Atmosphere: Hijinks in the air
Chill factor: Sufficiently toe-tingling
What a delightful tale to read. Not spooky (as it seemed when I was a child), but very atmospheric, as this early account of Sleepy Hollow demonstrates:
Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.
That’s a pretty tricky way to lull a reader into a gothic tale. Next, we meet our hapless hero, Ichabod Crane memorably described as:
…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…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 scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.
Irving really is a master at description. I especially enjoyed the way he captured the essence of the time and place:
Old farmers, a spare leathern-faced race, in homespun coats and breeches, blue stockings, huge shoes, and magnificent pewter buckles. Their brisk withered little dames, in close crimped caps, long-waisted short-gowns, home-spun petticoats, with scissors and pincushions, and gay calico pockets hanging on the outside.
This story also has to take the prize for Most Memorably Named Characters: Ichabod Crane, Bram Bones, Katrina van Tassel. (Is Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House echoing Ichabod’s name with Hugh Crain, the owners of Hill House?)
I found it quite interesting how this story – considered one of the earliest examples of literary writing from the new world – deals with fundamental American traits that exist to this day: a can-do belief in the ability to improve one’s status; a naiveté about the larger world, combined with a rapacious sense of individual entitlement; and trust in westward expansion. And maybe Irving is poking a little fun at it, for, woeful as Ichabod is, with his not-very-appealing looks and less-than-appealing career prospects, he positively salivates over the prospect of marrying Katrina:
From the moment Ichabod laid his eyes upon these regions of delight, the peace of his mind was at an end, and his only study was how to gain the affections of the peerless daughter of Van Tassel.
Irving has been criticized by some as having stories with no morals and writing strictly for an audience (the first Dan Brown, perhaps?). But I believe Irving is mocking the superstitions of the townspeople who are “given to marvelous beliefs,” and Ichabod himself, who, though an educated man,
..was, in fact, an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.
Couldn’t Ichabod serve as a metaphor of America itself, especially in the immediate post-Revolutionary period (and perhaps even now): Outsized and awkward, starry-eyed while ambitious, impoverished yet abundant, democratic but status-conscious?
At the story’s end, Ichabod pays for his overarching aspirations – and because of his superstitious beliefs. On a ride homeward one lonely autumn night, Ichabod falls prey to the local legend of the Headless Hessian and disappears under mysterious circumstances:
…The schoolmaster now bestowed both whip and heel upon the starveling ribs of old Gunpowder, who dashed forward, snuffling and snorting, but came to a stand just by the bridge, with a suddenness that had nearly sent his rider sprawling over his head. Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen, black and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.
What happened to the hapless Ichabod Crane? We never quite know, though there is much surmising on behalf of the townspeople. A smashed pumpkin near the scene of Ichabod’s disappearance would suggest a prankster in the order of Bram Bones was the true culprit. There is speculation that Ichabod found a new life elsewhere (a reflection of the American belief in the pioneering spirit and westward expansion), but true to their credulity, the townspeople finally are willing to lay blame on the headless horseman. Perhaps the real horror of the story is not that Ichabod Crane could have been carried off by an apparition; rather, it is his lack of bonds to the community and greater world, and the community’s ready dismissal of him (a form of alienation, also a trait peculiar to America):
…when they had diligently considered them all, and compared them with the symptoms of the present case, (the townspeople) shook their heads, and came to the conclusion that Ichabod had been carried off by the galloping Hessian. As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him.