Beheadings: The Original American Ghost Story

image by Bastien Grivet
image by Bastien Grivet

The new Penguin edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales doesn’t come right out and say it, so I’ll say it: Washington Irving is America’s Tolkien.

If you Google the phrase “America’s Tolkien” you’ll find a bunch of references to George R.R. Martin. Those references are wrong. Writing a hugely successful epic that involves swords and legends and fantastical beasts while you happen to be an American citizen does not make you America’s Tolkien. What makes you America’s Tolkien is… you’ll see.

Even though he is best remembered for only two short stories—“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—Washington Irving almost singlehandedly put the “American” in American literature. By making a careful study of his own neighbors—common people of mostly Dutch descent, living in farming hamlets along the Hudson River or down in the new borough of Manhattan—Irving turned the denizens of our new nation into literary types, familiar people with distinctly American characteristics. He was fascinated by the Revolutionary War, which was still a recent memory, and by the widening rift—an ocean, you might say—between the cultures of England and America. With his stories, essays, and literary “sketches,” Irving reached into a richly imagined, hyper-local American past, and created the first stirrings of our national mythology.

More than a century later, Tolkien did the same for Britain, weaving Norse and Germanic myths into a distinctly British tapestry. Both Irving and Tolkien had a particular vision of their nation’s character, and they used old-seeming stories to grandfather them in. Embedding these visions in an imagined past allowed the stories to become part of the nation’s shared memory. In her introduction to the new edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Elizabeth L. Bradley makes a convincing case that without Washington Irving, we would not have Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Twain, or Thurber. We would not have the Hudson River School of painters or the New York Knicks. We would not understand Harry Potter, Planet of the Apes, or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in quite the same way.

When I first read Washington Irving as a boy, it felt like exotic stuff. I’m from California, where our local myths are about Spanish friars and the unionization of agricultural laborers. I fell hard for Irving’s warm taverns, autumn leaves, highway brigands, and foppish Englishmen. His best work—and I say this as a compliment—is like a luminous Thomas Kincaid painting with demons, rifles, and village idiots peeking out of the bushes. But I don’t think my impressions of Irving are unique. I think he had the same effect on me, in California in the 1990s, as he had on his contemporaries in the 1820s. Everyone who reads him feels like Washington Irving is giving us the early pastoral truth about America. (Irving’s writing made him rich within his lifetime. England ate him up.)

Re-reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” I feel immediately at ease with Irving’s language, even after two centuries. But I was surprised by how much of the story is not about a headless horseman at all. For the first 21 pages of a 29-page story, we’re treated to a social satire about Ichabod Crane, a hapless Connecticut schoolteacher, and his vain attempts to win a rich bride. That’s what “Sleepy Hollow” is about—making fun of a familiar type of American villager. At the end of the story, Irving makes it very clear that the Headless Horseman, in this instance, was none other than Brom Bones, a local lad who was competing with Ichabod for a bride. So even though “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is called “America’s first ghost story,” the only person who could possibly believe that there is a ghost in Sleepy Hollow is Ichabod himself. Everyone else—Irving, his readers, Ichabod’s village—knows better.

But the Headless Horseman has endured as a nightmarish figure. I wonder if there is a remnant of Sleepy Hollow in our collective fear and outrage over the ISIS beheadings. After all, the first American ghost story was about the terror of a beheaded soldier who beheads his victims. No wonder ISIS makes us weak in the knees.

As Bradley points out, the Headless Horseman has turned up in rap lyrics, LEGOs, and Smurfs cartoons, which is a long way for a 200-year-old literary creation to travel, even on horseback. And it’s kind of a shame that Irving isn’t remembered for some of his other work, like his pioneering accounts of life in bustling Manhattan, or his passionate moral defense of American “savages,” or his lyrical essay about rural American funerals—all of which are included in the new edition of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. (The volume’s original title was The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.)

Instead we remember the Disney version,

the Johnny Depp version,

the Smurfs version,

and the well-made but horrifyingly non-canonical new TV version, in which a hunky Ichabod Crane wakes up after a 200-year sleep (not like his friend Rip Van Winkle) and joins forces with a feisty law enforcement officer to stop the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I know for a fact that there is no better version of the Sleepy Hollow story than Washington Irving’s original tale, and you should read it (or re-read it) as soon as you get a chance.

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