The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Apilgrimage to a writer’s grave may sound like the desperate act of a doctoralcandidate 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 isevery inch a Hudson River School masterpiece, tourists head out to SleepyHollow Cemetery, the lichen-speckled necropolis where Irving, also known toposterity as “Jonathan Oldstyle,” “Geoffrey Crayon,” and “DiedrichKnickerbocker,” makes his final resting place.

Irving’s knee-highheadstone, dwarfed by the mausoleums of such titans as Walter Chrysler andWilliam 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 justicein the fact that Irving, who regarded himself as capricious and lacking inambition, commands more attention than any other soul in this graveyard. “Mywhole course of life,” he once wrote, “has been desultory, and I amunfitted for any periodically recurring task . . . . I must, therefore, keep onpretty much as I have begun; writing when I can . . . . I shall occasionallyshift my residence and write whatever is suggested by objects before me, orwhatever 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 thebeginning. It was an influence on Dickens’s AChristmas Carol; it held Longfellow “spellbound by its pleasant humor,its melancholy tenderness, [and] its atmosphere of reverie.” Byron, livingit up in Italy, was furious when his publisher neglected to send him WalterScott’s latest: “Here are Johnny Keats’s p-ss-a-bed poetry,” hefumed, “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”—astory so fine, and so evocative of a time and place, that were Sleepy Hollownot real, it would have to be erected as a theme park.

Truthbe told, it wasn’t always quite real. The “Legend” relates that “[i]nthe bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of theHudson, at that broad expanse of the river denominated by the ancient Dutchnavigators the Tappaan Zee . . . there lies a small market town or rural port .. . known by the name of Tarry Town.” North Tarrytown voted to renameitself Sleepy Hollow in December of 1996, in honor of Irving’s lines: “Fromthe 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’spower that it is known by many who have never actually read it. In 1999, TimBurton recast it as a detective story, starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane.Ed Begley, Jr., played Crane in a 1987 television version. Disney Productions releasedthe 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’soriginal 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 “TheWild Huntsmen” (itself a translation of Gottfried Burger’s “Der Wilde Jager“), or Robert Burns’spoem “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 afull-blooded character who must owe something to Irving’s self-deprecating ideaof himself. “[Ichabod] had read several books quite through,” Irvingwrites, “and was a perfect master of Cotton Mather’s History of NewEngland Witchcraft, in which, by the way, he most firmly and potently believed.. . . His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, wereequally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellboundregion.”

Yes,Irving mocked Ichabod: “[I]f, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle camewinging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give upthe ghost.” Yes, in the schoolmaster’s pursuit of Katrina Van Tassel—”plumpas a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’speaches . . . a little of a coquette”—Irving saddled him with a frightfuladversary in the burly swain and prankster Brom Bones, who was “as dexterouson horseback as a Tartar.”

But Ichabod was a good guy,too. In the presence of Hudson Valley plenitude, he was “a kind andthankful creature, whose heart dilated in proportion as his skin was filledwith good cheer.” An outsider, he was a bit worldlier, at least in somematters, 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 “punystripling,” who may have reminded him of himself.

His own weakness, hisinclination to daydream and to regard the unknown with fear and fascination, hesaw as a blessing. This anxious curiosity, after all, is the wellspring ofstorytelling. Ichabod Crane is the Yankee imagination made flesh.

In the story’s final act, Ichabodis harried down lonely roads by a spectral Hessian rider known as the “HeadlessHorseman,” who bears a suspicious resemblance to Brom Bones. His feargallops 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 thisday. We are a nation in which the “schoolmasters” still learn the hardway 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 homelierfate of having a pumpkin pitched at his head.

In the morning, Ichabod isnowhere to be found, though the locals will later learn that he had “changedhis quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied lawat the same time; had been admitted to the bar, turned politician,electioneered, written for the newspapers, and finally had been made a justiceof the Ten Pound Court. Brom Bones . . . conducted the blooming Katrina intriumph to the altar, [and] was observed to look exceedingly knowing wheneverthe story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at themention of the pumpkin.”

Irving lets Brom win, thoughIchabod contains more of Irving than Brom does. There was room in Irving’scapacious spirit for both sides of the American character, and surely he wouldenjoy a hearty laugh at the sight of us, two centuries later, struggling tofigure out how to meet each other halfway. How fitting that the self-styledKnickerbocker is buried in Sleepy Hollow, where the hubbub of Manhattan givesway to a New York that looks, in many places, every bit as wild and mysteriousas America in her infancy.