All images come from an 1820 second edition printed in London held in the British Library Collection.

Washington Irving’s famous tall tale

Between 1819 and 1820, Irving published a collection of 34 short stories and essays called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. Out of these tales, a few gained legendary status, none more so than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Everyone knows The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Or at least we think we know it. Eric and I read children’s versions of the tale and saw many television and film adaptations. When we discussed what to post in the lead up to Halloween, this was an obvious choice. We started doing the research, and I was surprised to realize that I’d never read Irving’s original text before. And even more surprised that it wasn’t what I expected.


Romantic comedy or the great American horror story?

First, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is just as much a romantic comedy as a horror story. Irving sets the scene in 1790 in a small glen (Sleepy Hollow) in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (now Tarrytown in Westchester County, NY). Tarry Town seems to have two things going on. The first is a love triangle between the outsider school teacher, Ichabod Crane, and the town’s big man on campus, Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. Both men are vying for the hand of beautiful, 18-year-old Dutch heiress Katrina Van Tassel.

The second is a lot of supernatural activity. Tarry Town has more than its fair share of ghosts, goblins and haunted trees, but everyone is most frightened of the Headless Horseman. The Horseman is said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball in the Revolutionary War. The Hessian rides through the town at night in search of his lost head.

Brom Bones says he encountered the Headless Horseman and basically bested him. A tough guy. Ichabod Crane, on the other hand, is superstitious and scared when he’s out alone after dark. Not so tough.

Just in case you don’t know the tale, I won’t spoil it. But the competition for Katrina’s hand leads to Brom Bones aggressively pranking Ichabod Crane, and Ichabod regularly looking like a fool in front of his lady love. While the ending is open to interpretation, the author’s postscript certainly makes it seem like the Headless Horeseman’s appearance in the legend is really just a vehicle for one suitor to outsmart the other…

The 18th-century foodie

Really, Ichabod Crane isn’t much of a hero. He isn’t brave, he isn’t very clever, and he doesn’t seem to be particularly handsome. He is only interested in Katrina because of her father’s property and fortune. To boot, he isn’t all that nice to his students, his horse or his landlord.

But Ichabod Crane is definitely something special. He is the 18th-century equivalent of a foodie. For such a brief tale, Irving spends a lot of time describing food from Crane’s point of view. As Crane explores the Van Tassel estate, he sees all sorts of animals and his mouth waters. To him, the pigs are roasting with apples in their mouths. The pigeons are cooked in crusty pies, while the geese are ‘swimming in their own gravy.’ Every turkey he saw was ‘daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages…

Crane is eventually invited to a seasonal feast at the Van Tassel mansion. He is incredibly excited – not to see the object of his affection, but for the food. Our narrator makes a joke at Crane’s expense, stating that,

‘Fair would I pause to dwell upon the world of charms that burst upon the enraptured gaze of my hero as he entered the state parlor of Van Tassel’s mansion. Not those of the bevy of buxom lasses […] but the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table in the sumptuous time of autumn….

The feast is explained in great detail,

There was the doughty doughnut, the tenderer oily koek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller; sweet cakes and short cakes, ginger cakes and honey cakes…. And then there were apple pies and peach pies and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums and peaches and pears and quinces; not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with bowls of milk and cream….’

We are told that Ichabod partakes in ‘every dainty’ so that his ‘spirits rose with eating as some men’s do with drink.’

And with that, Mr. Crane finally becomes a character I can relate to.

The man behind the myth

Irving was born in 1783 to two British immigrants who settled in New York. His very American writing was heavily influenced by European history and folklore, which led to unprecedented success on both sides of the Atlantic. He published under several creative pseudonyms throughout his career, including Jonathan Oldstyle, William Wizard and Launcelot Langstaff, Diedrich Knickerbocker and Geoffrey Crayon. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published under a combination of the latter two – written by Crayon from the discovered papers of Knickerbocker.

Irving is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. You can also find the grave of Catriena Ecker Van Tessel (1736-1793) here. Coincidence?