Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"


As with “Rip Van Winkle” (see previous post), popular adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” often leave out the alternative explanations and the Postscript, which foreground the issue of fidelity in fiction. 

In the typical gothic romance the forces of irrational evil threaten the protagonist, who is either killed, driven insane, or barely allowed to escape.   Ichabod Crane’s fate is left ambiguous.

There were those who said that Ichabod Crane “had been carried away by the Galloping Hessian” or “spirited away by supernatural means.”  But “an old farmer, who had been down to New York…brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was alive, that he had left the neighborhood, partly through fear of the goblin and…and partly in mortification at having been suddenly dismissed by the heiress.”  Brom Bones, we are told, “was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.”

Popular versions of the tale often present Ichabod sympathetically as the innocent victim of the headless horseman (or sometimes of Brom Bones), but in the original he is a superstitious believer in witchcraft and a fortune hunter who shows more interest in Katrina Van Tassel’s wealth than either her character or person.  From the perspective of the urbane and rationalistic Irving, the story could represent the healthy (and manly?) world of Enlightenment reason (Brom Bones) overcoming the outdated world of Puritan supernaturalism (Ichabod Crane).

Irving’s “enlightened” world view does not seem to apply to gender.  Not only is Brom presented as more muscular and masculine than the cadaverous Crane (note the imagery of their names), but Ichabod is comically associated with “the old country wives,” with whom he likes to share stories of ghosts, goblins, and witchcraft.  And Katrina’s main function in the story is to be beautiful and rich.

As the bookish schoolmaster, Crane plays the role of nerd to Brom’s star athlete and Katrina’s prom queen.

For all the stereotyping, though, the tale raises serious questions about the nature of truth, the relationship between fact and fiction, and the function of storytelling.   Is truth to be found in supernaturalism, folklore, and oral traditions of myth and legend or in observable evidence and rational thought?  If there is truth to be found in the former, is it factual truth or symbolic?  The gothic romance may be factually impossible, but truthful in its symbolic representation of human fear, especially of the unknown, and the psychology of terror.  Irving’s version of the gothic tale seems to suggest that fear itself is the greatest enemy of the gullible. 

In his Postscript Irving seems to mock even the notion of symbolic truth to be found in romance.  The “story-teller” is asked what is “the moral of the story” and “what it went to prove.”  He responds with a nonsensical syllogism, as if to poke fun at the notion of a story having any point other than idle entertainment.  His interlocutor, who utterly misses the joke,  goes on  to opine “that he thought the story a little on  the extravagant—there were one or two points on which he had his doubts,” as if the story was to be taken as factual.  “’Faith, sir,’ replied the storyteller, ‘as to that matter, I don’t believe one half of it myself.’”  Thus Irving satirizes not only the seriousness of romance, but also those who confuse fact with fiction.

As with “Rip Van Winkle,” many of Irving’s readers, like the interlocutor in the Postscript, utterly miss the joke and read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as a tale of terror rather than a mock romance.

At the same time, though the “story-teller” in the Postscript seems to dismiss the notion of any seriousness to be found in an entertaining tale, Irving’s story, read a certain way, seems to mock, not only romance, but the whole supernatural world-view, in favor of enlightened, scientific rationalism.

What Irving seems to miss is the possibility of “truth” being larger than mere “fact” and the value of romance, myth, legend, and fable as embodiments of larger truths about human experience, not just pointless tales for nothing more than idle entertainment.

Just as “Rip Van Winkle,” despite Irving’s mockery, conveys a universal story of human transformation, the loss of self, and its rediscovery, so “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” imparts a sense of universal karma, as Ichabod becomes the victim of his own irrational fears.  Unless you think he really was spirited away by the headless horseman, in which case the story expresses a timeless fear—our human fear of the unknown, a fear that even the sophisticated, urbane, and wholly rational Washington Irving probably experienced from time to time.

