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.

Review: American Philosophy: A Love Story

John Kaag’s latest work, American Philosophy: A Love Story, masterfully leads readers through a compelling personal narrative intertwined with an introduction to American philosophical thought.

This combination memoir and history begins in the backwoods of New Hampshire. On an escape to a small philosophy conference, Kaag, a philosophy professor at UMass Lowell, stumbles into the decaying library of long-deceased Harvard philosopher William Hocking in the town of Chocorua. Followed by the ghosts of his failing marriage and recently deceased alcoholic father, Kaag throws himself into the depths of the library as the Hocking family struggles to prop up the collapsing estate. In befriending Hocking’s granddaughters, he commits to cataloging the massive library, which is composed of numerous first editions and signed copies from American philosophers ranging from Emerson to Twain to Whitman.

A central theme of Kaag’s American Philosophy is that higher education has lost its vital connection to discipline and self-reliance. As he explores his own feelings of meaninglessness through pragmatist writers, Kaag asserts that modern Americans need philosophy more now than ever. He laments that philosophy has turned from dinner table discussion to conversations exclusively between academic and abstract professors in stuffy libraries. While modern advances have given us more leisure time than ever, there are more distractions to take our minds away from internal struggle. Kaag writes that there is “no shortage of things designed to distract us from our own angst: small talk and Facebook and college classes and dates and holiday get-togethers and jobs and money and marriage and stuff.” This lack of discipline can only lead to a shared existential dread.

From here, Kaag explores salvation through thinkers William James and Charles Peirce. As he begins to dig himself out of his personal hell of depression and a crumbling marriage, he accepts pragmatists’ claims that there is no trick to salvation, only hard work. He cannot see much of this hard work and self-reliance in the way people live today.

Kaag also considers how philosophy has developed from Hocking’s time, and especially the early 20th century. American philosophers of that period were often criticized for lacking historical context in their work. From the hallowed halls of European thinkers, Americans looked uncultured in comparison with the philosophers that came before them. Kaag uncovers a musty corner of Hocking’s library that proves otherwise. Annotated copies of ancient and modern philosophers cover dozens of shelves, showing that Hocking had the knowledge necessary to explore and critique the history of philosophy on a high level. Kaag goes on to criticize contemporary philosophers for their ahistorical approach, which often produces philosophical theories “that have no bearing on any time or place.”

Kaag skillfully incorporates these major works of philosophy into his personal narrative. He seems to be hopelessly lost in interpreting the works of these philosophers and in grasping how their words apply to his life. The 10,000 volumes accumulated in Hocking’s library seem to separate him from the world around him. Hocking’s granddaughters attempt to befriend Kaag, but they never see into his vision for the library or his desperation to identify a meaning in existence.

Carol Hay, a fellow philosophy professor at UMass, pulls Kaag out of the whirlwind of depression. The Kantian feminist provides the warmth and purpose that Kaag has been searching for. She helps Kaag see that “philosophy shouldn’t stem from the theories of others or from a collection of convenient facts, but from a careful evaluation of the widest range of experience.” Hay also provides a cheesy yet heart-warming ending to tie up the narrative. Kaag slowly realizes his love for her and, after many days and nights spent in the Hocking library, the two philosophers marry and start a family. One cannot fault Kaag’s narrative for the genuine happiness that he uses to turn away from his spiralling depression.

At the end, Kaag turns to why people consider philosophy in the first place. Where his own attempts to describe his journey are incomplete, he references Alfred North Whitehead’s comment borrowed from Plato: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” American Philosophy: A Love Story provides an exceedingly accessible introduction to both intellectual freedom and life’s significance that feeds the wonder of philosophy.

