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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Does Irving use historical elements in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

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In regards specifically to the story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving does use historical elements from the time to frame his story. His use of Dutch stereotypes was a common element during this time. Irving made use of the folklore about Dutch people, and in a minor way contributed to it. His use of witchcraft also had roots in historical elements. Witchcraft was a serious thing in the colonies; think of the Salem Witch Trials.

To create the story, Irving borrowed heavily from the German legends of Ruebezahl from the Volksmaerchen der Deutschen, transporting the basic action and characters to Upstate New York. Scholars still debate, however, whether Irving made up his tale, or if he adapted the tales from other sources.

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Irving wanted to provide a relatively accurate portrayal of life in America, especially to convey its wonder and beauty to those in Europe. He was regarded as a sort of "travel writer," one who could bring a sense of the young country to his readers. Irving, in his essay "The Author's Account of Himself," writes: "Books of voyages and travels became my passion...I visited various parts of my own country...for on no other country have the charms of nature been more prodigally lavished." Contrasting America to Europe, Irving says, "My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age."

Part of the appeal of travel writing also is the native lore that compliments the scenery. Irving included superstitious tales that he had heard in order to make the experience of "being there" even more real for his readers.

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