contrapuntal way to express the conflict. It is Ichabod who is given the classical vision of Cockaigne—“ … he pictured to himself every roasting pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth” (RS, 151)—but it is here contrasted unfavorably with the natural abundance of Sleepy Hollow and becomes simply a sign of Ichabod's avarice. Ichabod, like Pantagruel, is a huge gullet; not only does he eat enormous quantities of food, but he eats superstition as well, with a “capacious swallow” (RS, 148). He is a “huge feeder” (RS, 146), and Katrina Van Tassel is “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father's peaches” (RS, 150). But although he eats voraciously, he remains as lean and skeletal as ever. The eating of Crane is likened to the devastations of a plague: he is compared to the grasshopper (RS, 158); and “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” (RS, 145).

Ichabod Crane is literally defeated and expelled from Paradise as a result of a prank played on him by Brom Bones. The essential cause of his defeat, however, is his fear of the powers of the imagination, his fear of art—common to both the Puritan and the Yankee. This is reinforced in the contrast between his aversion and Brom Bones's easy entrance into the very legend that sends Crane flying:

[Brom Bones] made light of the galloping Hessian. … He affirmed that, on returning one night from the neighbouring village of Sing Sing, he had been overtaken by this midnight trooper; that he had offered to race with him for a bowl of punch, and should have won it too, for Daredevil beat the goblin horse all hollow (RS, 164-65).

The defeat of Ichabod Crane is the most glorious moment of Irving's career, artistically and, perhaps, psychologically as well; for it fuses into one image the various meanings that made up Irving's American period. Within the context of The History, Ichabod is defeated by his own conquest: the pumpkin was the Yankee emblem in that work, and it signaled the Yankee conquest of Fort Goed Hoop, where it “was hoisted on the end of a pole, as a standard—liberty caps not having as yet come into fashion” (HNY, 193).

Ichabod Crane is also defeated by his historical conquest. Irving has finally succeeded in undoing for a moment the American revolution by identifying the Dutch protagonist of his tale with the two historical enemies of Yankee America, the Hessians and the British in the person of Major André.4 In the third place, the Yankee is defeated by that value to which he had devoted his existence, and that is mind to the exclusion of body. The Horseman throws his head at Ichabod as if to say that he does not much need it, that he is quite comfortable in his subsequent untroubled state. Finally, Ichabod is defeated by American art, Dutch art; for the legend is a creation of the Dutch community generally and Brom Bones particularly.

Ichabod Crane, however, is not defeated for long. The qualities that keep him thin in Sleepy Hollow allow him to grow and prosper in the outside world of American history, where his path is that of the democratic toadeater as defined in The Corrector and Salmagundi: after his dismissal by Katrina he had “studied law … been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally … been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court” (RS, 172). The qualities represented by Ichabod Crane must overwhelm Sleepy Hollow as they did Hudson. This has already happened at the time the story is told: the tale is set “in a remote period of American history, that is to say some thirty years since … ” (RS, 144). In the story itself, the abundance, which had been growing throughout Irving's early work, is an autumnal feast; it is a farewell banquet (RS, 158-59).

Like “Rip Van Winkle,” “Sleepy Hollow” is provided with a framework which seems to produce the tensions that we associate with the literary hoax. The tale is related at a meeting of the New York Corporation. And when doubts are raised as to the historical veracity of the tale, the story-teller ends the postscript by admitting, “Faith, sir … as to that matter, I don't believe one-half of it myself.”

The story-teller is a “pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow, in pepper-and-salt clothes, with a sadly humorous face,” and Knickerbocker strongly suspects him of being poor. His identity as a defeated Dutchman is conveyed by a device that Irving had used in “Rip Van Winkle”: the tale is approved and laughed at only by two or three deputy aldermen who are clearly Dutch, since they “had been asleep the greater part of the time.”

The postscript is a reprise of the conflict between Dutch and Yankee, and this time overtly on the level of the imagination, since it is the value of the tale itself that is in contention. The story-teller's opponent is the artist's traditional foe, the Shandean man of gravity: a “tall, dry-looking old gentleman, with beetling eyebrows … [and] a grave and rather severe face.” I suspect that Irving meant us to entertain the possibility that he is Ichabod Crane. At any rate he demands to know “what was the moral of the story, and what it went to prove.” In one sense, he is withholding both laughter and approval until he can be convinced that the tale is either socially useful or true. In a deeper sense he is asking what the world of Dutch abundance (and Irving's literary efforts) mean to an America of politics and business.

The major proportions of the postscript are the reverse of the tale. Here, the Yankee and his values are triumphant; the shabby Dutchman in that world can only recreate the past as an idle diversion and one whose meaning is not comprehended. And yet within the postscript the Yankee is defeated once again, for the Dutchman responds to his questioner with a triumphant leer and overwhelms him with a weapon which has a comfortable place in the work of at least one writer of burlesque comedy—a nonsense syllogism.

How shall we finally read the final line—“Faith, sir … as to that matter, I don't believe one-half of it myself” (RS, 385)? It would be tempting to hear Irving defending his Dutch American vision as American imagining, made up in defiance of American fact but still meaningful, still valuable. It is more likely, however, that in this statement Irving is gently bidding farewell to his career as an American writer and a writer of burlesque comedy.


  1. The tag to this tale associates American dreaming with the activity of the inhabitants of James Thomson's “Castle of Indolence.”

