Places: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1819-1820 (in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.)

Type of work: Short fiction

Type of plot: Tall tale

Time of work: Eighteenth century

Places DiscussedSleepy Hollow

Sleepy Legend of Sleepy Hollow, TheHollow. Small Dutch community in New York, near Tarry Town (now commonly known as Tarrytown) and the Hudson River. Sleepy Hollow has two main characteristics. The first is a sense of “listless repose” that settles over the land and the inhabitants. This drowsiness fosters the other characteristic, the enhanced imaginations and superstitions of its inhabitants. For example, its inhabitants speculate that an Indian chief’s powwows or a German doctor’s enchantments might be the causes of the strangeness in the area.

Residents of Sleepy Hollow enjoy sitting by their fireplaces and telling one another tales of ghosts. Washington Irving attributes the hauntings and tales to the fact that this is a long-established Dutch community whose families remain there generation after generation. Chief among the ghost stories are those about the Headless Horseman, the main specter in the tale, who is often seen around the old church, where he was supposedly buried without his head.

Throughout most of the tale, natural surroundings convey mood. During the daylight hours, Sleepy Hollow is bright and cheerful. On the fall day that schoolteacher Ichabod Crane heads for the Van Tassel farm, the trees are bright orange, purple, and scarlet. Ducks fly overhead. Quail and squirrels can be heard. However, when Ichabod returns home at night, the scene changes. He passes by a tulip-tree whose limbs are “gnarled and fantastic” and a “group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grape vines,” that throws a “cavernous gloom” over the road. The ominous change in scenery alerts readers to the fact that Ichabod is about to encounter the Headless Horseman.

Van Tassel farm

Van Tassel farm. Sleepy Hollow farm that is home to Ichabod Crane’s love interest, Katrina Van Tassel. What is most remarkable about the farm is that it is portrayed as an agrarian paradise. Situated along the banks of the Hudson River, the farm is in “one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks, in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling.” It has a spreading elm tree, bubbling spring, and babbling brook. As big as a church, its barn is filled with activity and treasures from the farm. Birds twitter among its eaves, large pigs and sucklings grunt in their pens, and a “stately squadron” of geese occupy the farm’s pond. “Regiments of turkeys” and guinea fowl wander through the barnyard. The farm has rich fields of rye, buckwheat, wheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards are “burdened with ruddy fruit.”

The inside of the Van Tassel farmhouse also speaks of its family’s wealth. Farming and husbandry implements are hung from the rafters, while a spinning wheel and a butter churn stand in the piazza. On entering the hall, Crane is struck by “rows of resplendent pewter” on a long dresser. A huge bag of wool waiting to be spun rests in one corner, while in another stands “linsey-woolsey just from the loom.” Dried apples and peaches and Indian corn are placed on strings and hung as decorations. The best parlor holds mahogany furniture, silver, china, and an ostrich egg hanging from the center of the room.

Descriptions of the Van Tassel farm are slightly exaggerated, using military terms such as “regiments” and “troops,” that fit the nature of the tall tale. The farm represents the idea of America as a land of plenty. The Van Tassel family is rich because of the fertility of the Hudson Valley soil. Crane is attracted to the farm because of its prosperity; his interest in Katrina is fueled by her father’s wealth. He daydreams of marrying Katrina and selling the farm to pay for his trip to “Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where.” This is a sharp contrast to the contented settlements of the Dutch community. It is thus no surprise when Ichabod is eventually driven out of Sleepy Hollow.

BibliographyBowden, Mary Weatherspoon. Washington Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Good introduction to Irving’s work. Bowden examines the first edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” within the context of its place and importance in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.Hedges, William L. Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802-1832. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Hedges seeks to substantiate Irving’s relevance as a writer, define his major contributions, and detail aspects of his intellectual environment. The work presents “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as proof that Irving was a pioneer in the renaissance of American prose fiction.Roth, Martin. Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976. This study surveys Irving’s American period of creativity, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” demonstrating that his last experiment creates a comic vision of America.Rubin-Dorsky, Jeffrey. Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Critical revisionist view of Irving and his work primarily seen in psychological terms. It dissects Irving’s personal problems and political orientation as reflected in his writings, particularly in a substantive chapter discussing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”Tuttleton, James W., ed. Washington Irving: The Critical Reaction. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Solid collection of sixteen essays that survey the breadth of Irving’s work from early sketches to his final biographies. Two essays, Terence Martin’s “Rip and Ichabod” and Daniel Hoffman’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” scrutinize the story in depth and view it as a unique creation.
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