With his beloved Gothic tales, Washington Irving is said to have created the genre of the short story in America. Though Irving crafted many of the most memorable characters in fiction, from Rip Van Winkle to Ichabod Crane, his gifts were not confined to the short story alone. He was also a master of satire, essay, travelogue, and folktale, as evidenced in this classic collection.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "Every reader has a first book.... which, in early youth, first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind. To me, this first book was The Sketch Book of Washington Irving... The charm of The Sketch Book remains unbroken; the old fascination still lingers about it."
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Author's Account of Himself
I am of this mind with Homer, that as the snaile that crept out of her shel was turned eftsoones into a Toad, and thereby was forced to make a stoole to sit on; so the traveller that stragleth from his owne country is in a short time transformed into so monstrous a shape that he is faine to alter his mansion with his manners and to live where he can, not where he would.
I was always fond of visiting new scenes and observing strange characters and manners. Even when a mere child I began my travels and made many tours of discovery into foreign parts and unknown regions of my native city; to the frequent alarm of my parents and the emolument of the town cryer. As I grew into boyhood I extended the range of my observations. My holy day afternoons were spent in rambles about the surrounding country. I made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery had been committed or a ghost seen. I visited the neighbouring villages and added greatly to my stock of knowledge, by noting their habits and customs, and conversing with their sages and great men. I even journeyed one long summer's day to the summit of the most distant hill, from whence I stretched my eye over many a mile of terra incognita, and was astonished to find how vast a globe I inhabited.
This rambling propensity strengthened with my years. Books of voyages and travels became my passion, and in devouring their contents I neglected the regular exercises of the school. How wistfully would I wander about the pier heads in fine weather, and watch the parting ships, bound to distant climes. With what longing eyes would I gaze after their lessening sails, and waft myself in imagination to the ends of the earth.
Further reading and thinking, though they brought this vague inclination into more reasonable bounds, only served to make it more decided. I visited various parts of my own country, and had I been merely a lover of fine scenery, I should have felt little desire to seek elsewhere its gratification, for on no country have the charms of nature been more prodigally lavished. Her mighty lakes, like oceans of liquid silver; her mountains with their bright aerial tints; her valleys teeming with wild fertility; her tremendous cataracts thundering in their solitudes; her boundless plains waving with spontaneous verdure; her broad deep rivers, rolling in solemn silence to the ocean; her trackless forests, where vegetation puts forth all its magnificence; her skies kindling with the magic of summer clouds and glorious sunshine-no, never need an American look beyond his own country for the sublime and beautiful of natural scenery.
But Europe held forth the charms of storied and poetical association. There were to be seen the masterpieces of art, the refinements of highly cultivated society, the quaint peculiarities of ancient and local custom. My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle. I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement-to tread as it were in the footsteps of antiquity-to loiter about the ruined castle-to meditate on the falling tower-to escape in short, from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.
Reading Group Guide
1. Why does Iriving call this collection The Sketch Book? What effect is he trying to achieve with the preponderance of visual imagery?
2. How do the stories in The Sketch Book inform one another and function one another and function as a collection? How do the stories set in America--"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle"--distinguish themselves from Geoffrey Crayon's vignettes about his travels in England?
3. Alice Hoffman says in her Introduction that Irving is thought to have created the short-story genre in America. What constitutes a short story, and what are the hallmarks of the American short story? How does it break with its European predecessors yet still work within tradition?
4. Why do you think Washington Irving uses the writing and narration of the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker (the pen name he used in writing his famous spoof A History of New York) to bookmark "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"? What effect does this have on the story itself? does it lend credulity or only make it more fantastic?
5. The poem that Irving quotes at the outset of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"--"The Castle of Indolence" by James Thomson--recounts the story of an enchanter who deprives all who enter his castle of their free will and their resolve. Why do you think Irving chose this particular poem? How does it inform your reading of the story?
6. How is this story influenced by the gothic literary tradition that preceded it, and how--in its setting, mood, plot, and message--does it embrace the gothic itself?
7. How has the village of Sleepy Hollow been affected or, conversely, unaffected by the American Revolution? In what context does the narrator refer to it?