  2. By not having The History in mind, Hedges reads the passage from “Sleepy Hollow” as the expression of Crane's desire for a home of his own (Washington Irving, p. 142). On the contrary, it expresses the Yankee's “rambling propensity.”

  3. Hedges, Washington Irving, pp. 141-42. Because Robert A. Bone interprets Crane as a serious “symbol of man's higher aspirations”—“Irving's Headless Hessian,” American Quarterly, XV (Summer, 1963), 167-75—he is forced to see Brom Bones, who frolics through the tale, as “the embodiment … of mercenary values which threaten to engulf the imagination.”

  4. The choice of the Hessian may have been an unfortunate one on Irving's part, if it reminds us of Paine's ravishers in Common Sense, although Franklin took a more sympathetic view toward these mercenaries. The choice of André strikes deeper chords of ambivalence. It must be significant that our first important Revolutionary drama, William Dunlap's André, should celebrate the death of a noble and virtuous, and innocent, British spy.

Further Reading

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May, Charles E. “Metaphoric Motivation in Short Fiction: ‘In the Beginning Was the Story.’” In Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, edited by Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey, pp. 62-73. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Examines “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as part of an assessment of the early development of the short story in American literature.

Piacentino, Ed. “‘Sleepy Hollow’ Comes South: Washington Irving's Influence on Old Southwestern Humor.” The Southern Literary Journal XXX, No. 1 (Fall 1997): 27-42.

Considers the impact of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on subsequent works of nineteenth-century southern frontier humor.

Pryse, Marjorie. “Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet.” In Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, pp. 17-37. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

Considers Irving's construction of the American storyteller and American literary hero as male in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within a discussion of women regionalist writers.

Stone, Edward. “William Faulkner.” In A Certain Morbidness: A View of American Literature, pp. 85-120. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

Traces the influence of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on William Faulkner's fiction, particularly The Hamlet.

Additional coverage of Irving's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640–1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 11, 30, 59, 73, 74, 186; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 19; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

Albert J. von Frank (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Man that Corrupted Sleepy Hollow,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 129-43.

[In the following essay, Frank describes Ichabod Crane as a morally destructive force that enters Sleepy Hollow.]

Washington Irving's reputation as a genial writer—as, indeed, America's most genial writer—has been firmly established for a century and a half, despite general agreement that his most enduring works are satires. Knickerbocker's History maintains its good humor largely by making its narrator appear foolish, but it is harder to say what keeps “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from seemingly overtly caustic, since in the portrait of Ichabod Crane Irving comes rather closer than in the History to adopting the controlling assumption of Augustan satire that the ridiculous and the evil are one. If Irving's genial reputation largely obscures the evil that Ichabod represents, it must also obscure the mythical structure of the story and, consequently, its formal relationship to such later works as “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and a score of others. That Ichabod is evil needs all the more to be said since several modern readings of the story have made impressive moral claims on his behalf, or, alternatively, have transformed him into a pathetic hero, a figure more sinned against than sinning. One urges that he be taken “seriously as a symbol of man's higher aspirations,” while another proclaims that “what he wants is simply a home, like anyone else.”1 Even those who regard Ichabod as a threat to the Dutch community differ significantly in assessing the nature and seriousness of the problem he presents.2

As Donald Ringe pointed out in 1967, the story is a work of regional satire, pitting Dutch New York against the restless spirit of New England; it is a story that “pleads in effect for the values of the settler and conserver over those of the speculator and improver.”3 Irving's satire, however, works most significantly not at the sociological or political level, but—as all permanently valuable satire does—at the level of the underlying moral issues. The success of the satirical method in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” lies in Irving's ability to see the familiar Yankee character as only superficially comic while at the same time discretely ventilating the deeper moral disease of which that comedy is the not quite independently conceived mask. The complexity of tone arising from such a polarized treatment may be traced more specifically to the two uses that Irving makes of the setting. The world of the New York Dutch is something more and other than an ethnic region realistically sketched; it is, indeed, a mythically conceived community, unfallen and changeless, a place of perfect ripeness. Irving establishes the setting in precisely this light and locates Ichabod's mock-heroic chivalry in the most incongruous of all possible contexts, while at the same time raising that portentous central issue of American literature, the moral spoliation of the New World garden. Inasmuch as both the serious and the comic themes converge on the setting, Irving has made the recovery of its meaning a precondition for any interpretation.

The setting is not a frontier. Although Daniel Hoffman has persuasively argued that the portrait of Brom Bones owes a great deal to the type of the “ring-tailed roarer,”4 it is not a point with which one can do much more than Hoffman himself has done. Irving indicates that Sleepy Hollow is in most ways the precise reverse of a frontier. Not only has it long been a settled region (a rural one, to be sure), but it is also emphatically a European community with European values. Those forces which on the frontier operate to break down imported cultures—like the rest of the “incessant changes” that Irving abhors—are outside, beyond the “high hills,” and simply do not function in “such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great state of New York,” where “population, manners, and customs, remain fixed.”5 The true American frontier figures but once in the story and then only by way of the sharpest contrast with the Hudson Valley setting: knowing no more than Milton's Satan “to value right / The good before him,” Ichabod proposes to exchange the “middle landscape” of the Van Tassel patrimony for a tract of wild land in “Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where” (p. 280).

