Friday, 14 August 2015

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor (1858).

1900 edition of
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820) is a short story - and that is the first thing that surprised me about it. I've always thought it was a novel, and I think the 105 minute film (Tim Burton, 1999) emphasised that. But no, it's a short story, in my edition it's only 40 pages long, and it was part of a collection that included Rip Van Winkle and other stories and essays under the title The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (and dedicated to Sir Walter Scott "in testimony of the admiration and affection of the author").

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is allegedly composed from the papers of "the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker", another pseudonym of Irving's that he'd used in 1809 for A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, and which sparked much interest and controversy at the time (before its publication Irving placed several notices in newspapers claiming Knickerbocker was missing, having left his hotel in New York without paying, and the proprietor would publish manuscripts left behind if Knickerbocker did not return to pay his outstanding bill. The story begins with a quote from James Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (1748),
A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,
Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
Forever flushing round a summer sky.
Irving goes on to describe Sleepy Hollow, set in New York state:
A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a High German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
In Sleepy Hollow there is a legend - the legend of the Headless Horseman, a soldier whose head was blown off by a canon during the American Revolutionary War which had ended just a few years previous. Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster originally from Connecticut, wishes to marry the coquettish Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel, however he finds he must complete with Van Brunt. One autumn night he attends Van Tassel's party and asks Katrina to marry him, but she turns him down. He leaves and begins his walk home, terrified having listened to ghost stories told at the party. It is then he encounters the Headless Horseman...

It is set in the autumn of 1790, making it a perfect Halloween read, and it is a beautiful mix of the Romantic and Gothic, with some stunning descriptions of nature in Irving's long, meandering sentences. I particularly loved this:
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory-nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field.
It is a great story, and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999) is one of my favourite films so it was interesting in that respect, though the film and the story are very unlike each other!

Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999).
And this is my first time for reading Washington Irving; I'll certainly be reading his English Writers on America later this year as part of the Deal Me In Challenge, and I'm also looking forward to Rip Van Winkle and some of the other stories. For now, some illustrations I've found by Arthur I. Keller for the 1906 edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company.


  1. Irving did some good stuff. I like him. I visited the site of his house once; it was very green and a lot more like your England than like my hot and dry California, though it snows a lot in winter there. I didn't get to go inside--it was just a quick stop.

    1. I know nothing about Irving - I'll have to look up where he lived. I love looking at authors' houses :)

  2. I always thought this was a novel too!

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one! My knowledge of American literature is woeful, though... :)

  3. Irving's writing, often entertaining, always seems to me to be not quite yet American in style and themes because of his obvious imitation of European models; he is interesting to read, but I wait until Hawthorne, Melville, and beyond for the great American authors. Well, that is just one curmudgeon's POV.

    1. Just remarked to Jillian my knowledge of American lit is pretty poor, but I do tend to think of Hawthorne et al as the 'greats' for America. I was surprised this was so early, it felt a bit later. And I do see what you mean about its style, I did notice it but I put it down to my lack of knowledge in American literature.

  4. I'm actually a Washington Irving fan and even own a very old copy of his Sketch Book (& I even lived in "Irvington" -now part of Indianapolis - from 1987-1992). I prefer Rip Van Winkle to this story but think both are enjoyable. There's a great quotation in TLoSH about the difficulty of winning the heart of a coquette that I remember being impressed with.

    1. I still haven't read Rip Van Winkle but I'll read it very soon as you've recommended it :)


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