A Spooky Sleeper of a Tale…

Tomorrow is Halloween, which means it’s time to re-read one of the classics of American literature, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Pull your copy down off the shelf, and turn to pa . . . what’s that? You don’t own a copy? You’ve never even read it?

It’s okay.

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is one of the great sleeper hits in American literature, a story whose elements stay in our collective American consciousness even as the book itself fades from college and high school syllabi or other reading lists. As I say often, it’s become such a part of our American DNA that most of us can summarize the story even if we’ve never read it.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” made its first appearance on March 15, 1820, as the third and final story in the sixth installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of short stories and essays that Irving had been publishing at irregular intervals since June 1819. “It is a random thing,” Irving said of his tale of Ichabod Crane, “suggested by recollections and scenes and stories about [Tarrytown, New York]. The story is a mere whimsical band to connect descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc.”

While “Sleepy Hollow” takes most of its basic plot elements from Dutch and German folklore, it can rightly be called our first true American ghost story. Irving not only gives his tale a unique American setting, with distinctly American references (he mentions, for example, the tree where the spy John Andre was hanged during the American Revolution, and Ichabod Crane is said to be from Connecticut), but he tells the tale in a uniquely American voice — funny, self-confident, and with just a touch of self-deprecating cockiness. It also contains all the elements we expect of a good Halloween story: a cold autumn night, a spooky bridge, a shimmering apparition, a clattering chase, and yes, there’s even a pumpkin.

Irving’s ghost story was an immediate hit. “In my opinion [it] is one of the best articles you have written,” Irving’s best friend, Henry Brevoort, wrote to him in April 1820. The critics agreed, even as they only somewhat joked that Irving was the finest British writer America had ever produced. “[Irving] seems to have studied our language where alone it can be studied in all its strength and perfection,” wrote a reviewer in the English Quarterly Review, “and in working these precious mines of literature he has refined for himself the ore which there so richly abounds.”

“Sleepy Hollow” remains perhaps the most memorable item in Irving’s large oeuvre, his perpetual crowdpleaser. So popular was the story in Irving’s lifetime that when he prepared an Author’s Revised Edition of his works late in life, Irving slightly reordered the essays in The Sketch Book to end the volume with “Sleepy Hollow” as its exclamation point.

Thanks in part to two movies — the 1958 Disney short, and the 1999 Tim Burton film — “Sleepy Hollow” remains as popular today as it did in Irving’s time. And thanks to those movies, if I were to ask you to summarize Irving’s tale, you’d probably come up with a series of images rather than the actual plot: Ichabod Crane sitting gawkily on his horse Gunpowder. Crane dancing goofily with Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod Crane riding Gunpowder for all his might, as the Headless Horseman gains on him. A flaming pumpkin hurled through a covered bridge, straight at the viewer.

That’s all fair enough — the story probably is more about mood than plot, and as Irving himself noted, the tale was simply a “whimsical band” to connect various “descriptions of scenery, customs, [and] manners.” But there’s still a bit more to it than that — including an ending that no one seems to remember.

And tomorrow, I’ll talk about it.

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