The Enduring Allure of Sleepy Hollow

Every year at about this time (give or take a few weeks), I take a little trip to one of my favorite haunts. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to get there. I simply stroll over to the bookshelf, pull down a familiar, faded volume, thumb through a few pages (which lay back with ease at my touch, like a faithful spaniel), and begin reading. Instantly I am transported to “a little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world,” where “the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

Travel brochure for Upstate New York?

I’m talking, of course, about the legendary village in Upstate New York known as Sleepy Hollow, a “sequestered glen” whose inhabitants are as enchanting as the “drowsy, dreamy influence” that seems “to pervade the very atmosphere” of the region. Whenever I can, I make a sojourn to this peaceful “by-place of nature,” spending time in the company of its peculiar characters, who are said to “walk in a continual reverie,” listening to and being dazzled by their wondrous stories.

In other words, every year I read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the classic American short story written by Washington Irving. And why do I perform this bizarre ritual? For three reasons: to revisit the exploits of the hapless, lovesick schoolmaster; to revel in the craft of a master storyteller; and to recapture a little of what the story has to offer us today.

Best known as a ghost story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has been a favorite Halloween-time treat of mine since I was about 12 years old — in fact, this October my copy, a yellowing, dog-eared Pocket Classics paperback from Simon & Schuster, officially became 30 years overdue from the library. I remember when I first read the story, bewitched under the dark canopy of my bedroom (affectionately known in my family as “the dungeon”), and have attempted to spend time conning over its 30-odd pages every fall ever since.

These past few years I have had the pleasure of reading it out-loud to my kids as a bedtime story, stretching it over the course of a few nights leading up to All Hallows Eve. Luckily, though it’s a little spooky in parts — especially near the end, when Crane encounters the menacing specter of the Headless Horseman — it’s told in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner that’s not scary enough to inspire any nightmares. Otherwise I might be relegated to the dungeon of another kind.

But “Sleepy Hollow” is more than just a good ghost story. In fact, scholars don’t really consider it as part of the Gothic tradition in American letters, a lineage that includes Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, and, later, Faulkner. Irving wrote several Gothic stories — the best-known of which is “The Spectre Bridegroom,” which used to be required reading for all middleschoolers. Rather, “Sleepy Hollow” is considered to be the exemplar of Irving’s talents as an American “folklorist,” or tall-tale-teller and myth-maker, creating larger-than-life romantic stories based on local and European folklore. It’s in this category that the experts say he is working at the height of his power: Think also “Rip Van Winkle.”

I’m not interested in Irving scholarship, however, or a scientific debate over genre classifications. I don’t care what kind of a writer he is. No, what I care about is how he uses his talents. And one of the things I like most is his eye for detail. Irving plied his craft with the skills of a painter, a portraitist — he called the collection that contains “Sleepy Hollow” The Sketch Book, after all. His vivid descriptions of the countryside and its inhabitants, and the personage of Ichabod Crane in particular, are unforgettable. Here’s the picture of Crane that Irving paints when we first meet him, at once in fine detail then in broad brushstrokes, as part of the landscape (my own mental image of Crane was also shaped by the animators at Walt Disney):

“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.” His head “was small, flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew.” In other words, Irving concludes, 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 scare-crow eloped from a cornfield.”

Those last few words succinctly sum it all up for “the gallant Crane,” in terms of his personality and his role in the story (he’s both a foil for the “rough chivalry” of rival Brom Bones and a straw man for the backward-thinking villagers), and at the same time they create a remarkable and lasting image of the hapless pedagogue. Brilliant.

This story also is painted in lush autumnal colors, which makes it a perfect tale to tell this time of year. Irving devotes page after page to descriptions of the opulence of Baltus Van Tassel’s farmlands, and the sumptuous victuals harvested from them, that are so appealing to Crane’s hungry senses — his mouth watered as he pictured “every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, … pigeons put to bed in a comfortable pie, … the geese swimming in their own gravy,” etc. — and to his imaginative sensibilities: he dreams of possessing all this rich bounty, by marrying the coquettish Katrina, then selling it off and investing the money “in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness.” What a headache such daydreaming proves to be!

Irving had a great ear, too. The language in the story is just beautifully wrought. He stands at the delta of a new literary style, where the ornate European fashions are beginning to meld with, and are eventually overwhelmed by, the burgeoning American idiom. Many passages contain both elegant flourishes and crackerjack phrases and terms that cling to my memory and ring true every time I encounter them. For instance, “the claims of justice were satisfied by inflicting a double portion on some little, tough, wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch”; or, “if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea he was struck by a witch’s token”; or, “the animal that he bestrode was a broken-down plough-horse, that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness.” I could go on and on.

Perhaps what’s most appealing about “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is that, despite its nascent modernism, forming both on the surface (in its embrace of the new literary style) and beneath (the understanding that the methods of Crane and others like him spell the end to the rural way of life), it is delightfully old-fashioned. Both the place and the story about the place are frozen in time (it’s set, we are told, “in a remote period of American history” some 30 years earlier), depicting an idyllic ideal that I suspect its readers, year after year since it was first published in 1819, would like to recreate and hold onto. Everyone needs a quiet, country spot to disappear in, even for just a little while.

Even Crane, a native of bustling Connecticut, knew the value of “tarrying” in a region that “remains fixed” when all else around is changing. In fact, it had to take an airborne pumpkin to dislodge him from his reverie and make him realize that no one in the village wanted him to stay and put down roots.

These days, who can blame him for such behavior? What would you rather be, one of the residents of a sleepy, remote village who live within “those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream … slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the passing current,” or a restless urbanite, with a mounting mortgage debt and the (real) possibility of a place in the unemployment line? It’s a palpable, menacing specter indeed that haunts us all.

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