This year marks the bicentennial of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, originally published on March 15, 1820 as part of his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Longtime readers of this blog will know that reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an annual Halloween tradition for me. I have long maintained that the tale (not a legend about a place that wasn't called Sleepy Hollow) is the original 'Scooby Doo' episode- a slightly spooky comedic story about a a creepy presence which may or may not be a ghost. Irving's Ichabod Crane, so different from the real man, is pretty much Shaggy, a tall beanpole with a boundless appetite and a tendency toward credulity.
Sadly, this pandemic year put the kibosh on the Sleepy Hollow Literary Festival, which was supposed to be a celebration of the 'Legend's' bicentennial. The festival was supposed to involve a consortium of Irving scholars presenting panel discussions and lectures on the 'Legend'. I had been hoping to attend some of the festivities before work, but that was not to be.
I was able to attend a brief lecture about the inspirations and antecedents of the 'Legend' by local storyteller and Friend of the Bastard Jonathan Kruk, who in non-plague years would recite The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at The Old Dutch Church with organ accompaniment by my Great and Good Friend Jim Keyes. Much of Mr Kruk's lecture, held outside on the grounds of Washington Irving's home Sunnyside, was based on his book Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley.
Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow while living in England, trying to keep his family's import/export business afloat, and not having a very good time of it (the United States was in the midst of a 'buy American' phase, with patriotic Americans bolstering homegrown industry). Disheartened, Irving met with Sir Walter Scott, a fan of his youthful writings, and received encouragement to continue his writing career. In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving fused fact, fiction, and fable into a wonderful composite.
The figure of a headless specter is common throughout Northern Europe, with the Dullahan being a particularly vivid type specimen, by which I mean archetype specimen. Apparently, the Dutch Americans also had a tradition of muffling themselves in cloaks and scaring unwanted individuals out of town in the colonial era. In the journal of American revolutionary general William Heath, there is an account of a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannon ball: "A shot from the American cannon at this place took off the head of a Hessian artillery-man. They also left one of the artillery horses dead on the field. What other loss they sustained was not known."
This compares well with Irving's account of the decapitated Hessian: "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..."
I have long maintained that much of the appeal of the 'Legend' is due to its sparse plot... at its heart, it's the story of a man who goes to a party and gets chased by what he thinks is a headless horseman. There is a lot of scope for adding one's own spin on the tale- good-natured rowdy vs pseudo-intellectual, rural vs urban, Dutch vs English. Even more significantly is Irving's genius at description, with his portrayal of Ichabod Crane being a masterpiece of comedic writing:
In this by-place of nature there abode, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, a native of Connecticut, who "tarried" in Sleepy Hollow for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity. He was tall and exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and feet that might have served for shovels. 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 weathercock perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
It's odd that a lot of modern adaptations insist on making Crane sexy.
For me,a lot of the appeal of the story is that it is local, indeed hyper local. The route of the 'Legend', on Route 9, is one I have driven many times. Again, Irving's genius at description comes into play in his depiction of the Pocantico River valley that he dubbed Sleepy Hollow:
In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of Saint Nicholas, there lies a small market town which is generally known by the name of Tarry Town. This name was given by the good housewives of the adjacent country from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days. Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley among high hills which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook murmurs through it and, with the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks the uniform tranquillity.
It's the attention to detail that most adaptations tend to lose, those little flourishes which conjure up an image that remains to this day, say when you hear a woodpecker earning its keep at Kingsland Point Park.
There are some nice background pieces about the 'Legend', such as this History Channel essay or this CBS news item. Again, the appeal of the 'Legend', a factor in its two centuries of popularity, is that it is endlessly adaptable- it was a brilliant synthesis by Washington Irving that has spawned a myriad of different interpretations in a chain of creation. It's an appropriate genesis for American fiction, both comic and scary.
I'll include one recent adaptation, an animated short by David Hyde Costello and narrated by poet Malik Work, which is a current stand-in for a shadow puppet show present annually in non-plague years at Irving's Sunnyside, which was cancelled this year due to the impossibility of social distancing between the two puppeteers involved in the show:
I figure I'll end this post here... I've got some reading to do.