Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Story behind the Legend…

Almost everyone knows of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most of my readers have watched a movie or two including Tim Burton’s version and of course the Disney cartoon. Irving’s famous story led him to acclaim both in Europe as well as America, but what about the man behind the story and what led him to create one of the best pieces of fiction in early American history. 

Irving grew up in Manhattan, New York, one of 8 children in the household. Washington was named after the famous general George Washington. Irving met George Washington himself at the age of 6 when Washington was inaugurated in 1789. They say that the President laid a hand on the head of young Washington and blessed him, an incident that must come across as more of a prophecy instead of a chance meeting. Young Washington was meant for greatness. 

An outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan in 1798 gave the Irving Family a reason to go stay with family friends in Tarrytown. It is during this time that young Washington heard of a nearby town named Sleepy Hollow, which was known for its large Dutch community, and their ghost stories. He also visited with friends in Johnstown, New York and on the journey to Johnstown he will cross the Catskill Mountains, which will also affect him and will be instrumental in Irving’s writing. 

Irving started his writing career in 1802 at the age of 19. He started by writing letters that were published in the New York Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle. He wrote letters about the social style of New York as well as the theater scene. This makes me think of Lady Whisteldown in Bridgeton. By 1804 he traveled throughout Europe and by 1806 he traveled back to America in hopes of becoming a lawyer. When he was in law school, he began hanging out with a group that called themselves “The Lads of Kilkenny “, a literary movement that published a magazine named Salmagundi. The magazine was an instant success gaining Irving accolades for his writing. It was in Salmagundi that Irving gave New York the nickname of “Gotham”, such as Gotham city in Batman. Gotham is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town”.

By 1809 Irving completed A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. This was his first major book and was a lampoon on New York politics and local history. This gave him the limelight and other publishing firms started to take notice of him. He became one of the first editors that would publish Francis Scott Key’s poem "Defense of Fort McHenry" which we know today as the Star-Spangled Banner. Irving joined the war in 1814 when British troops attacked Washington D.C. The war crippled his family’s merchant business and in 1815 he traveled to Europe in hopes of keeping the family business alive. What he thought would be a quick jaunt became 17 years. 

In 1817, Irving visited the man who became an inspiration for all his future writing, Sir Walter Scott. In 1819 he started publishing The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent which would be published in New York under a seven-volume series. In the first volume Irving recalled the Catskills Mountains of his youth and published “Rip Van Winkle”, a story that he wrote in one night. Within the six volumes would be his most prolific piece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a great story to tell around Halloween. It has all the trappings of a good gothic ghost story. A protagonist who is out of his element, a town that has a secret and an antagonist who may not be what he seems. And with all of that, enough history to make it believable. Irving remembered his trip to Tarrytown, the nearby Sleepy Hollow and the old Dutch community. And with that, he started to write. The greatest inspiration for the story itself, comes from Sir Walter Scott in a poem he wrote called The Chase, in 1796, which was a translation of The Wild Huntsman which is a translation of a German poem by Gottfried Bürger. The poem is about a wicked hunter that is hunted by the devil himself and the poem is believed to have been part of the inspiration for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The legend of a headless horseman is not new. Tales of a headless specter on horseback can be seen in multiple legends, including Nordic and Irish. The Dullahan is a mythological figure out of Ireland. This headless ghost is seen on a black horse, sometimes carrying his own head up high or sometimes  the head is tucked under the arm. The Dullahan is also seen as a headless coachman driving a hearse to collect the dead. 

Irving also drew elements from the Revolutionary War for Sleepy Hollow.  The revolutionary war was recent history and familiar to the people living in America at the time.   He painted the picture of the desolate landscape from The Battle of White Plains which occurred in October, 1776. Irving writes about the area south of the Bronx River where Loyalist Rangers and Hessian Jägers were said to have patrolled, and the headless horseman is one of the Jägers that was killed and beheaded by Continental militias. In the Legend of Sleepy Hollow this headless corpse was recovered by the Van Tassel family and buried in an unmarked grave. As Irving wrote it:

“Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.”

Ichabod Crane’s ride as he tries to evade the headless horseman is open to interpretation, was the headless horseman indeed a spirit or was it Brom Bones in disguise?  After the horseman hurled his pumpkin towards Ichabod, no one knew of the fate of the schoolmaster. Gunpowder, his loyal steed, was seen eating grass near his master’s house. Ichabod’s hat, and the smashed Jack-o'-lantern, were seen nearby. But what became of Ichabod? Was he scared away by headless spirit or was he spirited away by paranormal forces at work? Either way, without Ichabod Crane, Brom marries Katrin Van Tassel and they will live out the rest of their days forever. 

Along with the Turning of The Screw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, ends ambiguously. Both of these stories are ghost stories that may or not be filled with ghosts. Washington Irving’s story is both gothic and American. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, along with Rip Van Winkle, will make Irving a legend in literature alongside other greats of the time period including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.