Literature in Popular Culture Washington Irving's the Legend of Sleepy Hollow Book Report

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Sleepy Hollow as Popular Culture

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a short story by American author Washington Irving, was actually written while the author lived in England. It was published in 1820 and like Irving's Rip Van Winkle, has been read by generations of students, turned into numerous alternative stories, animated features, and computer games. It was made into a stamp in 1974, has been an inspiration for music, street and town names, and even motion pictures. Two of the characters, Ichabod Crane and The Headless Horseman have become both iconic and archetypal within American popular culture (Burstein, 2007).

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Irving's inspiration for Sleepy Hollow appears to have been an old German folktale, told for years as an oral tale and then written by Karl Musaeus. The plot surrounds a lanky and superstitious schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane who competes for the town's prize bride, Katrina Van Tassel. His competition is the town braggart Abraham Van Brunt, also known as "Brom Bones." One of the town's superstitions is that on certain nights the area is haunted by the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot off during the Revolutionary War. This Headless Horseman rides forth searching for his lost head, and if he finds an unsuspecting sort, lops of their head to use in his collection. One night, Ichabod mysteriously disappears from town, and now Katrina has only one suitor, Brom Bones, who was "to looking exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related." Irving leaves the solution of Ichabod's departure a mystery, but certainly the implication that Brom took matters into his own hands is there.

Book Report on Literature in Popular Culture Washington Irving's the Legend of Sleepy Hollow Assignment

Irving's intended audience was vast and complex, and a sociological commentary on its own. While in England Irving was desperate to show his continental contemporaries that America had grown intellectually, that there was indeed an American literary tradition, and that like Europe, the American author and poet could find inspiration in the natural world, the interesting cultures, and the complex ideas of the emerging democracy. Of course, he also wished for the American intelligentsia to embrace his stories, he was, after all, an essayist with no end of subject matter. But, as is rather common, it was not necessarily Sleepy Hollow that Irving wished to be known. Certainly his Knickerbocker histories, his biography of Christopher Columbus, and even his cultural reexamination of the Christmas Holiday seemed more important to him at the time than a small story of a lonely man in the night (Von Frank, 1987).

Historical Themes in Sleepy Hollow -- There are numerous themes and interpretations one may glean from Sleepy Hollow. We must first put the story in the context of the historical and cultural aspects of America in the early 1820s -- sometimes referred to as the Jacksonian Era. The United States was moving from a climate of revolutionary fervor and realization of the vast task of self-rule, through a Jeffersonian period in which much of the political and social power gravitated from the northern capitals to the larger, rural estates of the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Regions. Jackson epitomized the idea of a land-baron; wealthy, intelligent, politically astute, patriotic, and ever expansionist. However, for the common person, this was an area of dualism -- the ever western expansion promised greater opportunity and a chance to build a new life, but the idea of settling a vast and untamed wilderness was frightening to others. Similarly, the whole economic structure of the U.S. was dichotomous as well. On one hand we had a wealthy oligarchy of rich planters whose money came from the exploitation of others (slavery). On the other hand we had a capitalist class with visions on vast western lands, transportation networks, and the exportation of natural resources. Some see the era as a slow transition of power from the upper echelons of former British intellectuals (the Founding Fathers) to a more populist culture (Meacham, 2008).

Thus, for a person like Washington Irving, an essayist trained in the colonial northern cities, the period was one of unsettling nature. There was a pining for the days of yore -- nostalgia for a simpler past that was not really better than the present in anything but the mind of some intellectuals. There was, in Europe, a move towards romanticism and revolution, and a rather indecisive self-definition of what exact American culture meant. In broad terms, then, if we think about a major idea in the tale: that of a lanky upstart, more intellectual than brawny (Ichabod) facing the town bully (Brom) we can see how the theme of the little country (America) pushing out the world's bully (Great Britain) might resonate. And when Katrina declines his marriage proposal and Ichabod rides home at night, encountering the Horseman, a creature of darkness, we see that fear and superstition can overcome even the intellectualisms of Ichabod -- who is reduced to fleeing and disappearing in the face of an enemy that is both unknowing and terrifying. The interaction, then, between intelligence and reason and fear and superstition was common during this period of American history. If, as we suspect, it was indeed Brom who was the headless horseman, then simply by changing his appearance and playing into the fear (of the nation), the bully countered all measures of logic (Jones, 2008). Americans were still struggling to overcome the feelings of insecurity which had just recently been exacerbated by the British -- what is the relationship between the intellect and the formation of a new nation when the biggest bully on the block uses might to force right?

Literary Themes in Sleepy Hollow -- One of the most interesting trends in modern literature is the combination of literary realism and the postmodern tradition. Literary realism, of course, focuses on the everyday cultural experience of everyday people who may, within their banal experience, do extraordinary things. Contrasting the American Colonia who is an intellect, but superstitious, with the Dutch Brom and Katrina, hardworking yet simple -- brings the everyday person into the story. The gothic elements however, overshadow any other theme; the weariness of the town, the darkness, the scent/odor of decay, all the elements of a place in which superstition reigns as opposed to logic -- the haunting of an event from the past (the American revolution) that now impacts the peace and serenity of the present (Ringle, 1995).

Table 1 -- Gothic Characteristics of Sleepy Hollow


Example in House of Usher

Setting of large, run down, older homes.

Town of Sleepy Hollow

Atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

Legends abound; the Hessian, the supernatural, the entire moodiness of the area

Omens, foreshadowing.

Nature, fog, the chill -- all are seen as portents of evil

Highly Charged emotional states

Ichabod's superstition vs. his intellect

Unexplainable events, sounds, etc.

Where did Ichabod go? What secrets does the town hold?

Words designed to evoke images of gloom.

Dark tales, creepy allusions

Reason and science abandoned

Ghosts, revenge, life after death

Images of swamp, forests, or overgrowth

The surrounding forest of darkness, the sounds, the air

This emphasis of imagination over reason, a nostalgia, and an attraction to the unexpected firmly places Irving within the literature tradition of his time. Yet the story is far less macabre as Poe, and likely even to audiences of the time, somewhat humorous. We can easily see that there is nothing really nefarious about the situation and that a practical joke is being played on someone who should be too intelligent to fall for such frivolity. Too, the idea that America was vibrant enough to have clear and honored folk traditions with serious iterative benefits also rings true.

The town, Tarrytown was settled by the "ancient and peculiar" Dutch, and was the sight of a "nameless battle" surrounding by "floating facts." The antithesis is an entity that was patriotic enough (or greedy) to fight in the American Revolution, the Hessian, but also a sense of obscurity (headless, nameless battle). Ichabod leaves the city in a "great torrent of migration and improvement," clearly letting us know that there was a certain attitude kept by city dwellers about their rural cousins, and vice versa -- and yet it is the country ways that seem to outmaneuver urbanity because logic is lost. Perhaps, though, we can forgive Ichabod in some ways -- he was in love which, for him, was likely frightening as well. And, for the modern reader, it is more satisfying to think of Brom removing Ichabod in a more permanent way than simply scaring him, that leaves Ichabod as the victim rather than the coward.

Ichabod as Catalyst -- One other way of viewing Sleepy Hollow through a combination of historical and sociological perspective, since most of the story is focused around him, is the way the character becomes a catalyst for a number of actions that surround the nefarious, or evil paradigms, in the story -- eventually necessitating his removal from the community. This, of course, is an anti-hero approach, but also fulfills the manner in which… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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