The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

September 1, 2008 at 1:17 pm (books)

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee…

Thus begins one of the first great works of fiction to emerge from the New World: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

I obtained a rather marvelous result when I did a Google image search on this title. Some examples:

There is real magic in this recasting of old German legends in a newly settled land. The town of Sleepy Hollow has a Brigadoon-like quality: it seems to have emerged into the real world so that this strange drama could play itself out, then evanesced once again into the mist of time.

Washington Irving

Washington Irving

Irving’s writing is graceful but not ornate, and seems to me surprisingly accessible to the contemporary reader. He tells the tale straightforwardly but with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. For instance, here is his explanation for the place name Tarry Town:

“This name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.

In this passage, readers make the acquaintance of Ichabod Crane:

“The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole  frame most loosely hung together. His head was small and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.

Eloquent description of the still-undespoiled beauty of the region abounds:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. 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 the beech and hickory-nuts, and the pensive whistle of the quail at intervals from the neighboring stubble field.

What a vivid evocation of a vanished world!

One aspect of this novella surprised and dismayed me: several African-Americans appear briefly in the story, and they are described in terms of the coarsest stereotype. We are usually advised to consider the era in question – the zeitgeist, if you will – when we come upon this kind of thing in our reading of the classics. You can cling to this mantra in your brain, though, and  still feel sucker-punched in the  gut. Take it from one who still winces when she encounters Shylock in The Merchant of Venice or Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby.


  1. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Oh dear – Whatever happened to my resolution to  read more of Irving’s works?  Sleepy Hollow was so thoroughly entertaining! […]

  2. Chris Robertson said,

    Can any of these wonderful images be obtained in the form of note cards, posters, etc.?

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Chris, I honestly don’t know, but I understand your enthusiasm for these book covers! I feel the same way.

  3. jill said,


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