#38: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
One of the building blocks of American folklore
Initial release: 1820
Author: Washington Irving
Few authors can claim to be as influential on American folklore as Washington Irving; he helped shape the mythology of an entire nation in its infancy. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in its way, IS American horror, which is ironic given its obvious roots in Irish and Scottish myth (which, given the roots of the colonial settlers of the region the story takes place in, is probably not a surprise.)
The basics: Ichabod Crane is a lanky, nerdy sort of fuckboy from Connecticut who works as a schoolteacher in Tarrytown, New York while also trying to get into the local rich girl’s petticoats. His primary competition is Brom Bones, the local Gaston analogue. Lurking in the background is the legend of the headless horseman, supposedly the ghost of a German mercenary who lost his head to a cannonball in the Revolutionary War some fifteen-twenty years prior, and who now roams the countryside looking for his lost dome.
Crane spends his days teaching, and when he’s not teaching, he’s gladhanding with the locals, never staying for too long in one house. He also has to put up with repeat bullying from Brom, who seems all too confident in his ability to win the affections of Katrina van Tassel. One autumn night, farm families from around the area gather at the van Tassel home for a harvest party; ghost stories are traded, including a few about the headless horseman. Afterwards, Crane attempts to woo Katrina, but fails. On his way home he’s set upon by the horseman! After a lengthy chase, the horseman catches up to him and throws his own damn head at the poor guy. The next day Crane is nowhere to be found, but the epilogue states that he later turned up elsewhere, having become a lawyer and a politician.
Almost the entire story is without dialogue; the only spoken line is Crane’s, demanding “who are you?” of the horseman. The story is otherwise told as if it were being related in person, rather than in the traditional prose style. Indeed, the very end of the story tells how this story came to be related to the narrator. It’s an interesting device that I don’t think would work in anything other than a short story.
One of the things that sets this story apart is the “maybe magic, maybe mundane” approach to the tale. It’s hinted that the horseman might actually be Brom playing a prank on crane; but one must also consider how long the legend’s been around. The tone of the story, ambiguous but leaning towards mundane, feels like an attempt to reflect a new age of reason in America, a country founded (ostensibly) on principles of reason, in contrast with Europe, an old, dark domain full of ghosts, real, imagined and metaphorical. This, to me, is probably the salient point of what Irving was trying to do, amidst his romanticist tendency for description and his fixation on the regional culture of the Dutch-descended locals.
Ultimately, whether magic or mundane, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow feels like an early American take on gothic horror. Gothic horror was not only still in its infancy as a genre, it was also a very European one, generally; perhaps this is why there seemed a need to translocate a European legend to America, nevermind that there’s plenty of spooky folklore in indigenous cultures. Still, translocated or not, it’s an important building block in the spookier side of early American culture.