It is officially autumn, which means time to crack out the ghost stories and gothic tales (For a brilliant ghost story anthology, by the way, I’d recommend Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh!). Last week I decided that I’d check out Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the first time and, let me tell you, this story was a delight and a surprise.
The Headless Horseman, as you probably know, is the tale of a superstitious schoolteacher called Ichabod Crane who moves into a village in rural late 18th century New York (right after the Revolutionary War). It’s a dreamy place and, when people visit, the ‘witching influence of the air’ makes them ‘begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions’. One of the apparitions that is known to haunt the town is the spirit of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannon ball in a battle during the Revolution and rides out nightly looking for it. But who, or what, is the headless horseman? And what are the chances that Ichabod might have a run in with him, before this story is done?
I knew a little bit about Sleepy Hollow before reading it, but what I was so surprised by was the lighthearted tone of it. I expected it to be quite serious and gothic, but I’d mostly call it a playful and affectionate satire of the New York Dutch community that Irving was raised around. In fact, by the time he wrote Sleepy Hollow, Irving, who grew up in New York, had already written A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker.‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’ (amazing name!) was a character that Irving created – a crusty old Dutch-American historian. Writing under the name of Knickerbocker, Irving’s A History of New York, lightly satirized self-important local histories and politics (which, you could say also applies to Sleepy Hollow!). It also chronicled Dutch-American traditions, including those surrounding Christmas. I talk about this in my blog post about the history of Christmas in America, but lots of our modern Christmas traditions come from the Dutch. Irving’s A History of New York is significant because it captures some of the Dutch traditions that would later become Christmas staples (hanging stockings by the fire, for instance, is a Dutch thing!).
Diedrich Knickerbocker, as a character, appears here in Sleepy Hollow too, in the framing story. The entire tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is presented as something that Knickerbocker overheard. It’s a fun and quite modern (or even post-modern?) device to have a humorous fake persona like this. Irving (the cheeky fellow!) even tried to stoke controversy and interest in his work by putting ‘missing persons’ ads in local newspapers – looking for Diedrich Knickerbocker!! People really believed that Knickerbocker existed and even offered a reward for his return. This kind of play with authorial personas and invented ‘found’ histories actually makes me think of something like His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, a novel which came out a few years ago and tells a story using fictional historical documents. (Burnet told me in an interview once that many people read the novel and thought it was real!)
In any case, this is a very playful way to create a story – such an unexpected delight. Another delightful aspect was all the autumnal descriptions in Sleepy Hollow:
As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider press.
Doesn’t that description just make you smell and feel the sights of autumn? There are ‘yellow pumpkins’ lying around and ‘turning their fair round bellies to the sun’. You can also find plenty of scrumptious descriptions of autumnal treats (the New York Dutch were known for their desserts) including ‘the doughy doughnut’, ‘apple pies, and peach pies, and pumpkin pies’ and ‘delectable dishes of preserved plums’. Irving is clearly a man after my own heart – I can never get enough descriptions of food in books.
So I’d definitely recommend Sleepy Hollow for a very fast and pleasant autumn read. It’s a short story, not a novel, so you could easily blaze through it in one sitting. It’s available online through Project Gutenberg, free and easy to access! I printed it off and read it with a cup of tea – which I’d highly recommend.
I hope that you’re having a nice start to the season and let me know what you think of Sleepy Hollow. Have you read it before? Does it seem like your type of thing? Have you seen any of the adaptations of it? I’m considering watching the Tim Burton version now – let me know what you think of that film, if you’ve seen it!
PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane’ by John Quidor (1858).
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!