The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A pilgrimage to a writer's grave may sound like the desperate act of a doctoral candidate on his way to a crack-up: if the writer is Washington Irving, however, it's obligatory. In October, when the leaves change and the Empire State is every inch a Hudson River School masterpiece, tourists head out to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the lichen-speckled necropolis where Irving, also known to posterity as "Jonathan Oldstyle," "Geoffrey Crayon," and "Diedrich Knickerbocker," makes his final resting place.


Irving's knee-high headstone, dwarfed by the mausoleums of such titans as Walter Chrysler and William Rockefeller (brother of John D.), is flanked by two small American flags, and covered with spare change deposited by his devotees.


There is a moving justice in the fact that Irving, who regarded himself as capricious and lacking in ambition, commands more attention than any other soul in this graveyard. "My whole course of life," he once wrote, "has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task . . . . I must, therefore, keep on pretty much as I have begun; writing when I can . . . . I shall occasionally shift my residence and write whatever is suggested by objects before me, or whatever rises in my imagination."


That imagination yielded, among much else, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which first appeared, along with "Rip Van Winkle," in the serialized Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–29).


The Sketch Book was beloved from the beginning. It was an influence on Dickens's A Christmas Carol; it held Longfellow "spellbound by its pleasant humor, its melancholy tenderness, [and] its atmosphere of reverie." Byron, living it up in Italy, was furious when his publisher neglected to send him Walter Scott's latest: "Here are Johnny Keats's p-ss-a-bed poetry," he fumed, "and three novels by God knows whom. However, Crayon is very good."


The cream of "Crayon," judging by its persistence in the popular imagination, is the "Legend"—a story so fine, and so evocative of a time and place, that were Sleepy Hollow not real, it would have to be erected as a theme park.


Truth be told, it wasn't always quite real. The "Legend" relates that "[i]n the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expanse of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappaan Zee . . . there lies a small market town or rural port . . . known by the name of Tarry Town." North Tarrytown voted to rename itself Sleepy Hollow in December of 1996, in honor of Irving's lines: "From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants . . . this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of SLEEPY HOLLOW."


It is a testament to the tale's power that it is known by many who have never actually read it. In 1999, Tim Burton recast it as a detective story, starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. Ed Begley, Jr., played Crane in a 1987 television version. Disney Productions released the Bing Crosby-narrated Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949. In 1922, Will Rogers starred as Crane in the silent feature The Headless Horseman.


The register of movies, cartoons, and children's books responsible for our ignorance of Irving's original is, if not endless, worth bemoaning. (An exception is John Quidor's iconic, misty 1858 painting "The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane.") Irving was not without his influences, like his friend Walter Scott's poem "The Wild Huntsmen" (itself a translation of Gottfried Burger's "Der Wilde Jager"), or Robert Burns's poem "Tam o' Shanter," to say nothing of earlier folktales. Still, nothing can compete with Irving's interpretation.


Irving's Ichabod is, notwithstanding his cartoon iterations, no simple scarecrow; he is a full-blooded character who must owe something to Irving's self-deprecating idea of himself. "[Ichabod] had read several books quite through," Irving writes, "and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft, in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed. . . . His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region."


Yes, Irving mocked Ichabod: "[I]f, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost." Yes, in the schoolmaster's pursuit of Katrina Van Tassel—"plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father's peaches . . . a little of a coquette"—Irving saddled him with a frightful adversary in the burly swain and prankster Brom Bones, who was "as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar."


But Ichabod was a good guy, too. In the presence of Hudson Valley plenitude, he was "a kind and thankful creature, whose heart dilated in proportion as his skin was filled with good cheer." An outsider, he was a bit worldlier, at least in some matters, than his "rustic patrons," but he did not condescend to them. As a teacher, he was never "one of those cruel potentates of the school, who joy in the smart of their subjects." He spared the weak, the "puny stripling," who may have reminded him of himself.


His own weakness, his inclination to daydream and to regard the unknown with fear and fascination, he saw as a blessing. This anxious curiosity, after all, is the wellspring of storytelling. Ichabod Crane is the Yankee imagination made flesh.


In the story's final act, Ichabod is harried down lonely roads by a spectral Hessian rider known as the "Headless Horseman," who bears a suspicious resemblance to Brom Bones. His fear gallops onward on the steam of its own storytelling, but the "Legend" is more than that. It embodies the city-country divide that haunts us to this day. We are a nation in which the "schoolmasters" still learn the hard way that they are ill-equiped to meet the ways of "common folk." Ichabod skirts the baroque horrors of his ingenious fancy only to meet the homelier fate of having a pumpkin pitched at his head.


In the morning, Ichabod is nowhere to be found, though the locals will later learn that he had "changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar, turned politician, electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court. Brom Bones . . . conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, [and] was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin."


Irving lets Brom win, though Ichabod contains more of Irving than Brom does. There was room in Irving's capacious spirit for both sides of the American character, and surely he would enjoy a hearty laugh at the sight of us, two centuries later, struggling to figure out how to meet each other halfway. How fitting that the self-styled Knickerbocker is buried in Sleepy Hollow, where the hubbub of Manhattan gives way to a New York that looks, in many places, every bit as wild and mysterious as America in her infancy.

July 26: On this day in 1602 "A booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince Denmarke" was entered in the Stationers' Register by printer James Robertes.

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