Story Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

cover of sleepy HollowI’m a huge fan of the show Sleepy Hollow, but for me,  the true Sleepy Hollow will always be the version told to me by my Dad, and the Disney version, which scared me so badly that to this day I would not ride a horse through the woods at night for any amount of money (not that anyone’s made an offer). When Penguin Publishing asked if I’d like to review their new collection The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories in time for Halloween, of course I said, yes. Disclosure: they sent me a free copy. Bonus disclosure: a person who lives in my house who shall remain nameless spilled water all over the bathroom counter and did not clean it up so when I set the book on the counter without looking first the copy was ruined. Pro tip: closely examine any surface you want to place a book on, just in case said surface is actually underwater. I am bitter.

This collection is a reprinting of Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. This is an anthology of short stories.  For various reasons, none of which have to do with writing quality but some of which have to do with the fact that my Dresden Files books just arrived from the library, I only read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. The collection also contains “Rip Van Winkle” and several Christmas Stories, which I’m saving as a treat for after Thanksgiving. It’s not a fancy edition – it’s a trade paperback, not one of those lavishly bound hardbacks with gilt edges. But it’s a rather handsome paperback, or at least it was until it met my bathroom counter. There’s a painting of the Headless Horseman on the cover that makes the blood run suitably cold.

Having been thoroughly traumatized by Disney, what I wanted to know about “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was:

1) Is it really as scary as the Disney version was when I was eight

2) Was Ichabod really that goofy looking

3) With the exception of names, places, and the presences of a headless horseman, does it have anything in common with the TV show.

The answers are

1) yes

2) yes

3) no, not remotely.

One thing I had forgotten is that this story is very, very funny. Ichabod really does look as outlandish as he did in the cartoon. Here he is, riding to a party:

“He rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like a grasshoppers’; he carried his whip perpendicularly in his hand, like a scepter, and as his horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of a pair of wings”

Pages and pages are devoted to creating a bucolic landscape. In Ichabod’s world, all is serenity. He beats the kids he teaches (hello, historical dissonance) but he plays with them too. He’s beloved by everyone he stays with because he takes great care of the kids and does all kinds of other work. He loves hearing ghost stories and he even loves being scared. This story is full of food porn and scenery porn (most of the scenery involves growing more food – Ichabod loves food). It’s paradise, and like most paradises, interlopers are not appreciated – cue terror.

I should warn my dear readers that this story was first written in 1819, and it is painfully racist. Its one defense might be that it is a story that abounds in stereotypes, quite deliberately. It’s almost a parody of stereotype. We have the phlegmatic farmer, the high-strung schoolmaster, the flirt, the bully, and a whole lot of people who care about nothing but telling stories and eating because they are of Dutch descent and apparently that was the stereotype about the Dutch. Irving might use the “But I make fun of everyone” defense, and almost get way with it. For such a bucolic tale, it’s remarkably cynical – everyone in the story is shallow and most are arguably foolish, manipulative, or both. However, the depictions of African-Americans, while mercifully very brief, feel uglier than the depictions of other characters. No one in this story is very bright but the people of color appear to be dumber than bags of hair, and while white characters have their own (broad) personalities, the people of color are presented as a uniform group.

The racism has become the most frightening part of the tale, but the horseman is still terrifying, even given certain broad hints that maybe the horseman is not what he appears to be.  I’m less gullible and more jaded than I was at the age of eight, but Ichabod’s nervous ride through the dark wood, and the increasing sense of dread, and then panicked flight, still scares.  This is still a great read for the week of the ceremonial devouring of leftover Halloween candy.  It’s funny, it’s spooky, and it’s arguably the first literary ghost tale from post-Colonial America.  It’s easy to see why it’s stuck around so long!

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