"Rip Van Winkle"


Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for his ambiguous fiction:  Will Robin “rise in the world” without help from his Kinsman Major Molineux? “Had Young Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch meeting?”  Was it guilt, sorrow, or allegory that led Rev. Hooper to wear a black veil? Did Dimmesdale really confess to being the father of Pearl?  (See previous post on The Scarlet Letter, Oct. 2012)  However, the device of alternative explanations was not his invention. Hawthorne had to look no further than his own predecessor in American fiction, Washington Irving, perhaps our best early satirist.

Like Irving, Hawthorne was an ironist, but, unlike Irving, he was also a strong moralist.  Though a product of the Enlightenment, Hawthorne could not quite shake the influence of his Puritan upbringing.  Thus he was both a romanticist and a mock-romanticist.  Irving’s satire is more pronounced, but his famous sketches, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“ (see next post) and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819/20) are more often adapted as straight gothic tales without much hint of satire.  The alternative explanations of Irving’s original versions are often left out.  The character of Rip Van Winkle, for example, usually emerges as a poor, hen-pecked husband, whose encounter with the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew playing nine pins in the Catskills conveniently and quite innocently saves him from the “yoke of matrimony” and “petticoat government.”  Irving’s references to those who winked and smirked at Van Winkle’s story and those who “insisted that Rip had been out of his head” are frequently omitted.

Based on German folktales, such as “Peter Klaus,” and the tradition of the magic mountain, Irving’s story, like the original, could also be read as a 19th century update of an ancient mythic theme, that of identity, the loss of selfhood, and its rediscovery or reinvention.  Having slept for twenty years, Rip awakes to an unfamiliar world, no longer certain of who he is.  Conveniently, his “termagant wife” has died, and, reunited with his now married daughter, he is free to live out his days as a doting grandfather and village patriarch, spinning stories of olden days and, of course, his mountain adventure and long sleep.

Similarly, it fits the pattern of the gothic tale, as ordinary reality collides with an irrational world of ghosts, phantom bowlers on the mountain, a magic potion, and a twenty-year nap.  Part of Rip’s life is lost, but ultimately he escapes the burdens and pains of his previous life and is reborn, so to speak, into a new life of idleness and ease.

It is difficult to take the story too seriously, however, given the introduction, the Note, and the Postscript that Irving appends to the tale, in which he cites his source, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a “historian” who primarily researches local legends and reports them as “absolute fact.”  Irving acknowledges a possible source for “Rip Van Winkle” as the German “superstition about the Emperor Frederick der Rothbart, and the Kypphauser mountain,” but insists Knickerbocker is a reliable source for the truth of the story.  It is not hard to detect that Irving’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. 

The effect is to mock the na├»ve believers in myth, legend, folklore, and superstition and satirize “romance” as a literary style that allows too much license with reality and truth. 

Nevertheless, Irving is able to tap into the popular appeal of local fables and gothic tales to enhance his own literary reputation and line his own pockets, at the expense of the gullible and to the great entertainment of his more sophisticated, urbane, and enlightened readers.

Those more educated and rational readers would also have noticed the political allegory that Irving embeds in the story.  It seems that Rip has slept through the Revolutionary War.  The portrait of King George III at the local inn has been replaced by one of George Washington.  When Rip returns, not only is he free of Dame Van Winkle’s “petticoat government, “  but the country is free of British rule.  Rip is clueless of his own history but easily adjusts to his new life.  Allegorically, Rip stands for the American colonies and Dame Van Winkle for the British tyrant.  We could dismiss this as Irving’s 19th century sexism: how ridiculous to compare a nagging wife, dependent for her well-being on an irresponsible husband, to King George III!  However, it is also possible that Irving is a Tory sympathizer, depicting the colonies as backward, clueless, gullible hicks, who had their freedom dumped in their laps, not really knowing what to do with it, and occupying themselves by telling fantastic tales of revolutionary glory.

Just as “Loyalists” and “Patriots” disagreed about British rule before the Revolution, they no doubt disagreed afterwards.  Thus while British sympathizers are enjoying Irving’s satire on newly independent Americans, patriotic Americans are delighting in the “heroic” story of Rip achieving his freedom from domestic oppression.  Similarly, while educated city-dwellers are appreciating the mockery of gullible rural folks, villagers and townspeople are enjoying a romantic fable.  And Irving benefits by receiving accolades from both audiences.