Sleepy Hollow as Popular Culture Book Report

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First, evil in Sleepy Hollow is more equating with a satirical view that, in this case, evil is a more benign humor, bumbling, caustic in disrupting the town, and, as it was in Ancient Greek and Roman drama, simply more of an irritant than planned destruction. Focusing again on the time period, our first introduction to this theme is one of Dutch New York against Urban New England. The Dutch community is sylvan, nostalgically conceived, changeless, and an Eden for its inhabitants. Ichabod arrives as a Yankee whose spoiling of this Eden simply cannot be tolerated -- and even more, by marrying the daughter of a wealthy and high-ranking community member, becoming part of Eden himself. This simply could not happen to a community that is so "European in nature."

Sleepy Hollow, as a town is clearly Dutch, with Dutch values, culture, and mores, or for riving, "population, manners, and customs, remain fixed." We see a bit of the conflict too when Ichabod proposed to exchange the "middle landscape" of the Van Tassel dowry for a piece of wild land in "Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where." The region is more than a conglomeration of Europeans living in harmony with nature. Instead, the town is sheltered, resistant to change, its rather feminine characteristics, and more especially its vulnerability make it symbolic of one of the ideals of European Romanticism.

Indeed, this atmosphere is so central to the theme of the story that Ichabod comments, "It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by ever one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and beginning to grow imaginative -- to dream dreams, and see apparition." Intoxicating as this may be, we begin to wonder what Ichabod's true motivations are.

Certainly, despite his intellectualism, Ichabod suffers from the very human "virtue" of succumbing to the seven deadly sins. For example, our "scarecrow eloped from a cornfield," so far from the folk shows his errant ways on numerous occasions:





Ichabod's "large green glassy eyes.

Ichabod's desire for the Van Tassel lands

Part of a physical description and then with moral implications.

As the enraptured Ichabod . . . rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchard burthened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness


Avoids hard work in favor of light labor

Ichabod will assist "occasionally in the lighter labors of their farms." Bu avoids work by becoming "wonderfully gentle and ingratiating" with the women.


Coveted food and the idea of becoming a Lord

[Ichabod] was a kind and thankful creature, whose heart dilated in proportion as his skin was filled with good cheer, and whose spirits rose with eating, as some men's do with drink. He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he ate, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable splendor.


Willingness to flog students

Mean spirited nature about the prospects of the farm

In some ways shows insecurity and the ability to use anger to disassociate

Ichabod, flush with food, contemplates the possibility of being "lord of all this scene." Here the surface parts to reveal how he contends emotionally with the prospect of success: "Then, he thought, how soon he'd turn his back upon the old school house, snap his fingers in the face of Hans Van Ripper, and every other niggardly patron, and kick any itinerant pedagogue out of doors that should dare to call him comrade!"


Double entendre indicating sexuality mixed with lust (food or sex?)


Phallic symbology

After school he would sometimes follow students home "who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard."

Ichabod wants the fertile feminine land

Irving suggests that Ichabod's "long snipe nose… that looked like a weathercock" and "there are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the mill pond, of a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane"

Thus, Ichabod represented many things that Irving wanted his audience to understand about American culture. Tradition must be observed, and above all, a semblance of politeness. One might glean a degree, might change one's ability to become discursive, and one might even deem to teach others. This however, does not envelop virtue or admiration. Sleepy Hollow reinterpreted on the screen, however, ranges from a Halloween ghost story to a study in Gothic Freudian psychology (Tim Burton) yet the character of Ichabod remains oddly similar as a disruptor of the community and the peace of the village.

Speculation continued about Ichabod's sudden departure, some thinking that as a bachelor he had no ties to anyone, was fearful of Hans Van Ripper and the Goblin, and was embarrassed by Katrina's refusal of marriage. But the true heart and soul of the village, that is the old country wives, had a better version. They "maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means." And, to emphasize the salvation of their Eden, "the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward…" Perhaps one can retitle the story "Sleepy Hollow -- Population 300 -- Visitors Unwelcome?"

Personal Reflection -- I have long been fascinated with the way certain archetypes of literature and mythos weave their way through popular culture and become almost iconic. This is particularly true with themes that have been reworked by Hollywood, especially those that made it into the lexicon of children's literature via the Walt Disney Studios. When I found out that Washington Irving really coined the term Gotham for New York City, I was hooked. What was it about this crotchety character and a ghost story, of which there are many more frightening available in the literature of New England that made this story more popular in the modern world than Irving's contemporaries? After all, Edgar Allen Poe admitted that Irving deserved some credit for his innovation, found his writing over-rated "and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation -- between wheat is due the pioneer solely, and what to the writer" (Albert, 2009, 44).

Still, with over 20 adaptations in opera, film, music, literature, there must be something about the tale that audiences love. Every October we get to review the tale, and certainly the magical fresh approach of Tim Burton brings new heights to the imagination of a budding seductress with Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp. However, it is more the idea that these iconic juxtapositions remain true to something inside of us that sees commonality in the characterizations. Whether scholars argue that Ichabod was a lout or a benevolent saint; whether he was a greedy and lazy man pining for the good life or the Burtonesque cynical journalist matters not. The fact that he entertains, that the moral of the story, at least in Aesopian terms, may be complex. And who, may we ask, could reasonably walk alone down a country road in the dark and approach a covered bridge without the merest tingling of the nape -- and wondering if the Hessian inhabits the imagination of all?


Albert, H. (2009). Life and Letters of Edgar Allen Poe, Volume 2. Biblio-Bazaar.

Burstein, A. (2007). The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving.

New York: Basic Books.

Irving. W. (1820). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Forgotten Books. Cited in:

Jones, B. (2008). Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade Books.

Maslin, J. (November 19, 1999). "Headless Horseman With Quite a Headcount."

The New York Times. Cited in:

Meacham, J. (2008). American Lion. New York: Random House.

Ringle, F. (1995). New England's Gothic Literature: History and Folklore of the Supernatural

From the Seventeenth through the Twentieth Centuries. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press.

Von Frank, A. "The Man That Corrupted Sleepy Hollow." Studies in American Fiction.

15 (2): 129-43.[continue]

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