Many Americans are familiar, at least in part, with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a short story by Washington Irving. It was published in 1820 in a collection of short stories called The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Taking place in the small town of Sleepy Hollow (in New York), the story follows a country schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who enters into a rivalry with the brawny Brom Bones for the hand of the wealthy coquette Katrina Van Tassel. Following a party at the Van Tassels, Ichabod is chased through the woods by the Headless Horseman, a local specter who was a Hessian soldier killed in the Revolutionary War. According to Sleepy Hollow legend, the Headless Horseman rides at night, with its pumpkin head in its hands, looking for a new head. Nothing is found of Ichabod in the morning, except for his hat, his saddle, his horse, and a shattered pumpkin. Irving hints that Brom Bones impersonated the Headless Horseman to scare Ichabod Crane away and that Ichabod moved to a different part of the country.
Irving’s works gained him a reputation as one of the first American writers who was respected in both America and Europe. Many Europeans of the time looked down on Americans as coarse and rude, so this was quite an accomplishment. In America, his books had a special significance. Stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle effectively gave Americans a history and myths to call their own. While Irving most likely derived inspiration from the many ghostly riders of European superstition, such as the Irish dullahan and the Wild Hunt (which is found in the myths of many countries), his stories add elements of rural America that give them a uniquely American taste. For example, he refers to the Dutch settlers, as the Netherlands owned the colony until 1664. His stories, along with the books of James Fenimore Cooper, which romanticize the frontier, created an identity for Americans that complemented the political identity formed during and after the Revolutionary War. His stories paint a vision of an idyllic America, with rural glens and old superstitions. Yet, he also adds a sense of rationality to his tales. He gives a possible reason for the Headless Horseman that chases Ichabod that dispels the superstitions. This nods to the hope that America would be a country based on logic and modern democracy that would be better than the Old World.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has become more than just a short story, like the tall-tale exploits of Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett. It has become an integral part of American myth and identity. The story of Ichabod Crane has made its way into American art, evidenced by this sculpture by John Rogers. The sculpture, which resides in the New York Historical Society’s John Rogers collection, is titled “Ichabod Crane and the ‘Headless Horseman.’” It depicts a terrified Ichabod Crane and an ominous Headless Horseman (although you can see Brom Bones’ face in the depths of his coat). Another Rogers’ sculpture at the NYHS shows Ichabod Crane courting Katrina Van Tassel. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has also made its way into plays, musicals, opera, and countless movies.
In 8th grade, I watched both the Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which more closely follows the plot, and the Tim Burton version, which definitely doesn’t. In the Disney version, as in the book, the characters are stereotypes, but there is no really clear character to like. Katrina is nice, but a flirt. Brom Bones is mischievous and rather self-important, but he is regarded as a “local hero.” And Ichabod Crane is definitely not a shining, moral main character. He is basically a gold-digger. Tim Burton makes the story a battle between good and evil. The Headless Horseman an actual character from nightmares. Ichabod Crane is a police inspector with a troubled, but entirely blameless, past. I’d suggest watching both of them, as long as you can stomach decapitated corpses (for the Tim Burton version), but first you should read the story, which isn’t very long. I’ve provided a link for the entire Disney version and the preview for the Tim Burton version.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has had a lot of impact on American culture (even beyond literature, art, and film). North Tarrytown, where the story’s events are set even renamed Sleepy Hollow. Towns and suburban subdivisions across the country have also been named Sleepy Hollow—from Illinois to Virginia to Florida. Washington Irving has left a lasting legacy.