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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Irving's use of American folklore, Romantic forms, and historical elements in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."


Irving combines American folklore, Romantic forms, and historical elements in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to create a richly textured narrative. He draws on local ghost stories, employs Romantic themes of nature and the supernatural, and sets the tale in a historically accurate early American village, blending these elements to enhance the story's authenticity and eerie atmosphere.

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How does Irving use American folklore and Romantic forms in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

In the eighteenth century, writers began to explore the sublime. The sublime is characterized by the awe a person feels while observing a natural scene that has a striking beauty or majesty. The feelings evoked by the scene put us in touch, the eighteenth-century school of sensibility and the Romantics believed, with God's presence in the world. Trying to put this feeling into words led Romantic writers to compose long passages of lovely description. The sublime can be found in this story in the following scene that Ichabod sees from afar as he rides along:

The wide bosom of the Tappan Zee lay motionless and glassy, excepting that here and there a gentle undulation waved and prolonged the blue shadow of the distant mountain. A few amber clouds floated in the sky, without a breath of air to move them. The horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark-gray and purple of their rocky sides. A sloop was loitering in the distance, dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast; and as the reflection of the sky gleamed along the still water, it seemed as if the vessel was suspended in the air.

Gothic elements are more prevalent than the sublime in this story, though they are framed in comic tones. The Romantics were interested in the Gothic because it countered the cold rationalism of Enlightenment thinking. The Gothic is characterized by the dark, the irrational, and the uncanny. The uncanny is that which is disturbing, most often represented by the corpse. Ghosts are also emblems of the uncanny. A headless horseman would be uncanny: a headless man must be a corpse, but it is irrational and disturbing that a corpse could ride a horse.

Irving utilizes Gothic imagery throughout the story, although he does so in a lighthearted way that pokes fun at it. I will quote one example, but you can easily find more. This is Ichabod's view of the headless horseman:

Huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

I am not sure what you mean by "correspondence," but correspondence is a literary device in which a person is made to correspond with an animal or some aspect of nature. In this story, Ichabod corresponds with the ghostly, Gothic imagery of the story. For example, he is always reading about old superstitions, witches, and ghosts. He is thin and associated with "famine descending on the earth" [namely, death and the uncanny]. Both Brom and Katrina, on the other hand, correspond with concrete, material, life-giving images. Katrina, for example, is associated strongly with the solid, material world Ichabod lusts after. At her house he finds,

The doughty dough-nut, the tenderer oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling kruller; sweet-cakes and short-cakes, ginger-cakes and honey-cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple-pies, and peach-pies, and pumpkin-pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef. . .

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

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

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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