The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | Study Guide

Washington Irving

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is an eerie, haunting work of fiction that implants fear in the hearts of any who find themselves in the woods at night. First published in 1820, Irving's story is now one of the most well-known American folktales. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" follows the adventures of Ichabod Crane, a bookish schoolteacher who comes into contact with the terrifying specter of a headless horseman. Crane's mysterious disappearance after this encounter gives the story an eerie uncertainty, leaving the reader to ponder whether Crane is killed by a prankster in disguise or whisked away by a malevolent spirit.

Irving's story first appeared in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent collection, which also contained "Rip Van Winkle," a folktale that has become equally synonymous with the forests and towns surrounding the Hudson River. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" continues to draw tourism to the Hudson Valley region, as the story's memorable characters, such as Ichabod Crane, have become household names across the country.

1. Irving's headless horseman may have been inspired by a real decapitated corpse.

Near the end of the American Revolution, the British hired numerous German mercenary soldiers, called Hessians, to fight against the American colonists. The Hessians were infamous for their brutality in combat. One Hessian soldier's body, missing a head, was exhumed from an unmarked grave after the war's end near Tarrytown, New York, where "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is set. The discovery of this beheaded corpse is often credited as the inspiration for Irving's hauntingly mysterious headless horseman character.

2. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" wasn't the first folktale to feature a headless horseman.

Irving often incorporated themes and figures from German folktales in his stories set in the northeastern United States. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was likely inspired by a story by Johann Karl August Musäus in his collection Legenden vom Rübezahl (usually translated as Elfin Freaks). Musäus's story also featured a headless horseman's spirit terrorizing a rural community.

3. Irving's pen name inspired the New York Knicks' team name.

Irving was known to use a variety of pseudonyms for his literary works. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" originally appeared in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent collection, which he published under the pen name Geoffrey Crayon. Scholars aren't certain why Irving had such an affinity for using pseudonyms, but Geoffrey Crayon wasn't his first instance of publishing under one. His most famous pen name was Diedrich Knickerbocker, which he used to publish A History of New York in 1809. Due to the popularity of Irving's writing with New Yorkers, locals were referred to as "Knickerbockers" and New York City's basketball team eventually borrowed the name, shortening it to the "Knicks."

4. Irving knew a real Ichabod Crane.

Although the name Ichabod Crane has become synonymous with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving borrowed the name from a historical figure of the New York area. Colonel Ichabod B. Crane was a contemporary of Irving's, and the two served as military assistants at the same time during the War of 1812. While there's no official record of Irving and Crane ever interacting, historians believed they likely knew each other briefly during their military service (since they were both from the New York area and held the same position during the war), and Irving went on to use Crane's name without asking permission. Colonel Crane continued to serve in the military for 45 years before his death in 1857.

5. Irving modeled the Van Tassels on a real family.

The Van Tassels of Westchester, New York, were considered one of the most prominent families in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although unlikely, the family was believed to be descendants of a Dutch settler and a Native American princess. Irving came to know the family well as he was writing, and he purposely incorporated them into "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." It is believed that the home of Katrina Van Tassel in the story is modeled on the old Van Tassel Inn, which was demolished some time after the American Revolution.

6. Irving first visited the area where "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is set while fleeing an epidemic.

Irving grew up in New York City, but he was forced to travel north to the Hudson Valley in 1798, at age 15. An epidemic of yellow fever (spread by mosquitoes) had started to cause a panic throughout New York, as it had already claimed 5,000 lives in Philadelphia the previous year. Irving traveled to stay with his friend James Kirke Paulding, who informed him of the Hudson Valley's wide array of ghost stories, including that of the headless Hessian solider. This was also the time when Irving first experienced the rural, pastoral landscape of the area that would influence his most popular works of fiction—an area he once described as a "lap of land, among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world."

7. A real town named Sleepy Hollow exists—but only since 1996.

The village of Tarrytown, New York, is Irving's setting for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Although the town has long been proud of its connection to the famous folktale, it wasn't until 1996 that the hamlet of North Tarrytown voted to rename itself Sleepy Hollow, 122 years after its original incorporation. Some locals protested the name change, noting that repainting fire trucks and changing road signs would cost thousands in taxpayer dollars.

8. Irving was buried in a cemetery later renamed "Sleepy Hollow."

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York is the final resting place of Washington Irving, whose headstone has since been replaced with a larger marker due to the author's enduring popularity. At the time of Irving's death, the graveyard was still named Tarrytown Cemetery, but it was later renamed to posthumously honor the author. Irving advocated the change before his death by writing that the name "Sleepy Hollow" was:

enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves. If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world, and its distractions ... I know of none more promising than this little valley.

9. The 1999 film adaptation rebuilt the town of Sleepy Hollow.

A 1999 film adaptation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," directed by Tim Burton, featured Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane and Christopher Walken as the ghostly headless horseman. During the filmmaking process, the crew rebuilt the entire town of Sleepy Hollow as described in Irving's story, only to tear it down once filming had concluded. The film's production designer, Rick Heinrichs, explained the decision to build the town to meet Burton's vision, describing the architecture as:

Colonial expressionism: a sort of pastiche of Dutch and English and some French domestic architecture, and that all feels oddly American because it is a pastiche of different influences.

10. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was adapted into a graphic novel set in contemporary Daytona Beach, Florida.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has spawned numerous contemporary adaptations, not all of which share the eerie yet picturesque setting of the Hudson Valley. The Chopper series of graphic novels, published in 2011, reimagines the story in Daytona Beach, Florida, in the 21st century. The novel features a cast of high school students experimenting with a new hallucinogenic drug that allows them to see into the spirit world, forcing them into contact with ghosts such as Irving's headless horseman.

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