“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

from The Sketch-Book

by Washington Irving

Well, I had forgotten I’d already read this. I enjoyed it, more than I think I did the first time. But what it really reminded me of was why I initially wanted to write: painting pictures with words.

There’s so many moments in “Sleepy Hollow” that feel like a pause to describe what everything looks like. And most of it (or some of it) sounds so pretty.

“The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet. Streaming files of wild ducks began to make their appearance high in the air; the bark of the squirrel might be heard from the groves of beech and hickory nuts, and pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble-field” (306).

And a little bit later,

“The horizon was of a fine gold tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heaven” (307).

And also,

“A sloop was loitering in the distance, dropping slowly down with the tide, her sail hanging uselessly against the mast; and as the reflection of the sky gleamed along the still water, it seemed as if the vessel was suspended in the air” (307).

The other aspect I like about these picturesque pauses is that they carry such a strong autumnal tone. It’s just lovely and seems perfectly fitting for the season right now.

“As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasure of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields, breathing the odor of the bee-hive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle” (306).

My biggest critique is that the ending was a little confusing, action-wise. In particular, when Ichabod tries to get his borrowed horse to go over a log bridge but the horse doesn’t. Somehow they end up going over a different bridge (the one toward the church where the Headless Horseman is buried), and that transition was not visually clear to me.

There was also an undercurrent of re-establishing the landscape (“the eastern shore of the Hudson” (291)) as belonging to the fledgling United States.

First, Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker describes how “[i]f I should ever wish for a retreat, wither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley” (291-2). The entire region comes across as devoid of human contact. Which is balderdash; I’m not sure there’s many regions in the United States that didn’t have (native) human contact prior to colonial Europeans.

But ah! Second, Irving mentions how Sleepy Hollow “was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson” (292, emphasis mine). So, despite the simplicity, Irving does mention that Native Americans lived in the region. But it’s that past tense that’s significant. They lived there once before and now the land is a quiet, drowsy home for the US Americans. Irving essentially acknowledges Native Americans, only to dismiss them as gone, and then re-establish the land for the invaders.

There was also antiquated terminology for African Americans, with references to servants and/or slaves.

But as a picturesque autumnal piece, with a slice of supernatural terror, I enjoyed it.


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