Washington Irving and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Remembered

Washington Irving’s collection of short stories and essays, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, captivated American and European readers. The major American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said that everyone has a book that fires their imagination and is burned into their psyche well past childhood. For him, it was Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book. The stories are enchanting, haunting, humorous, astonishing and uniquely American. They made Washington Irving into an unexpected star at a relatively young age—37. In his career, he was a determined historian, trusted diplomat, superb essayist, and presidential biographer, but he was and is remembered principally as the writer of The Sketch Book collection, and especially a particular story found within it, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was written in 1820. Set along the Hudson River, in what is now Westchester County, the story is about a physically awkward and covetous schoolmaster who is rejected by a wealthy farmer’s daughter and ridden out of town for good by a phantom headless horseman. For his book and especially this short story, Washington Irving received international recognition and readership. Though he achieved fame relatively early on in his career, he was not of the temperament to sit back on his early success but continued to publish consistently throughout his life.

The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said Irving was the perfect literary representative from a fledgling country to enter a more sophisticated writing community on the European continent, seamlessly mixing in either circle with good humor, intelligence, and grace. His writing bewitched a young nation unsure of its cultural identity and helped enhance its standing across the ocean. He was lauded as America’s first great writer and applauded by the likes of Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott and Mark Twain for his descriptive talents and whimsical narrative.

For close to two hundred years, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been read with great enthusiasm and has captured the imaginations of book lovers both young and old. This ghost story of sorts comes to life through Irving’s extraordinary characters: the lanky and scarecrow-like schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, and the headless, vengeful Hessian horseman specter, left over from the Revolutionary War, galloping furiously through the night toward his intended and panicked target. Irving’s characters and vivid descriptions of a rural and enchanting Sleepy Hollow painted a picture for his readers of natural abundance and foreboding that to this day remains part of the American collective imagination.

This Halloween, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” turns 196 years old. Washington Irving gave Americans a memorable gift. He allowed his readers to nestle further down into their snug chairs by the fire and delve into a world of otherness, where hauntings exist, and characters can barely outrun their worst fears. But Irving passed out terror in small measures. He also created a tale of pastoral beauty and richness in an off-the-beaten-path settlement in New York. Irving allowed his readers to be children again; he took them to a place where even ghost stories can be magical. They could tingle with excitement and expectancy and hope for hope’s sake that the sufficiently terrified schoolteacher would not fall off his horse but could outrun the headless horseman galloping wildly toward him. One can easily see the scene unfold and relish all the details, even if the shocking ending surprises. It is precisely Irving’s ending – a smashed jack-o-lantern and a vanished schoolmaster – that helped catapult this tale to prominence.

Irving’s unsettling, but charming, legend has become a part of American folklore and is synonymous with all things eerie, autumn and Halloween. Irving was a gifted storyteller. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is embedded permanently in America’s cultural and literary history and recalled, re-interpreted and read with great fondness and nostalgia, especially during the fall months. Even after almost two hundred years, no authentic American library would be complete without it.