Old Haunts

Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."


in Archive



Thanksgiving is a solid holiday. It has its rituals, mostly related to food, and its stories, mostly about colonists cooperating with Native Americans that (to put it politely) play fast and loose with the historical record. Thanksgiving celebrates a foundational moment in the New World and is thus a most American holiday. Revolving around family and food, Thanksgiving brings feelings of comfort, warmth, and a pleasing if indefinite sense that everything in this country is as it should be.

Not so Halloween. Halloween is about masks and the supernatural. It is a nighttime affair that flirts with the unknown. Halloween deals with evil. It’s rooted in celebrations of the harvest and the feast days that come from various European traditions. It is also a death holiday, perhaps because it originally marked the time for the slaughter of livestock. Anyway, the living and the dead are supposed to mix it up a little on All Hallows’ Eve. The boundary between the underworld and the world above can, for a short time, be crossed.

There is something romantic about Halloween. By romantic I mean that it dips into mystery and myth, legend and the unseen. Yeats, who knew little shame as an artist, once said, “I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed.” That even Yeats hedges a little in his admission (the phrases “what we have agreed to call magic” and “what I must call evocation of spirits” show a certain hesitation) proves how uncomfortable it is for modern society to speak of magic. And Yeats even had Ireland, a bottomless treasure trove of legend and myth and storytelling.

Americans started out with nothing at all. The empty and endless stretches of wilderness were peopled with natives that the colonists couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. The first Americans wanted a tabula rasa and eventually they got one. Once the forest was really empty, it had to be filled up again. And that’s what the devil is for. The imagination, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Satan is an efficient space-filler. It is not, I think, wholly coincidental that so many of those early authors who began to shape an American literature had gothic and romantic tendencies. Hawthorne never saw a tree that the devil wasn’t lurking behind. Melville was a romantic on the run, pursued by dark forces, the nameless terror that drove Captain Ahab ever onward. Poe was, well, Poe. We were beginning to create our own myths and legends and for that we needed the dark matter of the imagination.

Of course, before Poe, Melville and Hawthorne there was Washington Irving. Irving understood the dark places, the empty forests. He understood that where there are no legends they must be created. He knew that such creations take shape in the realm of shadow. He peopled our early hills, rivers, and forests with characters like Rip Van Winkle and Santa Claus, who straddle the divide between nature and its other. In one of his best, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving addresses this little problem directly.

Besides, there is no encouragement for ghosts in most of our villages, for, they have scarcely had time to finish their first nap, and turn themselves in their graves, before their surviving friends have traveled away from the neighborhood; so that when they turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon. This is perhaps the reason why we so seldom hear of ghosts except in our long-established Dutch communities.

The initial ghosts of the New World had to be borrowed from the old one. That’s what accounts for the particular tone to Irving’s prose. Writing a hundred years before Yeats, he is nevertheless half as earnest. Thus the strain of creating your own legends, a knowingness creeps into the enterprise. Irving is always caught in the act of creating the very stories that he must then go back and believe. This comes, inevitably, with a wink and a nudge, a dash of ironic distancing. Yeats could simply throw himself into the mythology of a culture that came long before him, was created by ancestral hands. Irving must become his own ancestor.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” works, its longevity and popularity are proof enough of that. Poor Ichabod Crane has lodged into our collective mind. The Headless Horseman, that spectral shade of a long-ago deceased Hessian warrior, still manages to raise a hair or two on the back of the neck.

But the story is self-aware. We get the legend, the ghost, the dark and stormy night. We also get the benefit of Irving’s knowing voice. We see the very earthly conflict at the heart of the story. In reality, this is the story of two men and one woman, Katrina Van Tassel, the possessor of the prettiest ankles in the county. Katrina takes a fancy to Ichabod, but his rival Brom Van Brunt takes advantage of Ichabod’s chief weakness, an “appetite for the marvelous” and a generally credulous nature. There is, in fact, no Headless Horseman at all. Brom Van Brunt is, simply, a murderer. A dark tale? Yes. A supernatural one? No.

There is a divided soul in the stories of Washington Irving, who marked the transition from the Old World sensibility to the later American literature of Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe (who once called Irving “overrated”). We find a genuine yearning for the myths and legends of the old country, mixed with a sense that as Americans we cannot really have these stories and maybe don’t even really want them. It’s also what makes the stories more complicated than they might first seem. Ichabod Crane is the protagonist of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Our hearts are with him. But he is cowardly and foolish. He is an uncritical consumer of the old legends, an avid reader, so we’re told, of Cotton Mather’s history of New England witchcraft. He is not at all prepared to make like Thoreau, to face the wildness of nature on new terms and test what truth there is in it.

You can still see vestiges of Irving’s divided soul, I think, in the Halloween festivities of the present. The desire for magical things is real. But it’s pursued with the knowledge that such desires cannot be fulfilled. Ichabod is dead, long live Ichabod. • 13 October 2009