If the setting is not part of the frontier, it is a version of the American pastoral as Leo Marx has defined it,6 though ironically the distinction of Irving's version is that his innocent shepherds are all Europeans. They figure in this magic landscape as the stewards of their own abundant fruitfulness, which fertility takes on a sacramental character in the description of Baltus Van Tassel's farm, where architecture and institutions melt imperceptibly into the activity of farming, and that into a humanized version of the natural order, all under the benediction of an approving sun:

Hard by the farm house was a vast barn, that might have served for a church; every window and crevice of which seemed bursting forth with the treasures of the farm; the flail was busily resounding within it from morning to night; swallows and martins skimmed twittering about the eaves, and rows of pigeons, some with one eye turned up, as if watching the weather, some with their heads under their wings, or buried in their bosoms, and others swelling, and cooing, and bowing about their dames, were enjoying the sunshine on the roof (p. 279).

This sequestered community is more than home to a company of Dutch farmers; in its sheltered resistance to change, its ungrudging fruitfulness, its feminine character, and, ultimately, its vulnerability, it is the fully elaborated symbol of home as a romantic moral concept.

Like other ideal settings, the larger Dutch community, Sleepy Hollow, and the Van Tassel farm are enclosed gardens, here concentrically framed, inviting, seductive, and as dangerous to itinerants as the island of the Sirens or the land of the Lotus-Eaters. The societies sheltered by these nested gardens are themselves closed and static (again, unlike the frontier), yet magically productive. Following pastoral convention, Irving describes the land in eminently hospitable feminine imagery, indicating in the first sentence that “in the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson” lies the community named Tarry Town by the women of the region (p. 272). Two miles away is the smaller village of Sleepy Hollow, likened to a “mimic harbour, undisturbed by the passing current,” where one might find even yet “the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom” (p. 274). In the description of the Van Tassel farm these gender-specific topological features recur: it “was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks, in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling” (p. 279). Each specific location is a repetition of the others; each involves the feminine principle, repose, and water, so the “small brook” that glides through Sleepy Hollow “with just murmur enough to lull one to repose” is made to well up on Van Tassel's quiet Xanadu as “a spring of the softest water” that bubbled along “among alders and dwarf willows” (p. 279).

Whatever significance may finally attach to the dandy-and-squatter form of Ichabod's conflict with Brom Bones, the moral satire surely depends on seeing Sleepy Hollow less as the frontier setting of a memorable joke than as Irving's romantic notion of any man's true home. The tone of the story is at all points favorable to the settled and home-loving Dutch; it supports their sense of tradition, their security, their relation to the land, their repose and plenitude, and, most of all, their imagination, while the interloper, Ichabod, is point for point the destructive antithesis of all these traits.7

Since the issue of the imagination has appeared to some to support a sympathetic view of Ichabod Crane, and since Irving himself indicates that Sleepy Hollow is an active abettor of the imagination, it is important to see how Irving discriminates between Ichabod and the Dutch on this point. “It is remarkable,” writes Irving, “that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions” (p. 273). As an Arcadian environment, Sleepy Hollow is necessarily a source of inspiration, and yet those who dream under its influence do so according to their personalities and capacities. The genuinely inspired acts of imagination all belong to the Dutch: to Brom Bones most conspicuously, the Pan by whom Ichabod is panicked, and a poet not of words, certainly, but of virtuous action; to Yost Van Houten, the inspired architect of the schoolhouse locking system, modelled on “the mystery of the eelpot,” whereby, “though a thief might get in with perfect ease, he would find some embarrassment in getting out” (p. 274); or to Baltus Van Tassel, who monitors Ichabod's quixotic courtship of his daughter by recognizing and observing its appropriate symbol, that is, by “watching the achievements of a little wooden warrior, who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn” (p. 282). Ichabod's imagination is a truly sorry thing in contrast, compounded, at worst, of Cotton Mather and simple credulity, and never, at its best, escaping the small shrewdness of his New England heritage. In his vision of the Van Tassel farm all its teeming life lies dead, served up as food for him alone, so that Irving's early description of Ichabod as “the genius of famine” (p. 274) comes finally to have a profounder point of reference than his gaunt and awkward appearance. He can easily imagine sacrificing all life to his own; the business of the story, however, is to force him to imagine his own death and ultimately to make that imagination feed and sustain the life of the community.

Nowhere is the difference between the Dutch imagination and Ichabod's more evident than in their respective superstitions. As the allusions to Cotton Mather suggest, Ichabod's superstitiousness is the vestige of a decadent Puritanism from which God and glory have departed equally. The schoolmaster is thus left with a system of infernal providences in which all of nature is supposed to have the power—even the purpose—of doing harm to Ichabod Crane.8 Never wholly secure, he is especially skittish after dark when “every sound of nature … fluttered his excited imagination: the moan of the whip-poor-will from the hill side; the boding cry of the tree toad, that harbinger of storm; … or the sudden rustling in the thicket, of birds frightened from their roost” (p. 277). Ichabod is so radically disjoined from his environment that he and the natural world are fated enemies: nature frightens him, but, by the same token, he can and does frighten it. Put another way, the presence of death that he senses in nature, nature senses in him.

This development of the protagonist's character reveals an important aspect of Irving's method, because the frightening of the birds recalls the introduction of Ichabod as in appearance like a “scarecrow eloped from a cornfield” (p. 274) in a way that decisively alters its original comic application, just as the imagined devastation of the farm's teeming life recalled and deepened the earlier reference to Ichabod as the “genius of famine.” The thematic aptness of Irving's humor becomes increasingly apparent as this kind of transformation is several times repeated: the comic details are simply funny when first seen undeveloped or apart from a larger social or moral context (which is to say, from Ichabod's perspective); but when Irving then replants them in a more coherent universe (when he provides them, in effect, some of the morally settled quality of the Dutch perspective), the regional comedy darkens into moral satire.

