What do ghosts and ghost stories represent metaphorically in this tale?
What is it that makes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow scary? Is it the plot, or the conclusion we reach at the end? The storyteller opens the story with “The dominant spirit…that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head“ (Irving, 1820, page 2). By the end of the story we have to wonder whether the rider is the spirit of a fallen soldier or a romantic rival in disguise. Or was it maybe someone else?
Sleepy valley is secluded, undisturbed, and silence is broken by “the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility” (Irving, 1820, page 1). But there ghost stories are told more often than in other parts of the country where there is no encouragement for ghosts and where “local tales and superstitions are trampled underfoot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places” (Irving, 1820, page 15). In The Sleepy Valley, as in every other small place, there is a “headless horseman” who is able, for instance, to transform a tree into a mythical creature and who represents their need to escape from their ordinary lives. Ghost stories are there to bring some sort of magic into otherwise uneventful everyday lives. The storyteller himself, as every other new visitor to The Sleepy Hollow, falls under the magic of The Sleepy Hollow – at the very beginning of the story he promises the readers factual account of the events that took place there. However, he soon starts retelling what he has heard through the grapewine and leaves us in the dark about some defining moments in this story, especially at the end of it, where we are left wondering about the most crucial fact – his death.
The need for the magical is not only present locally, it is recognized as an individual need as well. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the protagonist Ichabod Crane and it becomes evident that even the teacher, who is educated, is prone to believe in and become affected by the belief in the supernatural. “His appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region” (Irving, 1820, page 5). His perceptions of nature reflect the change in his emotions so that when he is in love the small birds flutter, chirp and frolick from bush to bush, and tree to tree. Throughout the story he is constantly struggling with his own ghosts, fantasy and reality, and it is only after his disappointment in love that he loses the battle with “the headless horseman” and is never found again.
Perhaps what scares readers the most is the conclusion that any of us could be carried away into the imaginary world, that there is a fine line between reality and fantasy, that we can easily mistake one for the other and that we cannot rely fully on our senses.
Washington Irving, (1820), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, retrieved from http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Washington_Irving/The_Legend_of_Sleepy_Hollow/The_Legend_Of_Sleepy_Hollow_p5.html
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SOURCE: “Prefigurations: ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’,” in Form and Fable in American Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 83-96.
[In the following essay, Hoffman explains how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dramatizes a conflict between two cultures—those of the Yankee city-dweller and the backwoodsman—that was to become a major theme in American literature.]
The first important literary statement of the themes of native folk character and superstition was made, fittingly enough, in the first literary work by an American to win worldwide acclaim. When The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. appeared in London in 1819, its author became the first of a long series of expatriate Americans who found their native roots all the more poignant for viewing them from a distance.
Washngton Irving was fortunate, granted his special though restricted gifts, to be alive and in England at that moment in the history of literature. He sought out, and was taken up by, Sir Walter Scott, who was showing how the sentiment of nostalgia for the past could infuse fiction and become its informing principle. In his novels Scott projected that sense of historical continuity which formed a curious undercurrent of sensibility even before the Romantic movement began. Little though the Augustans attended the medieval or more recent past, there were important eighteenth-century successors to such early antiquarian works as Sir Thomas Browne's collection of Vulgar Errors (1648) and Samuel Pepys' collection of broadside ballads. Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and John Brand's Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1795) laid the groundwork for the two directions British folklore study has followed ever since. Scott took his prominent place in both with his ballad collection, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) and his comprehensive Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830). Much more influential, however, than these formal studies in introducing a whole generation of readers—and authors—to such materials was his use of folklore in his own fiction. One of Scott's earliest and most popular disciples along this line was a young American littérateur, the London representative of P. E. Irving & Co., New York dealers in hardware.
Washington Irving was already something of an antiquary. His early Knickerbocker's History of New York reveals him to be enchanted with the very past he satirized. In The Sketch Book Irving used several themes to which he would again and again recur: the Gothic tale in the German manner of ‘The Spectre Bridegroom,’ the antiquarian nostalgia of the four sketches on English Christmas customs, the character sketch of ‘The Village Angler.’ The two selections destined for most enduring fame, however, were careful reconstructions of the scenes of Irving's own boyhood in the Dutch communities of the Hudson Valley. One of these retells a German folktale in this American setting, in which Rip Van Winkle sleeps away his twenty years after a heady game of bowls with the ghostly crew of the Half-Moon. In the other tale, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ Irving brought into belles-lettres for the first time the comic mythology and folk beliefs of his native region. In Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones he dramatized that clash of regional characters—the Yankee versus the Backwoodsman—which would soon become a major theme in our literature, as well as a continuing motif in a century and a half of folktales, and in our national history.
It is surprising that the extent to which Irving drew upon native folklore has scarcely been acknowledged. The chief reason for this seems to be Henry A. Pochmann's convincing demonstration, in 1930, of the extent of Irving's indebtedness to his German contemporaries. Stanley T. Williams, in his definitive biography, gives us a further exploration of Irving's methods of composition.1 When we see the extent to which Irving depended on other men's books, often translating without acknowledgment, we can understand why recent critics are reluctant to grant him credit for originality in interpreting American themes.