Untrue, Unfair, & Unproductive: The Attacks on Hillary Clinton as Defense Attorney

“Hillary Clinton is an advocate for rapists. Not for women and children.” Those are the closing words of a meme that has been shared millions of times on Facebook since last May. The meme refers to the real case of Thomas Taylor, whom Hillary Clinton represented as court-appointed counsel in 1975 on charges of raping a 12-year-old girl named Kathy Shelton. Shelton recently appeared at Donald Trump’s side in an unorthodox press conference before the second presidential debate. The false narrative that Clinton is somehow more pro-rapist than pro-women is disappointing and problematic within the confines of the 2016 presidential race. But the thought process that sustains this narrative extends much further into the American psychology than just one election. The false dichotomy upon which it relies – that you are either pro-survivor or pro-rapist – only serves to undermine the very ideals upon which America was founded: that everyone is owed due process and a zealous legal defense.

The notion that Hillary Clinton is forever precluded from being a true advocate for women and children because of the 1975 Taylor case is ludicrous. The alt-right can devalue the currency of truthfulness as much as it wants, but the facts remain clear all the same. Clinton was appointed counsel for Taylor and dutifully fulfilled her ethical and legal obligations; at the end of the day, Taylor pled guilty to lesser-included-offenses. Now, by no means is Clinton a perfect feminist; her feminism hasn’t been as inclusive of women of color and LGBTQ folks as it should have been over the years. But despite her shortcomings, Hillary Clinton has nonetheless dedicated her life in public service to fighting for women and children.

Some may dismiss this meme and the attacks on Clinton for defending Taylor as simple partisan politics at the end of a hard-fought election. But the truth is that these false attacks are not just unfair to Clinton as an individual. They also reflect an even greater shortcoming of our society: the de-valuation of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the spirit that energizes it – the belief that justice and due process require that the accused always receive a zealous defense, no matter how heinous the charge.

When we think of American constitutional values, people instinctively reach for the First or Second Amendments, unfairly neglecting the Sixth Amendment in the process. John Adams – who later served as the second President of the United States, by the way – represented and won acquittals for six of the eight British redcoats charged for their role in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Even our favorite Founding Father here on the Hill, Alexander Hamilton, made a name for himself in his early legal career defending Loyalists to the Crown against lawsuits from American revolutionaries. So I applaud Adams and Hamilton, and I applaud Hillary Clinton, just as I applaud any other individual with skin thick enough to handle indigent criminal defense work.

I still remain deeply troubled, however, by cases like Thomas Taylor’s. They bring to the surface a conflict that I do not yet know how to resolve: the tension between supporting survivors of sexual assault and simultaneously remaining committed to the due process of law and the right of a zealous defense for all. Perhaps the only people who get a worse shake in the criminal justice system than criminal defendants are the survivors of sexual violence themselves – the very people whom the police and prosecutors are supposed to protect and serve. Coming forward is discouraged; police reports reach dead ends; rape kits get “lost” or destroyed. Sexual violence is a real, credible issue – on this college campus and others, as well as in cities and towns across the nation. So it’s easy, perhaps even natural, to see the world in black and white: you’re either pro-survivor or pro-rapist.

But as Thoreau once wrote, “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.” This false dichotomy mistakenly pits principles of feminism against principles of criminal justice reform. It chills support of one movement in an attempt to bolster the other, and it needs to stop. For it is an equally American principle that we do not sacrifice our ideals when they come under pressure. That is when we double down on our principles: when it’s hard, when it’s inconvenient, when it hurts.

We must remember the spirit that John Adams brought to court in the Boston Massacre trials – even, and especially, when dealing with an issue as emotionally fraying and important as curbing sexual violence. I applaud those who fight for the noble and important cause of advocating for survivors of sexual assault. All the same, I applaud those who fight for the cause – one equally noble and important – of advocating for the rights of the accused in all judicial proceedings, including the right to counsel and to due process.

So let’s hope that there comes a day when a constructive alliance can be forged between these two groups of passionate advocates. That day may not be today. It may not be tomorrow either. But one thing, surely, remains clear. When we sling hateful rhetoric, when we peddle unfounded lies and misleading half-truths, and when we denigrate a woman for her commitment to our constitutional rights, we all take two steps backwards.

*          *          *

Conor O’Shea ’18 is a Philosophy and Government double major, and a registered Independent in the state of New Hampshire. The author’s views are his own and not necessarily the views of any organization for which he currently works, or for which he has worked in the past.