It is, of course, the basic coherence of the Dutch imagination that prevents their very pronounced superstitiousness from having anything monstrous about it. They are on the best of terms with their ghosts, who are, like themselves and unlike Ichabod, intimately attached to life and the local scene. The Dutch women tell of “haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges and haunted houses” (p. 277); the men tell of “funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andrew as taken” or “of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock” (p. 289). These manifestations are, in the way of folk mythology, so localized, so much a part of familiar nature, that to apply the term “supernatural” to them seems almost inappropriate. They tell of unexpected life in the landscape, not of death or threats of death. The Dutch, moreover, tell these tales artistically, neither as first-hand accounts nor as “extracts” from books, as Ichabod does, but as still living legends. The sole exception is Brom Bones' account of his match with the Headless Horseman, a tale combining a youthful irreverence for the mythology of his elders with a point that not even the supernatural is to be dreaded. Generically, the Dutch tales are poles apart from Ichabod's monstrous and unfriendly indication to his female hosts of the “fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!” (p. 277).

These unsettled and unsettling traits in Ichabod are manifestly related to, and yet go deeper than, the New England character that on one level is the object of Irving's regional satire. Not content merely to display and ridicule the social behavior of the type, Irving probes the character of his Yankee to give the most basic kinds of moral explanations for the comic inappropriateness of his outward actions. The nature of these explanations is determined by the structure of the story, which involves the penetration of an outsider into the very heart of an earthly paradise. Seen in this light, Ichabod's unsettling traits seem less significantly those of an awkwardly displaced regional character or even of a sinful individual than, at last, those of sin itself. Indeed, the characterizing details of the story seem clustered around the seven deadly sins, even though it is not certain that Irving consciously meant it to appear so.

Ichabod's envy is indicated in one way by his “large green glassy eyes” which are mentioned first as a part of a ludicrous physical description and then again with the moral implications more fully in evidence (pp. 274, 279-80). His envy is indicated in another way, of course, in his whole attitude toward the domain of Van Tassel:

As the enraptured Ichabod … rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchard burthened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and single palaces in the wilderness” (pp. 279-80).

This is not envy in the simple sense of wanting to own what others own but accords rather with the classic conception of the sin of envy in which, perversely, one seeks the annihilation of the object. The type of this sin is Satan's envy of the kingdom of God: he cannot hope to share in it, and so commits himself to its destruction. While it might be argued that merely selling the land would not destroy it, surely the point about these Dutch farms is that they never have been sold, never have had a “market value” or been held by strangers, and that what they represent would be forever lost if any of these conditions were to come to pass. Insidious as this threat is, however, it does not involve a passion that the Dutch, as the owners of the land, can directly be tainted with. In this sense, it is rather more disturbing that Ichabod has introduced envy in an altogether different way to people who seem never to have felt it before. While the schoolmaster escorts the village damsels about the churchyard on Sundays, “the more bashful country bumpkins hung sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address” (p. 276).

Ichabod's avarice is the concomitant of his envy and has already been suggested in the way his imagination is so casually dominated by the cash nexus. His plans for the Van Tassel-Crane estate show that he is interested not in the good life but in the immoderately wealthy life, which, for Ichabod, is the fiscal equivalent of never settling down. His “immense tracts” of frontier are for speculation, not for living on or farming, and reflect a characteristic desire that his wealth should come without labor.

Sloth ought to be a sin difficult to attain in this paradise, and yet Ichabod aspires even here. Aside from being a “flogger of urchins,” he earns his bread not so much by the sweat of his brow as by assisting the Dutch “occasionally in the lighter labours of their farms” (p. 275). These labors comprise the sort of tasks then commonly assigned to women and children and include taking the horses to water and making hay. Even these he manages largely to avoid by becoming “wonderfully gentle and ingratiating” with the women: “He found favour in the eyes of the mothers, by petting the children, particularly the youngest, and like the lion bold, which whilome so magnanimously the lamb did hold, he would sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot, for whole hours together” (pp. 275-76). Ichabod's almost systematic avoidance of productive labor is depicted mainly through his alliance with female society and through his adoption of the least consequential of the activities traditionally associated with women. Thus, for example, he is a major source of gossip in the community and would also “pass long winter evenings with the old Dutch wives, as they sat spinning by the fire, … and listen to their marvellous tales” (p. 277). However, his masculinity is most directly challenged by his being a “man of letters” in a community of farmers, where to work is perforce to have something to show for one's work. The women can appreciate his erudition, “for he had read several books quite through,” though he was “thought, by all who understood nothing of the labour of headwork, to have a wonderfully easy life of it” (p. 276). It is a moral comment on Ichabod that a variety of his traits, including his problematic relationship to the world of work, divides a fundamentally coherent Dutch community along gender lines.

