Well, it’s not. It’s actually a tongue-in-cheek tale of an elaborate practical joke played on a pompous schoolmaster by his rival for the affections of a young woman named Katrina Van Tassel (who, it is implied, is also complicit in the prank). Although Irving does not say so explicitly, he makes it clear enough that the so-called Headless Horseman is in fact Brom Bones, the preferred suitor, galloping through the churchyard with his coat pulled up over his head, and that the decapitated appendage that he hurls at the fleeing Ichabod Crane is in fact merely a jack o’ lantern. No supernatural visitation occurs except in Crane’s own highly superstitious mind. Sorry if that disappoints, but that’s the way Irving wrote it.
The inspiration for the local legend of a spectral mounted soldier seeking his cannonball-deprived head appears to have come from a story with Germanic roots that wind all the way back to ancient folktales of the Wild Hunt (which also manifest in the New World as the “Ghost Riders in the Sky” of cowboy lore). Irving heard the Galloping Hessian tale from the Dutch farmers he met in the Tarrytown area as a teenager, having been sent there for the summer of 1798 to escape a yellow fever epidemic that was plaguing his hometown of Manhattan. The rural culture of the lower Hudson Valley thence became a fertile source of material for his later writings, and a young Tarrytown resident named Eleanor Van Tassel Brush, who scandalized the neighbors with her provocatively ankle-revealing hemlines, is believed to have supplied the model for the comely Katrina.
It only takes a little digging into the background of how The Legend of Sleepy Hollow came to be written to unearth a load of detail and local color that is at least as much fun as a ghost story. For one thing, there really was an Ichabod Crane – but he wasn’t the guy who inspired the character. Washington Irving apparently just liked the name. They met at Sackett’s Harbor, a Lake Ontario port near Watertown that served as the primary shipyard and Great Lakes base for the US Navy during the War of 1812. The historical Crane was an Army captain stationed there, and Irving was conducting an inspection tour as part of his wartime duties as an aide-de-camp to then-governor of New York Daniel Tompkins.
It was in another occupation in his youth that Washington Irving struck up a friendship with the man who, according to the author’s own notes, became the inspiration for the fictional Ichabod character. Around 1809, Irving was working as a tutor in the home of judge William Van Ness in Kinderhook in Columbia County (nearby the Luykas Van Alen house, a Dutch farmhouse that was later to serve as the model for the fictional Van Tassel home in Sleepy Hollow). While employed at the judge’s house, called Lindenwald (later the home of Martin Van Buren), Irving became acquainted with Jesse Merwin, a local schoolteacher, and began to spend his free afternoons with him. They continued corresponding for decades thereafter, and in one of Irving’s collected letters he reminds Merwin of a practical joke that they played together on one of those youthful afternoons. It involved the theft of a load of fish from a canoe that had floated away from a local fisherman; the pair then attempted to pin the heist on a third fishing companion identified as Congressman Van Allen. More details on the escapade can be found in a recent article by Carl Johnson on AllOverAlbany.com: http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2010/10/19/ichabod-crane-the-capital-region-connection.
Perhaps because Washington Irving was among the earliest of American writers to achieve fame both at home and abroad, too many today jump to the conclusion that he must have been a stiff and stuffy Puritanical chronicler of olden times, which is far off the mark. It’s easy to forget that he was primarily a satirist and social commentator; in fact, the magazine he founded, Salmagundi, is sometimes cited as a forerunner of such iconoclastic periodicals as Mad Magazine and National Lampoon. We have ample evidence in print that Irving was as much a prankster by temperament as Brom Bones. For example, he created an advance buzz for his History of New York by placing a series of hoax classified ads desperately seeking Diedrich Knickerbocker – the fictional Dutch historian who serves as the book’s narrator – who had allegedly gone missing. Irving’s campaign fooled even public officials, who put up a reward for Knickerbocker’s safe return, and it got the desired PR effect: The book was an instant popular hit – his first major success.
So maybe it’s time that the author, and not just his most-famous short story, gets a rereading and reassessment. A good place to start is a little-known reminiscence about changes in the culture of Sleepy Hollow that Irving wrote 20 years after Legend, accessible at this link: http://henrysteiner.com/DIRcomm/sleepyhollow/article.htm. The brief piece illustrates what a master he was at the art of the sarcastic, snarky aside, couched in the perfectly polite, decorous language of the day. He deftly punctures holes in stuffy churchmen, fashion-conscious ladies and predatory bankers, all the while presenting himself (or his alter ego Knickerbocker) as a sober, respectful historian revisiting the haunts of his youth. He even manages to deflate the time-honored stereotype of the Dutch householder as obsessively clean and compulsively industrious; Irving’s Sleepy Hollow farmers are world-class skivers who will drop the plow at a moment’s notice that there’s good fishing or hunting to be had. The social commentary in the piece is truly timeless.
There’s a lot more to know about this talented native son who brought the charms and foibles of the residents of the Hudson Valley to the attention of readers throughout America and across the Atlantic. Here are just a few odd factoids:
• Irving coined the term “Gotham” for New York City, as well as “Knickerbocker” for one of its residents.
• He served as US ambassador to Spain for four years.
• He was the first chairman of the John Jacob Astor Library, the forerunner of the New York Public Library.
• He wrote biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and Mohammed.
• His historical novel about Christopher Columbus is thought to be the source of the myth that Europeans in the late Renaissance believed that the world was flat.
• A frequent victim of literary piracy, he mounted a campaign for the passage of copyright laws to protect authors.
• Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and widow of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, once had an unrequited crush on him.
Because of the “ghost story” reputation that still clings to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Halloween season does offer ample opportunities to explore Washington Irving’s legacy. There’s a “Legend Celebration” this weekend at his Tarrytown home, Sunnyside; check out the Historic Hudson Valley website at www.hudsonvalley.org for more details. Or visit the Alm@nac calendar listings for additional events throughout the region commemorating the saga of the Headless Horseman and his hapless quarry – whichever version you fancy.