The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, 1820
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
by Washington Irving, 1820
Like a number of writers of his time, Washington Irving faced the question of what to write about. A new nation, the United States had no sense of the past and was, moreover, preoccupied with the pragmatic and the materialistic. Indeed, if there was anything that might be considered old, it had to be sloughed off in favor of the new. Irving, an exponent of the genteel tradition, was not comfortable in such a setting. If Whitman and Emerson were to find their creative inspirations in an active existence in the present, Irving was to find his in his romantic affection for the legends and relics of the past. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in The Sketch Book, is a clear example of the tension that Irving felt between the imaginative endeavor and the American cultural tendency.
Anyone who has ever journeyed to the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River that meanders among these high hills should have little difficulty in feeling the drowsy, dreamy influence that hangs over the land and pervades the atmosphere surrounding Sleepy Hollow, the setting that Irving describes in his story. The people, he says, "are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air." So does Irving set the stage for the wondrous tale of the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. As he does in "Rip Van Winkle," Irving goes to some lengths to create a sense of the past in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" that the United States did not have. In this byway of nature, he says, "there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane." Ichabod is indeed a comic figure—"tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels" and "with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck." He is also a person with a strong imaginative faculty who enjoys spending winter evenings with old Dutch wives exchanging frightening tales of ghosts and goblins, although he then fears on his walks home all the strange shapes and shadows that "beset his path amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night." He is particularly concerned that he might one night meet the legendary Headless Horseman, that Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball.
Ichabod also has an eye for the women, especially the plump and rosy-cheeked Katrina Van Tassel, a lass of 18 years whose father is a farmer of some wealth. Not only does Katrina fire the schoolmaster's imagination, but so too do the treasures of her father's farm: the geese, ducks, and pigs along with the fields of wheat, rye, and Indian corn. But another also is interested in Katrina, one Brom Van Brunt, a strong, arrogant, fun-loving, double-jointed man always ready for either a fight or a frolic. Often called Brom Bones because of his strength and power of limb, he is also a skilled horseman. Though he would have welcomed the opportunity for a physical contest with Ichabod, the latter is too wise to provide such, and, frustrated, Brom Bones is left to playing practical jokes on the schoolmaster, often in front of Katrina.
Both Ichabod and Brom Bones are invited to a quilting frolic at Mynheer Van Tassel's. Ichabod arrives on a broken-down plow horse, with his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle, while Brom Bones gallops in on his handsome and spirited steed Dare-devil. During the ensuing dancing, however, it is Ichabod who, with his feet clattering and limbs flying, is the talk of the other dancers, including his partner Katrina, leaving Brom Bones to sulk in a corner. Following the dancing, Ichabod speaks with Katrina, convinced that he now has won her affections. Irving declines to divulge this conversation except to say that the schoolmaster leaves "with the air of one who had been sacking a hen-roost rather than a fair lady's heart." Poor Ichabod mounts his decrepit horse and disconsolately begins his travel homewards.
As he approaches a bridge that has played a role in some of the legends of the area, Ichabod hears a sound and sees a ghastly shape looming off to the side. It is the Headless Horseman, with his head held on the pommel of his saddle. As the schoolmaster frantically attempts to flee, the apparition hurls his head at Ichabod, tumbling him from his horse. Following this meeting with the Headless Horseman, Ichabod is not to be seen again in Sleepy Hollow. All that searchers find is the poor fellow's horse and saddle and a crushed pumpkin lying nearby. The old Dutch wives, of course, believe that he has been spirited away. A more likely story is probably that of a traveler who maintains that he has seen the schoolmaster in New York and that he is now a lawyer and judge. Either way, it is Brom Bones who takes Katrina to the altar and who often laughs at the mention of the crushed pumpkin.
Like Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane lives too much in the world of his imagination and does not fit into the mold of the ethic of success of American development. Caught up in his own fears of the supernatural, he is not able to realize the maturity necessary for finding a place in the society of his time, at least in Sleepy Hollow. If he has found a new life in New York, then, also like Rip Van Winkle, he has made a success of his own failure, in his case by synthesizing reason and imagination as a lawyer and judge.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" stands as one of Irving's best efforts in the short story and as a salient contribution to that genre. A master of style, he blends humor and sensibility in the story to give it both a charm and picturesqueness. Perhaps he did, as Herman Melville said, deal only with easy topics and did not attempt anything beyond his abilities. Still, he remains a significant voice in American letters.