The subject of sloth appears to have been a complex and perhaps even a sensitive one for Irving, who, in the persona of Geoffrey Crayon, maintained a vested interest in the innocence of repose. The epigraph from Thomson's Castle of Indolence, a poem that successively celebrates the pleasures and indicts the decadence of indolence, contributes to the complexity of the issue by seeming to oblige the author to discriminate carefully in moral terms between the sloth he is condemning and the repose to which he is temperamentally and artistically committed. The distinction turns out, once again, to favor the Dutch, who never, throughout the course of the story, are shown at work. In the Van Tassel barn, “the flail was busily resounding … from morning to night,” but workers neither work nor appear. The repose of the Dutch is simply prelapsarian, which means that they have, as the schoolteacher does not, something vital on which they can repose. Ichabod, who is shown working, who puts in his time at the schoolroom and performs his odd job, is nevertheless constantly preoccupied with schemes for rescinding the penalty of original sin in his own personal case, which is a large part of what Yankee ingenuity comes to in Irving's satire.

This fundamental difference parallels and at the same time further explains the qualitative distinction between the Dutch imagination and Ichabod's, the one effortless, natural, and supremely located, the other artificial, self-indulgent, and frenetic. From another point of view, Irving clearly had professional reasons for raising this issue, for if he was less personally concerned than Nathaniel Hawthorne with the public's perception of the value of the writer's vocation, he nevertheless knew that literature and scholarship in America were not always held in high esteem, that, indeed, they were often associated with idleness and self-indulgence.9 By creating in Ichabod a slothful character at whom such charges might be levelled with perfect justice, he shows that they are most appropriately brought against the poseur, the man of self-deluding pretensions to literature, and not against the true writer (or artist) at all. And by creating in his Dutch characters an imagination rooted in innocent, even blessed repose, he affirms the value and explains the virtue of his own art.

If, in Eden, sloth is difficult, gluttony is simply ungrateful. It suggests a certain doubt as to the extent and continuance of divine providence, and, as Irving shows, leads to envy:

[Ichabod] was a kind and thankful creature, whose heart dilated in proportion as his skin was filled with good cheer, and whose spirits rose with eating, as some men's do with drink. He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable splendour (p. 287).

Despite the narrator's gentlemanly imputation of thankfulness, the apparent fact is that Ichabod, having found heaven, aspires to be, not thank, its “lord.” The appetite that prompts him is the sinister elaboration of the early, comic observation that “he was a huge feeder … though lank” (p. 275), while the transition from the physical fact to its spiritual implication has been prepared by Irving's intermediate use of the imagery of gluttony to describe Ichabod's mental processes. He is an intellectual gourmand: “His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary. … No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow” (p. 277). After he is introduced to Katrina, it is, as the narrator says, “not to be wondered at, that so tempting a morsel soon found favour in his eyes” (p. 278), or that “his devouring mind's eye” could transform at a glance all the farm's life to food (p. 279). If Ichabod's imagination is thwarted and traversed by his sloth, it operates ineluctably in service to his belly. Even as he goes for his last interview with Katrina, he is “feeding his mind with many sweet thoughts and sugared suppositions” (p. 286).

There are three moments in the story that shed light on Ichabod's tendency to the sin of anger, and they appear to form, as in the case of his gluttony, a pattern of deepening seriousness. His willingness to flog his students, and particularly the stronger, more threatening children, is consistent with his personal insecurity and impatience with “inferiors.” Beneath the artfully dispassionate surface of his behavior (“this he called ‘doing his duty by their parents’” [p. 275]), the anger is, though visible, well submerged and controlled, so much so that Irving is content merely to hint at it and at the same time to warn his readers against concluding too quickly that Ichabod is “one of those cruel potentates of the school, who joy in the smart of their subjects” (p. 275). That Ichabod takes no “joy” in it is sufficiently easy to believe. The second moment occurs at the Van Tassel farm where Ichabod, flush with food, contemplates the possibility of being “lord of all this scene.” Here the surface parts to reveal how he contends emotionally with the prospect of success: “Then, he thought, how soon he'd turn his back upon the old school house, snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade!” (p. 287). With perfect ironic aptness, his idea of success involves becoming the niggardly patron he despises, but the more important point is that his greatest wrath is reserved for his own alter ego. This mounting sense of anger when he ought to be most satisfied and placid is concisely indicated in the succession of verbs, which points ultimately to the self-hatred at the heart of the sin of anger. In the third and final moment, Ichabod's social controls, along with his great expectations, collapse at the end of the party in his private interview with Katrina. Here the surface parts in a different way: “Without looking to the right or left to notice the scene of rural wealth, on which he had so often gloated, he went straight to the stable, and with several hearty cuffs and kicks, roused his steed most uncourteously from the comfortable quarters in which he was soundly sleeping, dreaming of mountains of corn and oats, and whole valleys of timothy and clover” (p. 291). The horse, sharing Ichabod's physical traits and innermost dreams, is another alter ego, though now the kicking has become actual.

In the sentence describing this outburst of passion, much of the humor centers on the word “uncourteously,” which signals the whole issue of the ill-starred lover's chivalric self-image. The narrator's sarcastic allusion is to the ruins of what had been, from the start, the preposterous vehicle of Ichabod's conscious pride: his assumption that he was a bit too good for a community of bumpkins. In point of pride, he is the opposite of Baltus Van Tassel, who is “satisfied with his wealth, but not proud of it” (p. 279). Unlike the man he seeks to supplant, he is eager to misapply the social leverage of his prospective good fortune by—class-consciously—kicking itinerant pedagogues out of doors.10 But in perhaps the most telling revelation of all, Ichabod's pride appears at odds not with individuals but with sacred and communal values: “It was a matter of no little vanity to him to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson” (p. 276). Appropriately, the profane Ichabod, the supercilious critic of the churchyard epitaphs, is avowedly the parson's self-anointed antagonist.

