Read an Excerpt
From Peter Norberg’s Introduction to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings
In April 1789, George Washington arrived in New York City for his inauguration as the first president of the newly formed republic of the United States. He met with a hero’s welcome. In the weeks that followed, well-wishers and admirers regularly approached him in the streets, among them a Scottish-born woman who cornered him in a shop on Broadway. Drawing before her a six-year-old child, she exclaimed, “Please, Your Excellency, here’s a bairn that’s called after ye.” It was Washington Irving. In retrospect, the scene seemed prophetic. Later in life, after having established a reputation as the first American man of letters, Irving recalled in an interview how Washington “laid his hand upon my head, and gave me his blessing.” Three generations after the Revolutionary War, George Washington was revered as the father of our country. Irving likewise was recognized as a founding father of America’s national literature.
Such a title might strike today’s reader as an exaggeration. Irving’s best-known characters, Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane, do not seem substantial enough to serve as foundational figures in an American literary tradition. However, the stories Irving set in Sleepy Hollow, a secluded village in the Hudson River Valley, provided American culture with a local habitation and a name. Along with James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, Irving was one of America’s pioneer writers. He helped sketch the contours of a cultural landscape that was unique to the United States, not a pale imitation of the literature of England and Europe. Sleepy Hollow is an early example of American authors self-consciously setting out to create an imaginative space for artistic creativity. Nathaniel Hawthorne described this sort of space in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real-world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” By providing such a “neutral territory” for his readers, Irving contributed to the new nation’s efforts to generate a collective cultural memory from native sources.