The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Analysis

  • "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" begins with a lavish description of the Hudson Valley and Sleepy Hollow, a charming little hamlet populated by Dutch farmers. Irving contrasts the residents of Sleepy Hollow with his protagonist, Ichabod Crane, a Connecticut schoolteacher unfit for physical labor. Ultimately, the central conflict in the story is that between the country and the city.
  • Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has been captivating readers since its original publication in 1820. Irving plays with the traditional elements of horror stories to create one of the most enduring figures in literature: the Headless Horseman. He leaves readers to wonder if the Headless Horseman is real or if it's just Brom Bones in disguise.
  • Ichabod Crane's last name is especially fitting when one considers his physical description: tall, lanky, and weak, Crane performs only the simplest of household chores and can't participate in the physical labor necessary to run a farm. This separates him from the residents of Sleepy Hollow, who descend from Dutch stock and have all grown up on farms.

Critical Evaluation

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 to 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.

Style and Technique

Irving’s version of this folktale features an effective series of starvation images that begins with his lengthy description of the gaunt, cadaverous Ichabod and extends to the almost physical hunger that his protagonist feels when he sees the rich produce of Van Tassel’s land. Indeed, Ichabod’s mouth waters as he contemplates this wealth and dreams that it might be his.

Complementing the starvation imagery is Irving’s choice of names. Ichabod is tall and as gaunt as the crane whose name he shares. Like the biblical Ichabod, Irving’s protagonist is as much an outcast as is his Old Testament namesake. Similarly, Brom, whose given name is Abraham, is as much a patriarch of his people as is the father of the tribes of Judah.

Places Discussed

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow. Small Dutch community in New York, near Tarry Town (now commonly known as Tarrytown) and the Hudson River. Sleepy Hollow has two main characteristics. The first is a sense of “listless repose” that settles over the land and the inhabitants. This drowsiness fosters the other characteristic, the enhanced imaginations and superstitions of its inhabitants. For example, its inhabitants speculate that an Indian chief’s powwows or a German doctor’s enchantments might be the causes of the strangeness in the area.

Residents of Sleepy Hollow enjoy sitting by their fireplaces and telling one another tales of ghosts. Washington Irving attributes the hauntings and tales to the fact that this is a long-established Dutch community whose families remain there generation after generation. Chief among the ghost stories are those about the Headless Horseman, the main specter in the tale, who is often seen around the old church, where he was supposedly buried without his head.

Throughout most of the tale, natural surroundings convey mood. During the daylight hours, Sleepy Hollow is bright and cheerful. On the fall day that schoolteacher Ichabod Crane heads for the Van Tassel farm, the trees are bright orange, purple, and scarlet. Ducks fly overhead. Quail and squirrels can be heard. However, when Ichabod returns home at night, the scene changes. He passes by a tulip-tree whose limbs are “gnarled and fantastic” and a “group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grape vines,” that throws a “cavernous gloom” over the road. The ominous change in scenery alerts readers to the fact that Ichabod is about to encounter the Headless Horseman.

Van Tassel farm

Van Tassel farm. Sleepy Hollow farm that is home to Ichabod Crane’s love interest, Katrina Van Tassel. What is most remarkable about the farm is that it is portrayed as an agrarian paradise. Situated along the banks of the Hudson River, the farm is in “one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks, in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling.” It has a spreading elm tree, bubbling spring, and babbling brook. As big as a church, its barn is filled with activity and treasures from the farm. Birds twitter among its eaves, large pigs and sucklings grunt in their pens, and a “stately squadron” of geese occupy the farm’s pond. “Regiments of turkeys” and guinea fowl wander through the barnyard. The farm has rich fields of rye, buckwheat, wheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards are “burdened with ruddy fruit.”

The inside of the Van Tassel farmhouse also speaks of its family’s wealth. Farming and husbandry implements are hung from the rafters, while a spinning wheel and a butter churn stand in the piazza. On entering the hall, Crane is struck by “rows of resplendent pewter” on a long dresser. A huge bag of wool waiting to be spun rests in one corner, while in another stands “linsey-woolsey just from the loom.” Dried apples and peaches and Indian corn are placed on strings and hung as decorations. The best parlor holds mahogany furniture, silver, china, and an ostrich egg hanging from the center of the room.

Descriptions of the Van Tassel farm are slightly exaggerated, using military terms such as “regiments” and “troops,” that fit the nature of the tall tale. The farm represents the idea of America as a land of plenty. The Van Tassel family is rich because of the fertility of the Hudson Valley soil. Crane is attracted to the farm because of its prosperity; his interest in Katrina is fueled by her father’s wealth. He daydreams of marrying Katrina and selling the farm to pay for his trip to “Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where.” This is a sharp contrast to the contented settlements of the Dutch community. It is thus no surprise when Ichabod is eventually driven out of Sleepy Hollow.