The treatment of lechery in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is understandably circumspect, and yet it is very close to the effective center of the satire. The fact that Ichabod is a portrait of perverse and misdirected sexuality is arguably the author's final comment on his representative Yankee. Here Irving supplies two general contexts for Ichabod's behavior: one is the fertile feminine land that the schoolmaster threateningly lusts after, and the other is the prevailing sexuality of the Dutch, which is, for the most part, no sexuality at all. These are “general contexts” mainly in the sense that while they are rather inertly present all the while, they take on a heightened significance in conjunction with more particular details. For example, the first of these contexts is quickened when, on several occasions, Irving intimates that nothing is easier for Ichabod than to divert his sexual appetite into an appetite for food. After school he would sometimes follow students home “who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard” (p. 275). The change in the direction of this sentence, as the rest of the story goes to show, suggests a transformation rather than a competition of motives. By constantly pairing women and food in this metonymic way as objects of Ichabod's atention, Irving seems to imply that the gluttony is merely displaced lechery, and not, because food seems always to take precedence, that he is without lust.11

Irving's favorite phallic symbols—on which so much of his early bawdy humor centers—are guns, swords, and noses. In “Rip Van Winkle” there is the “clean well oiled fowling piece” that in twenty years of disuse became rusty and dysfunctional (p. 35); there is, too, among the men of Hendrick Hudson's crew playing at the masculine game of nine-pins, one whose face “seemed to consist entirely of nose, … surmounted by a white sugarloaf hat, set off with a little red cock's tail.” This individual is singled out by the narrator from a group who carried “long knives in their belts” and of whom “most … had enormous breeches.” The commander of this crew is further distinguished by having a “broad belt and hanger” (p. 34).12 In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the “long snipe nose … that … looked like a weathercock” belongs to Ichabod (p. 274), and Irving is even prepared to suggest, more directly than he ordinarily does, that this nose is a kind of reproductive organ: “There are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the mill pond, of a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane” (p. 276). The final image in the story—that of a loitering ploughboy hearing these notes “among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow” (p. 296)—seems in turn to allude to one of the very first images, that of the narrator breaking “the sabbath stillness around” by the startling “roar of [his] own gun” (p. 272), so that the story is framed by mutually defining instances of intrusion in which the virgin stillness of this enchanted feminine ground is symbolically violated by a foreign sexuality.

Another set of three images seems to work in much the same way, though it sheds a rather different light on the theme of Ichabod's lubricity. The transformation of the schoolhouse by the Dutch into an elaborate eelpot implicitly but quite directly casts Ichabod in the role of the eel. As though to underscore this impression, Irving shortly thereafter asserts, in one of the more surprising metaphors of the story, that Ichabod “had the dilating powers of an Anaconda” (p. 275). The effect of Irving's likening his protagonist to an eel becomes fully apparent only later, at the Van Tassels' harvest festival, where “the sons [appeared] in short square coats with rows of stupendous brass buttons, and their hair generally queued in the fashion of the times, especially if they could procure an eel skin for the purpose, it being esteemed throughout the country as a potent nourisher and strengthener of the hair” (p. 286). The schoolhouse, then, is explicitly an eel-trap constructed by a community that values eels as a source of male sexual potency. Apart from this connection, it is difficult to see why either detail should be in the story. Read, thus connected, in the general context of the prevailing Dutch sexuality—that is, in the division of the Dutch characters into menopausal and pre-pubescent groups—it becomes necessary to look upon Ichabod as, in a manner of speaking, the serpentine source of sex in paradise or as the necessarily extrinsic agent, procured by Yost Van Houten in the name of Dutch folk wisdom, to help Brom Bones over the portal of maturity. In this event, Katrina's coquettishness takes its place as a single element in a much larger ritual, one that manages to include the whole community.

The husband-to-be is near to the point of escaping the socially useless boy-culture of “Brom Bones and his gang,” but so long as his “amorous toyings” continue to be “like the caresses and endearments of a bear” (p. 282) he will clearly never pass muster with the blooming Katrina. His rite of passage, as it turns out, involves more than the simple conquest of a rival. It involves him in the first socially useful act of his life, his first act as a member of the whole community. The expulsion of Ichabod simply is the defense of that whole community from moral taint and eventual destruction, while, considered in relation to the marriage that ensues—the marriage that, indeed, it makes possible—it is the rejection or expulsion of “Yankee sexuality,” of the perverse and aggressive lust of one who “in form and spirit [was] like a supple jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away—jerk! he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever” (p. 282). It is to break this, once and for all, that the “Headless Hessian” at long last carries his head high, and, in the event, so frightens the hard-riding Ichabod as nearly to bring off the latter's castration “on the high ridge of his horse's back bone” (p. 294). Irving, though, is mercifully content with the symbolic castration of a blow to the “cranium,” which is, appropriately yet problematically, the real seat of Crane's lechery.13

To read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in this way is to see its formal relation to an important sub-genre of American fiction that Roy Male, in defining it, called “the Mysterious Stranger story.”14 This form is

an inside narrative with an enclosed structure; its plot and characterization consist of the effect of a semi-supernatural and usually ambiguous stranger upon a crowd, a family, or an individual; its theme tends to center around faith and the contagiousness of good, or distrust and the contagiousness of evil and violence. … The trickster-god appears unexpectedly, usually in disguise, tests or transforms a mortal, and disappears.15

