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Here's another one of those stories that I always thought I knew fairly well, but only because I remember the Classic Cartoon version that WWOR-TV in New York used to show after school.  So I'd mistakenly recalled it as simply a scary story with Ichabod Crane facing the evil Headless Horseman--an amusing enough tale and quite scary, but little more than a ghost story.  What a sheer delight then to return to the story in my dotage and find that it is much more densely textured, richly nuanced and truly funny than I'd ever realized.  In fact, you can make a pretty good case for the idea that our understanding of the story is completely backwards--that Ichabod Crane is the villain of the piece, the Headless Horseman the hero.

The story is, of course, set in Irving's favorite milieu in Knickerbocker New York among the old Dutch settlers:

    From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are
    descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name
    of SLEEPY HOLLOW, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the
    neighboring country.  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
    marvelous 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.

    The dominant spirit, however, 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.  It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away
    by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon
    seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.  His
    haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the
    vicinity of a church at no great distance.  Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those
    parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre,
    allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the
    scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes
    passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get
    back to the churchyard before daybreak.

    Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a
    wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the
    name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow.

Ichabod Crane has come to the region from Connecticut in order to teach school.  As Irving describes him, he is a birdlike man:

    The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.  He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with
    narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might
    have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together.  His head was small, and
    flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a
    weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.  To see him striding
    along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one
    might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow
    eloped from a cornfield.

This uncharitable physical description is just the start of what turns out to be a pretty unflattering portrait of the young teacher.  He is something of a martinet at school:

    Truth to say, he was a conscientious man, and ever bore in mind the golden maxim, "Spare the rod
    and spoil the child." Ichabod Crane's scholars certainly were not spoiled.

And somewhat of a parasite outside of it:

    When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on
    holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty
    sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard.

He also seems to be averse to hard work:

    That all this might not be too onerous on the purses of his rustic patrons, who are apt to considered
    the costs of schooling a grievous burden, and schoolmasters as mere drones he had various ways of
    rendering himself both useful and agreeable.  He assisted the farmers occasionally in the lighter
    labors of their farms, helped to make hay, mended the fences, took the horses to water, drove the
    cows from pasture, and cut wood for the winter fire.  He laid aside, too, all the dominant dignity
    and absolute sway with which he lorded it in his little empire, the school, and became wonderfully
    gentle and ingratiating.  He found favor in the eyes of the mothers by petting the children,
    particularly the youngest; and like the lion bold, which whilom so magnanimously the lamb did
    hold, he would sit with a child on one knee, and rock a cradle with his foot for whole hours

As you can see, the Ichabod Crane who emerges from these pages is just not a terribly sympathetic character.  Somewhat condescending, somewhat of a sissy, something of a freeloader, he's a young man whom we wouldn't mind seeing get his comeuppance.

Eventually he sets his cap for Katrina Van Tussel, a delectable young maiden, whose father just happens to be a "substantial Dutch farmer."    But she is understandably also being courted by local lads:

    Among these, the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of Abraham,
    or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the country round which rang
    with his feats of strength and hardihood.  He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short
    curly black hair, and a bluff but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and
    arrogance From his Herculean frame and great powers of limb he had received the nickname of
    BROM BONES, by which he was universally known.  He was famed for great knowledge and skill
    in horsemanship, being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar.  He was foremost at all races and
    cock fights; and, with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the
    umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that
    admitted of no gainsay or appeal.  He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more
    mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong
    dash of waggish good humor at bottom.  He had three or four boon companions, who regarded him
    as their model, and at the head of whom he scoured the country, attending every scene of feud or
    merriment for miles round.  In cold weather he was distinguished by a fur cap, surmounted with a
    flaunting fox's tail; and when the folks at a country gathering descried this well-known crest at a
    distance, whisking about among a squad of hard riders, they always stood by for a squall.
    Sometimes his crew would be heard dashing along past the farmhouses at midnight, with whoop
    and halloo, like a troop of Don Cossacks; and the old dames, startled out of their sleep, would listen
    for a moment till the hurry-scurry had clattered by, and then exclaim, "Ay, there goes Brom Bones
    and his gang!"  The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will;
    and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and
    warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.

Here we find, not merely Crane's rival for Katrina, but a claimant for our own affections.  Brom Bones, a hale fellow well met, is everything Crane is not--brawny, physical, uncultured, masculine.  And it is this contest which elevates the story from being simply a good scary tale and sets it down smack in midstream of American Literature.  Here, as so many times before (see Orrin's review of Huck Finn), we see the contrast between City (feminine, intellectual and severe) and Country (wild, masculine &, most of all, free).  But, where in the past we've seen the hero flee the restrictive Civilization, here the Wilderness, in the form of Brom posing as the Headless Horseman, simply scares away the representative of Civilization.  Irving doesn't explicitly implicate Brom, but leaves little doubt:

    It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from
    whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that
    Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin
    and Hans Van Ripper, and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress;
    that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at
    the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the
    newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the ten pound court.  Brom Bones, too, who,
    shortly after his rival's disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was
    observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst
    into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more
    about the matter than he chose to tell.

The story remains just as enjoyable as when you were a kid, but reading it as an adult, you get that wonderful frisson of recognition as you see it's central theme emerge and mesh with so much of the rest of the Western Canon.  It's just a terrific story regardless of which of it's varied levels you perceive--a timeless classic that deserves to be read again.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Washington Irving (2 books reviewed)
Washington Irving Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Washington Irving
    -REVIEW: of Rip Van Winkle’s Republic: Washington Irving in History and Memory Edited by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg (Eugene L. Meyer, Washington Independent Review of Books)
    Washington Irving's English Christmas: An American essayist penned one of the best descriptions of the 19th-century British Christmas traditions, and in so doing helped restore many of these then-dying customs on both sides of the Atlantic. (James Munson, 12/25/04, British Heritage)
    -ESSAY: Civilizing Sketches: Washington Irving’s antidote to distraction, doomscrolling, and decay (John Byron Kuhner, DECEMBER 28, 2020, Plough)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Washington Irving (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "washington irving"
    -Teaching Washington Irving
    -Literary Research Guide: Washington Irving (1783 - 1859)
    -STUDY GUIDE:   A Research and Reference Guide Chapter 3: Early Nineteenth Century: Washington Irving  (1783-1859)(PAL: Perspectives in American Literature)
    -A Student History of American Literature: Washington Irving
    -EducETH: Irving, Washington: 1783 - 1859
    -LINKS: Washington Irving (1783-1859) (Gonzaga)
    -About Washington Irving (Resources for Educators)
    -The Washington Irving Trail Museum (Southeast of Stillwater, Oklahoma)
    -ANNOTATED ETEXT: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (Hypertext Meanings and Commentaries  by Mark Zimmerman, Encyclopedia of the Self)
    -ETEXT: The Project Gutenberg Etext of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. by Washington Irving
    -REAL AUDIO: Washington Irving's timeless tale of ghosts and folklore, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is this month's feature for (Whispers From The Cabinet)

    -Official Site
    -The Sleepy Hollow Ring