The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

(American History Through Literature)

Crane and Horseman, c. 1835. Painting attributed to William John Wilgus. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow provided vivid material for visual artists, and its frequent reinterpretation in paintings and popular prints both reflected and promoted the t Crane and Horseman, Published by Gale Cengage THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

Washington Irving (1783859) had been living in England for five years when he finished The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819820), a collection of tales, essays, and sketches that would come to be counted as the first internationally successful work by an American author. A New Yorker, the son of a hardware merchant, Irving had dabbled in writing before, most notably producing the satirical A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809). Americans of the early national period yearned for evidence of cultural independence, but questions abounded regarding the proper form and content for an American literature, and authors would continue to doubt the literary potential of a country that seemed so shallowly new. The Sketch Book reflects these cultural insecurities: most of the sketches deal with English scenes, and the book's narratorial persona, Geoffrey Crayon, suffers acute bouts of Anglophilia. But a handful of selections turn to American settings and subjects, among them "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is presented by Crayon as having come from the papers of Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving's fictive historian, the "source" for many of his New Yorkrea tales. Set in a precinct of Tarrytown (about twenty-five miles north of New York City), the tale centers on Ichabod Crane, a Connecticut Yankee who came to predominantly Dutch Sleepy Hollow not long after the Revolution. A devourer of supernatural lore, the lanky schoolteacher spends much of his time swapping spooky tales with the Dutch housewives, especially tales of the "headless horseman" Hessian trooper who lost his head in a battle nearby. Ichabod also falls for the neighborhood belle, Katrina Van Tassel. But the courtship raises the ire of a rival suitor, the broad-shouldered Dutch local wag, Brom Bones. This, along with Ichabod's addiction to ghost stories, proves his undoing in Sleepy Hollow. Riding home one night after a party, he is joined on the road by an shadowy rider, whom he perceives to be headless. The terrified Ichabod finally makes it to the bridge where the horseman is said to disappear, but instead the figure hurls his "head" at Ichabod, and it is Ichabod who vanishes, running off from the village for good. The reader is left with hintsn the shattered pumpkin, in Brom Bones's knowing laughhat perhaps Ichabod's pursuer was less than spectral. But only perhaps.


Clearly readable in the lines of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are influences of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century European cultural movements: a gothic literature featuring supernatural apparitions and a broader Romantic movement characterized by an emphasis on imagination over reason, an attraction to the marvelous, and a longing for the legendary past. Despite claims that U.S. culture should be founded in commonsense rationalism, liberated from Old Worldly superstition, these movements had infiltrated American tastes by the beginning of the nineteenth century. And though initially influenced by urbane British neoclassical writers, Irving to no small degree shared Geoffrey Crayon's Romantic antiquarianism and fascination with supernatural lore. These leanings were drawn out by Irving's immersion in the British literary scene in the 1810s and by the tutelage of

Sir Walter Scott, who had incorporated folkloristic materials into his fictions of the Scottish border. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" also owes a particular debt to Romantic interest in German legends: the story's climactic scene (right down to the pumpkin) was borrowed from a story recorded in Johann Karl August Musäus's Volksmärchen der Deutschen (parts of which had been translated into English in 1791 as Popular Tales of the Germans).

But it would be a mistake to see this story solely as an application of European Romanticism or a grafting of German lore to an American setting. First of all, it...

(The entire section is 2,331 words.)