The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington IrvingPull up a chair and have seat. Do you want a drink? Please, I insist. I’ve been drinking for hours. As you can see, I have a fire going in the fireplace, to ward off the chill of a winter you can already sense around the corner. It is dark outside the window. The nights come fast as the days shorten. The wind is howling. That is the wind – right? Its shriek sounds almost alive, almost human. Here, have another drink. Scoot closer to the fire. I want to tell you a terrifying story.
The 2016 election cycle.
Wake up. Are you okay? You lost consciousness and fell out of your chair. No, I didnt rifle through your pockets. No, you arent missing a ten-dollar bill. Moving on. I probably should have given you more warning, since the political theater we have experienced these past months (years?) has filled me with more dread than anything Stephen King could ever conjure.
Just recently, I attempted to watch the evening news, which is silly, I know, but I am old fashioned in some ways. Specifically, I like it when someone tells me the weather; it makes me feel someone is accountable. With the exception of a couple Viagra commercials, dispiriting in and of themselves, every commercial was a political ad. They were run in sequence, the first candidate calling the second candidate a tax-lover, followed by the second calling the first a terrorist-lover, and then circling back to the first calling the second a liar. Since I live near the border of two states, my misery is compounded. Strikingly, not a single advertisement referenced any positive position statement. It was all grossly negative hyperbolic attacks. If you were to get all your political information from watching the ads sandwiching the evening newscast, you would come to a shocking revelation. Everyone running for elected office this year is in cahoots with ISIS!
My advice. Take a break. Take a drink. (There are so many things to mix Baileys with). Read a book. Better yet, read a seasonal book, one that puts you in the mood for the finer things of fall. Forget about politics. It’s time to focus on pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin beer. It’s time to read – or in my case reread – Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Irving’s short story is familiar to most. Even if you’ve never read it, you’ve probably consumed some of it by cultural osmosis. It concerns a love triangle between itinerant school teacher Ichabod Crane; the lovely Katrina van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy planter; and local big-man-on-campus Brom van Brunt, who goes by the baller nickname of Bram Bones.
The setting is rural New York State, in the years following the American Revolution. The exact year is unclear, though I’ve seen it placed in the 1790s. Ichabod, a striving pedagogue with a taste for the high life, has come to teach in “the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow.” As drawn by Irving, Crane is a memorably awkward figure.
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, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. 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 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.
This sketch gives you a good idea of Irving’s excellent powers of description. He masterfully renders his setting. The farms, the forests, the babbling brooks, are all made vivid in your imagination. The “great fields of Indian corn,” the “golden ears peeking from leafy coverts.” A sloop “loitering” on the river, “dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast.” The hues of the forest in “their sober brown and yellow…some trees of the tenderer kind…nipped by the frost into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet.” Irving paints this beauty with color and detail, with sound and scent.
Imbedded in these descriptions is a sense of the vastness of the wilderness, and how its trackless depth gave rise to superstitions, to tales of spooks and goblins and galloping Hessians lacking heads.
The dominant spirit…that haunts this enchanted region…is the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head has been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war; and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.
File Photo: The Headless Horseman, as captured in this undated photo that was definitely not taken in my front yard, but rather in Sleepy Hollow
This is not a scary story. It only borders on the spooky. The achievement of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is in its near-perfect atmospherics. Irving delivers Sleepy Hollow in all its rustic glory: the sweep of her fields; the wend of her roads; the beliefs of her people.
And the food! Oh, the descriptions of the food!
Fain would I pause to dwell upon the world of charms that burst upon the enraptured gaze of my hero, as he entered the state parlour of Van Tassel’s mansion. Not these of the bevy of lasses…but the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table, in the sumptuous time of autumn. Such heaped-up platters of cakes of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! There was the doughy dough-nut, the tenderer oly koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes, and the whole family of cakes. And then there were apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens…Heaven bless the mark! I want breath and time to discuss this banquet as it deserves, and am too eager to get on with my story. Happily, Ichabod Crane was not in so great a hurry as his historian, but did ample justice to every dainty.
You just gained five pounds reading that. I probably should have warned you.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has become a timeless American classic since its publication in 1820. It has been adapted (often terribly) into plays, musicals, cartoons, movies, and television shows. The original remains deceptively simple, a good-naturedly mythologized vision of pastoral America. In a few short pages, it wonderfully evokes a time, a place, and a season. Year after year, it never fails to inject me with the spirit of the fall. It leaves me with comforting visions of turning leaves, sharpening weather, roaring fires, hot drinks, and warm pies. Right now, that is exactly the type of escape I need.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Summary
Ichabod comes to Sleepy Hollow, New York, from his home state of Connecticut, to be the schoolmaster of the village. Sleepy Hollow is a small, very quiet town said to be under some kind of enchantment. Its residents all seem to move a little slower, daydream a little more, and be more prone to believe in the supernatural. Sleepy Hollow, maybe for that reason or maybe because its residents are almost all descended from its original Dutch settlers, has more than its fair share of supernatural occurrences, or at least stories of them. The Horseman is seen most often riding by the church, where local historians say he was buried. He is believed to be always in search of his head. Ichabod is fascinated by this story, being especially interested and prone to believe in tales of the supernatural.
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 St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town. This name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days. Be that as it may, I do not vouch for the fact, but merely advert to it, for the sake of being precise and authentic. 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. I recollect that, when a stripling, my first exploit in squirrel-shooting was in a grove of tall walnut-trees that shades one side of the valley.