The Galloping Hessian of the Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

I finished this story late Saturday night. It’s one of those stories that is imbedded in the cultural consciousness of America. Indeed, it was one of the earliest examples of American Literature AND was written by one of its pioneers. Who among us didn’t learn or hear the story of “The Headless Horseman” when we were growing up? The image of a horseman without a head is an irresistible horror icon to the young, reinforced every year around the time of Halloween. Note: My following comments assume one is already familiar with the basics of the story.

The actual “supernatural” portion of this tale only takes up the last few pages, and there is some pretty compelling evidence given by the author that nothing supernatural happened at all – that the Headless Horseman’s appearance was just a charade by Brom Bones and/or his “gang.” Sure, we learn that poor Ichabod “most firmly and potently believed” in witchcraft and the supernatural, but it seems to me that the local legend of the horseman is only the framework around which the story of an awkward schoolmaster and his unrealized dreams of happiness is told.

I re-read this story just after finishing my book club’s march assignment, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, to which – although I enjoyed it – the beauty of Irving’s prose in comparison was quite refreshing. His early descriptions of the landscape of Sleepy Hollow are wonderful, and his characterization of the unfortunate Ichabod Crane – including the physical descriptions – rekindled my appreciation for really fine writing. (” …hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and feet that might be taken as shovels…”, etc.). Crane is a late 18th Century nerd!

In spite of this, he is not without prospects, and is a popular figure among the local womenfolk, known for his erudition (he’s “read several books right through”…) and is a welcome guest in the households of the hollow. He sets his aim high – on Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a “wealthy” farmer. She is a flirt, however, and it seems unclear if she is interested in Crane for anything other than to make other suitors – Brom Bones among them – jealous. Some of my favorite writing in this story surrounds Katrina’s nature. A favorite passage:

“I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access, while others have a thousand avenues and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great skill to gain the former, but still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for the man must battle for his fortress at every door and window. He who wins a thousand common hearts is therefore entitled to some renown, but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette is indeed a hero.”

Words that are probably just as true today as they were when they were written roughly two-hundred years ago.

Take some time and read this story. It’s well worth it. It only takes about forty-five minutes, so one night this week, instead of watching American Idol, or a CSI or Law & Order rerun on television why not just turn off that appliance and read one of the classic stories in American Literature…