The foremost students of American humor have strangely overlooked ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ Walter Blair does call it ‘a characteristic piece of American humor,’ but his remark is relegated to a footnote. And Constance Rourke, writing with her usual felicity, remarks that ‘in the Knickerbocker History and in Rip Van Winkle Irving created a comic mythology as though comic myth-making were a native habit, formed early …... But his Dutch people were of the past, joining only at a distance with current portrayals of native character.’2 Why did Miss Rourke not mention ‘Sleepy Hollow’? I do not know; but I hope to show that in Ichabod and Brom Bones, Irving gave us portrayals of current native character projected backwards in time, rather than merely historical types unrooted in contemporary folklore.
There are of course good reasons why Brom and Ichabod have not been so recognized. For one thing, Irving's style is hardly what we expect in a folk document. For another, the Hudson Valley Dutch have long been thought an alien people by the Anglo-Saxons who conquered, surrounded, and outnumbered them. But the third and principal reason is Irving's own treatment of his Dutch materials. Almost everywhere except in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ he deliberately altered the traditional characteristics of the Dutch for the purposes of his own fiction. As a consequence of Irving's popularity and of widespread ignorance of what the Dutch were really like, his caricatures were widely accepted as portraits of the Dutch-Americans. Paulding, writing The Dutchman's Fireside twenty-two years after the Knickerbocker History, imitated his friend in attributing chuckleheadedness and indolence to the brothers Vancour. In Cooper's Satanstoe (1845), however, we get a more realistic picture of the Dutch; his Guert Ten Eyck amply fulfills the historian Janvier's description: the Dutch ‘were tough and they were sturdy, and they were as plucky as men could be.’3 Only in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ did Irving give a Dutchman these attributes; everywhere else he made them fat, foolish, pompous, and pleasure-loving. Here his usual Dutchman does appear (Van Tassel), but only in the background. Brom Bones is his realistic Dutch frontiersman, who meets and bests a Yankee in the traditional conflict of our native folk humor. Why did Irving choose this theme, so different from his usual preoccupations?
When we admit his dependence upon books, we must look at the kinds of authors on whom he depended. Othmar and Musaeus were collectors and redactors of folktales and märchen. Irving knew personally a third folklorist, Dr. Karl Böttiger, ‘who undoubtedly was able to give him expert advice on his folklore studies.’4 Wherever Irving went he collected popular sayings and beliefs; he was prepossessed by a sense of the past, and recognized the power—and the usefulness to a creative artist—of popular antiquities. Brom and Ichabod had their beginnings in local characters he had known as a boy;5 what made them take their singular form, however, was the direction in which Irving's imagination impelled them. And that direction was toward the fabulous. The fabulous was Irving's milieu.
In a reminiscence twenty years after The Sketch Book, Irving revealed that Diedrich Knickerbocker had learned the legend of Sleepy Hollow from an old Negro who gave him ‘that invaluable kind of information, never to be acquired from books,’ and from ‘the precious revelations of the good dame at the spinning wheel.’6 Of Musaeus' Volksmärchen he says nothing. But he may well indeed have heard such stories in the old Dutch chimney corners. H. W. Thompson recounts similar motifs in York State folklore: nightly visitations by a shrieking woman ‘tied to the tail of a giant horse with fiery eyes’; and ‘a curious phantom … uttering unearthly laughter, lights shining from her finger tips.’ There were revenants aplenty in Catskills. Still another important part of Dutch folk culture was the lusty practical joking7 which Cooper used in some of the most spirited pages in Satanstoe. Both aspects of Dutch folk life—the villagers' superstitions and their humor—are immortalized in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’
Irving sets his story in a folk society: ‘It is in such little retired Dutch villages … that population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.’ And again: ‘The neighborhood is rich in legendary lore … Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered long-settled retreats.’ Into this community comes Ichabod Crane, ‘a native of Connecticut, a State which supplied the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest.’ Ichabod is Irving's Connecticut Yankee, the fictional ancestor of Mark Twain's Hartford mechanic. But his nearer descendants are Sam Slick, Jack Downing, Hosea Biglow. Before any of these was born in print Ichabod had already been a country teacher, a singing master, a sometime farmer; later he is to undergo still further metamorphoses which link him still more closely to these heroes of popular legend and literature. Like Ben Franklin, like Hawthorne's Holgrave, like the schoolmaster in Snowbound and Melville's marvelous Confidence Man, he was a jack of all trades. Metamorphosis is always magical, but now, in an egalitarian society, the magic is the power of self-reliance, not of Satan.
Ichabod's native shrewdness and perseverance are somewhat compromised by his credulity. ‘No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.’ Ichabod devoutly believed in all the remarkable prodigies retailed in Cotton Mather's History of New England Witchcraft (that is, the Magnalia Christi Americani). There he found spectral ships manned by ghostly women, heretics giving birth to monsters, revenants pursuing the innocent with invisible instruments of torture. But of all the ghostly tales in the valley, the one Ichabod Crane most liked to hear was that of the Headless Horseman.
Meanwhile, we remember, Ichabod falls in love with Katrina Van Tassel; more exactly, seeing her father's prosperous farm, he envisages ‘every roasting pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth.’ Considerations of this sort lead Ichabod into a most interesting reverie: he imagines ‘the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or Lord knows where.’ Here we have Ichabod Boone—Connecticut's pioneer of the wilderness as well as of the mind. Traditionally the American frontiersman has resented the mercantile...