In Irving's Mysterious Stranger story all the elements are present, and yet, perhaps because he was more interested in the conflict than in its resolution and sequel, perhaps because he lacked the deeper ironic intelligence—certainly, in any event, because he made his devil too much the fool—Irving evades some central implications of the form, or, more particularly, has no use for the issue of “the contagiousness of evil and violence” that the structure of such a story raises. So far as the community is concerned, Ichabod is simply absorbed into the local mythology as the morally neutralized spectre that haunts the decaying schoolhouse. Death is absorbed into life. In a realm of such enchantment, there is no clear sign that Ichabod will have a lasting subversive effect on Sleepy Hollow or that anything serious will follow from the necessity that he himself created of expelling him by devious and forceful means. And if in the end there is no lurking worm of guilt, no paradise quite lost, yet it is to be remembered that Irving is attacking, not defending, the Puritan possibilities. Were he to insist that the expulsion of Ichabod is reflexively corrupting, it would be tantamount to giving the demonic mythology of New England precedence over the benign mythology of the Dutch. By refusing to give the devil his due, Irving in effect chooses to stress the preserving innocence which the recollection of home, safe from betrayal or violation, inveterately has in the memory.

Still, fictional forms have a force and a meaning of their own, built up of the uses to which they have previously been put by other writers. For this reason at least, Irving cannot quite escape the implication that Ichabod has forever changed Sleepy Hollow. Of the sorts of falls that such an agent as he might induce, consistent with Irving's fondness for his Dutch characters, there is the sort of pillow-soft, post-Miltonic fall of Brom, who, encountering evil without accepting it, passes from innocence to a knowledge of virtuous action and in the process gains his manhood. All that is shown of his life after marriage is that he would “look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related,” and that some were led to “suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell” (p. 296), a sort of deviousness which, harmless enough in appearance, is certainly no longer an Arcadian simplicity.

Another kind of fall is suggested by the whole retrospective, memorial tone of the narration, augmented, perhaps, by a knowledge of the historic fate of these Dutch communities. The story is set in the past, but the wistfully receding perspective in which it is presented is a function mainly of the layered narration, a device which, as Irving handles it, tells its own story of declining prosperity and increasing sophistication. The first narrator is “a pleasant, shabby, gentlemanly old fellow … with a sadly humourous face; and one whom I [Dietrich Knickerbocker, the second narrator] strongly suspected of being poor” (p. 297). He tells his story—orally—in the same spirit in which the supernatural tales are given at the Van Tassel party, neither as “literature” nor as veritable history, claiming in the end not to “believe one half of it myself” (p. 297). Knickerbocker, who writes it all down, has literary aspirations and a sense of wider audiences, though as the History indicates, he is ultimately defeated by poverty. He figures at last as a deadbeat fleeing from a hotel, a wandering solitary man survived only by his papers. With the emergence of Geoffrey Crayon as the executor of this literary estate, the tradition has passed from the Dutch altogether, and the fall seems complete.


  1. Robert A. Bone, “Irving's Headless Hessian: Prosperity and the Inner Life,” AQ, 15 (1963), 171, and William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 142.

  2. In Form and Fable in American Fiction (New York: Norton, 1973), Daniel Hoffman sees Ichabod as the comic Yankee who poses a threat to the Dutch, whose “magic is the power of self-reliance, not of Satan” (p. 88). Donald Ringe, in “New York and New England: Irving's Criticism of American Society,” AL, 38 (1967), 455-67, presents perhaps the harshest view of Ichabod, but his brief treatment of the tale is mainly concerned with “the serious social implications” of Ichabod as a regional type. Martin Roth, in Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1976), pp. 161-68, challenges the views of Bone and Hedges, though I believe he unduly diminishes the character of Ichabod by finding him little more than a “petty capitalist and speculator” (p. 164). Annette Kolodny, in The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975), pp. 68-70, sees Ichabod as the sexually aggressive male antagonist to the maternal pastoral. Specifically, he “threatens to intrude conscious thought and the feeble beginnings of art and learning” (p. 68).

  3. Ringe, p. 463.

  4. Hoffman, p. 89.

  5. Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Haskell Springer (Boston: Twayne, 1978), p. 274. Hereafter page references to this edition will appear in the text.

  6. In Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), passim. Because The Sketch Book predates the intrusion of technology, Marx does not discuss this tale; however, its special relevance to the issues he raises is suggested by the epigraph to Chapter One, “Sleepy Hollow, 1844,” an allusion, ready to hand, in the name of a wooded area in Concord, later a cemetery.

  7. Ichabod Crane's mother was presumably another satirist: see I Samuel 4:21: “And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel.”

  8. There is a strong analogy here to the character and situation of Simon Legree, another superstitious Yankee, another displaced flogger of the defenseless. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, ed. Kenneth S. Lynn (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 411, Stowe remarks that “no one is so thoroughly superstitious as the godless man. The Christian is composed by the belief of a wise, all-ruling Father, whose presence fills the void unknown with light and order; but to the man who has dethroned God, the spirit-land is, indeed, in the words of the Hebrew poet, ‘a land of darkness and the shadow of death,’ without any order, where the light is as darkness. Life and death to him are haunted grounds, filled with goblin forms of vague and shadowy dread.”