Historical Context

The Dutch in New York
In its earliest days as an outpost for Europeans, New York was settled by the Dutch, or people from the...

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Literary Style

Narration/Narrative/Narrator
There is an almost dizzying number of levels of narration and narrators in ''The Legend of Sleepy...

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Early in the story, the reader encounters the legend of the headless horseman, a ghost with which the residents of Sleepy Hollow are familiar. Beheaded by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War, he searches nightly for his head. This anecdote--humorous in itself--provides the key to the trick by which the schoolmaster is driven from the town.

The schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, is also the local singing master and, in that role, meets and falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel, the only child of a well-to-do Dutch farmer. In fact, Irving’s complete catalog of the wealth of Baltus Van Tassel implies that Crane’s desire to marry Katrina is partly monetary.

Crane has a rival, however, Brom Bones, whose ingenuity finally drives the superstitious schoolmaster away from Sleepy Hollow. Impersonating the headless horseman, Bones rides after Crane one night and finally throws a pumpkin, which Crane believes to be the horseman’s head. The schoolmaster abruptly departs, leaving Bones to marry Katrina.

Irving uses this plot as a vehicle for commenting on the primacy of the imagination. Not only does the central story contain many references to legend and folklore, but also there is a frame around the tale that complements these references. As the story opens, the reader meets a nameless narrator whose description of Sleepy Hollow implies that it is a realm of the imagination, a retreat where dream and reality meet. A postscript explains how the story came to be known by a “Mr. Knickerbocker,” the name of a fictional character in other works by Irving. By such devices the reader is constantly reminded that in this story--as, perhaps, in life--imaginative fiction exists side by side with everyday reality.

Bibliography:

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Good introduction to Irving’s work. Bowden examines the first edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within the context of its place and importance in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Hedges seeks to substantiate Irving’s relevance as a writer, define his major contributions, and detail aspects of his intellectual environment. The work presents “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as proof that Irving was a pioneer in the renaissance of American prose fiction.

Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. This study surveys Irving’s American period of creativity, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” demonstrating that his last experiment creates a comic vision of America.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Critical revisionist view of Irving and his work primarily seen in psychological terms. It dissects Irving’s personal problems and political orientation as reflected in his writings, particularly in a substantive chapter discussing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Solid collection of sixteen essays that survey the breadth of Irving’s work from early sketches to his final biographies. Two essays, Terence Martin’s “Rip and Ichabod” and Daniel Hoffman’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” scrutinize the story in depth and view it as a unique creation.

Compare and Contrast

1810: Irving's home town, New York City, is a major metropolitan center with a population of 80,000. The population of the United...

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Sleepy Hollow as an Earthly Paradise

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,...

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Girls can Take Care of Themselves: Gender and Storytelling in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

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...

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Critical Overview

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...

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Topics for Further Study

Find a few of the many illustrated versions of ' 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' in the children's section of the library, or some of the...

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Introduction

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” 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 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.

Principal Works

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)...

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Daniel G. Hoffman (essay date 1961)

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.]

ONE

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.’

TWO

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...

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Robert A. Bone (essay date 1963)

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...

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Martin Roth (essay date 1976)

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...

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Albert J. von Frank (essay date 1987)

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...

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Raymond Benoit (essay date 1996)

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...

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Further Reading

CRITICISM

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”...

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Media Adaptations

''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' has been recorded by Donada Peters as part of a five-hour set of audiotapes titled Rip Van Winkle and Other...

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What Do I Read Next?

Rip Van Winkle’’ (1819) is the second of the two stories for which Irving is famous today. Rip Van Winkle wanders off into the Catskill...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving, Boston: Twayne, 1981, p. 72.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett. The...

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Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Good introduction to Irving’s work. Bowden examines the first edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within the context of its place and importance in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Hedges seeks to substantiate Irving’s relevance as a writer, define his major contributions, and detail aspects of his intellectual environment. The work presents “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as proof that Irving was a pioneer in the renaissance of American prose fiction.

Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. This study surveys Irving’s American period of creativity, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” demonstrating that his last experiment creates a comic vision of America.

Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Critical revisionist view of Irving and his work primarily seen in psychological terms. It dissects Irving’s personal problems and political orientation as reflected in his writings, particularly in a substantive chapter discussing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Solid collection of sixteen essays that survey the breadth of Irving’s work from early sketches to his final biographies. Two essays, Terence Martin’s “Rip and Ichabod” and Daniel Hoffman’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” scrutinize the story in depth and view it as a unique creation.