Washington Irving’s famous opening to this story, which first appeared in The Sketch Book in 1820, evokes the dreamlike, almost mystical quality of the Hudson River Valley. It also takes the reader to Sleepy Hollow, where almost anything might have happened in 1790—the approximate date of the story, now become legend, of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Ichabod, we learn, was an awkward, homely, gangling schoolteacher with too great an imagination: He fears that one night on his way home from gossiping and telling ghost stories with the Dutch wives, he might meet a ghost himself.
Ichabod is also smitten with Katrina Van Tassel, the pretty daughter of a well-to-do farmer. Ichabod is not solely interested in her charms: The narrative makes clear that his imagination surveys the munificent crops and livestock on the family farm and covets them as well. Unfortunately for Ichabod, he has a rival in Brom Van Brunt, often called Brom Bones because of his great physical strength. A foil to Ichabod as well as his rival for Katrina’s hand, Brom Bones is also fun-loving, clever, and skillful on a horse. After a particularly rousing evening at the home of Mynheer Van Tassel, when Ichabod has spent the entire evening dancing with Katrina, he thinks he may have won her affections. We never know the exact nature of his talk with Katrina, but he leaves the party in low spirits. On his way home, Ichabod’s nightmares come true: The Headless Horseman pursues him, throws his head at him, and knocks him to the ground. Although the next day the villagers find his horse, his saddle, and a smashed pumpkin, Ichabod is never again seen in Sleepy Hollow. Brom Bones marries Katrina and laughs at the mention of smashed pumpkins.
In addition to providing fine entertainment, the story seems particularly American. One reading is that Ichabod, with his awkwardness and overstimulated imagination, could not fit into the mold of the American male; lacking in the “right” qualities, he is bested by Brom Bones and fails to capture the woman of his dreams. We should remember, however, that although the Dutch women believe Ichabod has been spirited away by ghosts or phantoms, a traveler says that he has seen Ichabod in New York, where he has become a successful lawyer and judge. If one believes this traveler, Ichabod performs yet another American feat, leaving home for the big city and snatching a victory from defeat. Sleepy Hollow might just have been too small for a man of Ichabod’s imagination. One also might infer a humorous if wistful comment on the position of male teachers, a historic one in the United States, and one that reappears in William Faulkner’s allusion to Ichabod Crane when describing his schoolmaster character in The Hamlet (1949).
Irving, Washington. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In The Complete Tales of Washington Irving, edited by Charles Neider. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.
Myers, Andrew B. A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976.