  9. A good and instructive example of this prejudice may be found in John L. Blake's Geographical, Chronological, and Historical Atlas (New York: Cooke and Co., 1826), p. 165: “There are none of those splendid establishments in America such as Oxford and Cambridge in which immense salaries maintain the professors of literature in monastic idleness. … The People of this country have not yet inclined to make much literary display—They have rather aimed at works of general utility.”

  10. Possibly Ichabod is smarting under the coincidence that the musician at the ball is yet another alter ego, “an old gray-headed negro, who had been the itinerant orchestra of the neighborhood for more than half a century” (p. 287).

  11. Another instance would be Ichabod's entry at the Van Tassel party: “Fain would I pause to dwell upon the world of charms that burst upon the enraptured gaze of my hero, as he entered the state parlour of Van Tassel's mansion. Not of those of the bevy of buxom lasses, with their luxurious display of red and white: but the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea table, in the sumptuous time of autumn” (p. 287).

  12. On this subject see William P. Dawson, “‘Rip Van Winkle’ as Bawdy Satire,” ESQ, 27 (1981), 198-206.

  13. Kolodny, in The Lay of the Land, p. 69, is surely correct in seeing a headless figure as the appropriate avatar of an anti-intellectual Sleepy Hollow, and equally correct in identifying Brom Bones' “removal and throwing away of the pumpkin-head” as a rejection of Ichabod's perverse blend of intellection and sexuality. She errs, I believe, in regarding the act as “a kind of symbolic castration” of Brom, whose marriage follows this victory, rather than of Ichabod, whose dark purposes are permanently thwarted in this moment of physical wounding.

  14. “The Story of the Mysterious Stranger in American Fiction,” Criticism, 3 (1961), 281-94. The examples that Male treats include Hawthorne's “Gray Champion,” Melville's “Lightning-Rod Man” and The Confidence-Man, Harte's “Luck of Roaring Camp,” Howells' Traveller From Altruria, Twain's Mysterious Stranger and “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” as well as Porter's “Noon Wine” and Warren's “Blackberry Winter.”

  15. Male, p. 290.

Raymond Benoit (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Irving's ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 15-17.

[In the following essay, Benoit explores Ichabod's loss of the imaginative bond between man and the world in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”]

“There used to be gods in everything, and now they've gone … all the lonely summer night's become but fact” (19). These lines from Howard Nemerov's poem “The Companions” could have served as an epigraph for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” for that legend is ultimately concerned with the loss of wonder and of a sense of life-as-mystery in the slow unraveling of imaginative attachment between man and things with the rise of human consciousness. Freud's words describe the process, for which Irving's fiction is in many respects an “objective correlative,” that culminates when Ichabod, on his way home after Katrina's rejection has left him “with an air quite desolate and chopfallen” (290), reaches Major André's tree. Freud said: “Originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue to a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (15). Until the evening at Van Tassel's, Ichabod's feeling is indeed an “all-embracing” experience, like the poet's experience described by Northrop Frye, “where the mind behind the subject and the world behind the objects are united, where nature and personality are one, as they formerly were in the sea-gods and sky-gods of ancient mythologies” (151)—and in the tree-gods of American mythology:

What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!—With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window!—How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which like a sheeted specter beset his very path!—How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!—and how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings. (Irving 278)

At Major André's tree, though, this imaginative and intimate bond slowly weakens and then breaks as Ichabod, “heavy hearted and crest fallen” (291), withdraws into himself in the distancing and analytic mood of subject to object, which develops as his thought becomes increasingly focused—“it was but a blast”; “a little nearer, he thought”; “but on looking more narrowly”; “it was but the rubbing”:

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered: it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling; but on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him. (292)

The phrase, “it was but” functions like cock-crows to deny acquaintance with the larger one-life now in the process of splitting apart. For as Martin Buber wrote in I and Thou, “once the sentence ‘I see the tree’ has been pronounced in such a way that it no longer relates a relation between a human I and a tree You but the perception of the tree object by the human consciousness, it has erected the crucial barrier between subject and object; the basic work I-it, the word of separation, has been spoken” (74-75).

A new peril may lie ahead, but after the drama at Major André's tree, the ensuing confrontation with the headless horseman is anticlimactic; the crucial barrier has already been erected between Ichabod and Sleepy Hollow, the basic word of separation having been spoken by Ichabod himself.1

The postscript to the story is significantly an afterthought, an abstraction out of the whole, which ironically re-enacts the psychological drama of the short story epitomized in the episode at Major André's tree. The storyteller in the postscript, who has just concluded relating his “legend” at a corporation meeting in Manhattoes, diminishes his imaginative art into a shrunken syllogistic residue in response to a “dry-looking old gentleman” who demands to know “the moral of the story, and what it went to prove” (297). The storyteller mockingly obliges:

“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures, providing we will but take a joke as we find it:

“That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers, is likely to have rough riding of it:

“Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress, is a certain step to high preferment in the state.” (297)

In contrast to the imaginative garden of the all-embracing narrative, these reductive words of reason are all that is left, and appropriately, as a “post-script,” the real pieces of the broken pumpkin.


  1. Cf. the biblical account in I Sam. 21-23: “She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has gone from Israel,’ thinking of her father-in-law and husband and of the capture of the ark of God. She said, ‘The glory has gone from Israel, because the ark of God has been captured.’”

Works Cited

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Scribner's, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Frye, Northrop. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random, 1968.

Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Ed. Haskell Springer. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Nemerov, Howard. The Blue Swallows. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967.




Teaching Guide