The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Context


"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is part of a collection of stories titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., published from 1819 to 1820 in a series of seven parts. The stories were wildly popular, both in the United States and abroad, with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" receiving the most popular and critical acclaim of the stories included in the collection. Not only was the success of the stories important to Washington Irving personally—allowing him to devote himself to writing as a career—but with their international acceptance, the stories raised the status of American literature within the worldwide literary community. In effect, with these short stories, Irving created a particularly American form of literature that honored European traditions while showcasing the emerging American culture. The stories have endured as iconic American tales, read by generations of schoolchildren and regularly made into popular movies and multimedia experiences.

Literary Romanticism

The literary movement known as Romanticism extended from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s. It began as a reaction against the era known as the Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and logic as the cures for human suffering. In contrast, Romanticists focused on the importance of imagination and passion. Writers looked to nature and an idealized past for inspiration.

As scholars such as Dr. Kenneth McNeil suggest, Scottish writers were among the leaders of European Romanticism. One reason for Scotland's prominence in the movement is the loss of a true Scottish identity resulting from the absorption of Scotland into the British Empire in 1707. Thus understanding what it meant to be truly Scottish required looking at the past and examining tales of greatness. Sir Walter Scott was at the forefront of the Scottish Romanticists. His novels were often set in Scotland in the past and reflected legends and folklore. His most famous novel, Ivanhoe (subtitled A Romance), was published in 1819. Although it was not set in Scotland, it featured many of the hallmarks of Romantic literature, including descriptions of nature's beauty, superstition and mysticism, and the chivalric pursuit of love.

The writings of Washington Irving (of Scottish ancestry himself) caught the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who became an early fan. In fact Irving traveled to England in 1815, where he met Scott. Like Scott, Irving wished to reveal a strong national identity—but a uniquely American one. In doing so, Irving embraced the importance of nature, legends and superstitions, and human passion in his works, most notably in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." So although Irving might not spring to mind as an American Romantic as readily as other authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, he was a Romantic writer who was especially influenced by his Scottish peers.

He also spent time as a teenager in the New York valley in which the story is set, located in the modern-day Tarrytown area along the Hudson River.

The part of Romanticism that Irving highlights most fully in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"—the love of nature—contrasts with feelings of repugnance toward the increasing development of big cities. Early in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the narrator references such developments: "migration and improvement ... making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country." In Sleepy Hollow, the original settlers remain, and the way of life in the pastoral village is "undisturbed by the rush of the passing current."

Developing a National Identity

Following their victory in the revolution and the political formation of a new nation, Americans struggled with their need to be viewed as a people with a culture of their own. Representing many different nationalities, as the new inhabitants of a country made up completely of immigrants (given that Native Americans were explicitly excluded from the national imagination by early Americans), first-generation Americans wanted their developing culture to be taken seriously.

This endeavor was more obvious in the arts than perhaps any other arena. Wishing to convey the pioneering spirit of the people, reveal the unusual beauty and danger of the wilderness, and describe the heretofore unexperienced obstacles and adventures of settling the New World, American writers, musicians, and visual artists often found traditional European art forms inadequate. They felt the need to find their own voice and style, and they wanted their expressions to be accepted by critics. Into this fervor stepped Washington Irving.

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving describes the beautiful natural setting in many ways. Details of what is seen, heard, and felt in the beloved little valley of Sleepy Hollow are intended to evoke positive responses in readers as the story opens. His descriptions of the earthy Dutch settlers of the area, including both their new way of life in the valley and the old traditions they brought with them, are likewise intended to elicit favorable responses from readers. The characters inhabiting Sleepy Hollow are proud of where they live and how hard they have fought to claim and tame the area.

That "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" achieved such popularity in Europe as well as in the United States had to gratify most American artists. Washington Irving, who became known as the "first American man of letters," paved the way for American artists to be viewed seriously in the world of literature, music, and visual arts. He also opened the door for readers to share an idealized American experience that would be advocated by later American writers such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Fenimore Cooper.

Dutch Settlers in New York

From 1609 to 1664, the Netherlands controlled the Hudson River Valley, establishing what was known as New Netherland. This territory stretched from modern-day Albany in the north to Manhattan in the south. Fur trading was very profitable for the northern Dutch settlers, whereas small farms flourished in the southern part of the valley. Meanwhile, New Amsterdam—the original name of New York City—became a very successful port city.

Having no real military presence in the New World, the Dutch lost New Netherland to the English in 1664 and officially conceded it at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–67). The English king saw the wealth pouring out of the area and moved quickly to take the land with his naval fleet before the Dutch could prepare. However, some Dutch settlers remained after the English occupation.

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" Irving portrays in rich detail the wealth of a long-established Dutch farming family, the Van Tassels. He honors all of the inhabitants of the valley, the "descendants from the original Dutch settlers," including the "Sleepy Hollow Boys" and the "good housewives." The intruder and main character of the story, Ichabod Crane, does not share these Dutch roots and therefore has many less-than-desirable qualities. His foe in love, the heroic Brom Bones, represents what the locals prize in a man and is looked upon "with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will."

The mysticism of the legends shared and told over and over by the people of Sleepy Hollow reflects their ancient European roots. Many scholars believe the stories of ghosts and aggressive horsemen come mostly from the Germanic tradition. This folklore had been handed down from a common corpus of similar tales told in central European cultures through the ages leading up to the exploration of the New World.

Revolutionary War

Fought from 1775 to 1783 and taking the lives of thousands of soldiers, the American Revolutionary War created the independent United States of America. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published just 37 years after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, officially ending the conflict. Most Americans were proud of their new country. Many still harbored resentment toward the British tyrants who had made the war necessary. Especially reviled were the Hessian soldiers who had fought with the British. These were professional soldiers from Germany, hired by the British and numbering around 30,000.

Scholars believe that the tale Irving based his story on was first told after the Battle of White Plains, which took place in 1776. General George Washington suffered a defeat at this battle, mostly due to a Hessian force that attacked the colonial militia and forced them to retreat. White Plains is less than 10 miles from Tarrytown, the location of Sleepy Hollow in Irving's tale, so the people in the area would have been very aware of the battle and of the Hessian impact on its outcome. It is not a coincidence, then, that the most frequently talked-about ghost haunting in the valley of Irving's story is "the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War."

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