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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What are some examples of Romanticism in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?

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In general, I would not regard Irving as one of the most representative Romantic writers. The elements of Romanticism in his stories are present but are at times more incidental than central to his technique, and one could even judge the main thrust of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" as being somewhat of a throwback to the ironic and more low-key humor of the previous century. Nevertheless, Irving was of his time to the extent that the background of the story includes an emphasis on two typically Romantic symbols: nature and the past.

The description of the Hudson River valley is extensive and even a bit rapturous:

A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility. ..

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say the place was bewitched by a high German doctor during the early days of the settlement. ...

The apotheosis of Nature is indeed Romantic, but in Irving, it is overlaid with more humdrum specifics that partly neutralize its effect. Perhaps a more decisive element conveying the early nineteenth-century spirit is that the story looks back to a past—a "remote" period, though Irving humorously states it is only thirty years ago—in which the strange happenings he is about to relate are presumably the essence of an unreal fairy tale. This quality, that of a childlike dream of magical import, is typically Romantic. We see it later in the stories of Hawthorne, where meaning is conveyed by the placement of the events in a dark past: either the literal one of early New England or the indeterminate one of Aylmer's weird scientific experiments in "The Birthmark."

Irving employs this focus on nature, mystery, and the past, but "anchors" it with his humor and a wry cynicism about the actual meaning of the Headless Horseman's appearance. It is a quieter, more neutral following of the trends of his time than we see in his British and European contemporaries; his poetry is similar in this way to that of the young William Cullen Bryant. American writers were then still a bit isolated from the forefront of artistic developments.

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One of the Romantic elements of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is its use of folkloric elements. For example, the story begins with a reference to "ancient Dutch navigators," and the author states that some people believe that Sleepy Hollow was bewitched during early Dutch times and that an old Indian chief held powwows there. European Romantic writing often referred to or used elements of folklore, and Washington Irving is trying to create an American brand of folklore by referring to the Dutch and to Native American history.

In addition, the tale features elements of the supernatural, including the headless horseman who is the ghost of a Hessian soldier. The specter continues to haunt Sleepy Hollow, and people believe in its existence. Following Romantic literary tradition, nature is part of the supernatural and has an eerie quality to it. As Ichabod Crane makes his way home from a dance, nature acquires a mysteriousness as "the Tappan Zee spread its dusky waters." The Hudson River itself becomes a force of mystery and the supernatural as the night becomes darker and darker and the horrible headless horseman appears. 

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The previous post alluded to much in the way of Romanticism in Irving's work.  I think the most overwhelming element present resided in the faith and trust in emotion as opposed to strict concepts of reason.  The fact that the schoolteacher is subject to believing the "ghost stories" of lore helps to illuminate this presence of emotion.  In line with the movement in American Literature of Transcendentalism, which is a variation on European Romanticism, Irving creates a persona of Crane that, despite the supposedly strict and stringent notion of the schoolteacher, is one who believes in the unknown and that which cannot be categorized through pure logic and explanation.  This is quite consistent with Romantic thought, which embraced the emotional and that which lie outside the realm of scientific and calculating thought.

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Some themes that the Romantics used a lot were themes of the individual, nature and death as you say.  But they also were into the idea that emotions were important (more so than logic) and that dreams and visions meant something.  Finally, the Romantics were into the supernatural.

As far as the idea of nature goes, the description of Sleepy Hollow is pretty romantic.

Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.

The whole idea of the headless horseman and of the many legends and "ghost stories" that the people tell is very much in line with the ideas of romanticism.

Finally, the fact that Katrina prefers Brom to Ichabod seems Romantic.  In terms of intellect and logic, Ichabod is superior.  But she prefers Brom because he's so manly.

I'm sure there are many other examples, but these are a few.

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