1.8: Student Writer at Work: Monica Platten’s “‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’: An Allegory for a Young America”
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Now that we’ve reviewed Monica’s introduction in detail, you should read her entire paper. As you read, keep in mind the principles of argument we have already discussed.
Professor Ryan Cordell
Introduction to Literature
December 17, 20–
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”: An Allegory for a Young America
When one hears the title “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” they might shiver a little and think of the infamous spectre, “the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head … known, at all the country firesides, by the name of The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow” (Irving 966). It is this legendary phantom that grants Washington Irving’s tale the label of ghost story. As such, readers would expect the legend to be overflowing with superstition and opposing forces—good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, supernatural vs. reality. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be read as a tale of opposing forces, but not in the same way as ghost story. It is a legend of rivalry, a rivalry between the characters Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt. Readers may benefit by understanding that the opposing forces presented here are these two characters, the victim and the victor, the underdog and the front-runner—not those of supernatural and reality—in order to understand a major significance of Irving’s tale. Ichabod Crane and Brom Van Brunt are meant to be more than just two characters with a rivalry—they are actually representations of the young American nation and its “motherland,” Great Britain. When these allegories are understood, and these opposing forces are revealed, readers will finally be able to understand a central message behind Irving’s tale—it is an allegory for the goals, the problems, and the livelihood of an adolescent America.
The glen of Sleepy Hollow itself embodies the characteristics of the fresh, new land of America. It is a little valley in which “a small brook glides through [it], with just murmur enough to lull you to repose, and the occasional whistle of a quail, or the tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility” (956). This place is tranquil and beautiful, just as the new land of America was perceived by all who settled there. Not only is the beauty ample, but the natural resources are overflowing: there are “fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchard burthened with ruddy fruit” (971); in this place “nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance” (976). Sleepy Hollow is a valley of bounty, a land of plenty. But like any other wild and largely uncharted territory, this land possesses an air of mystery. “A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and pervade the very atmosphere” (965), and any who dally long enough while passing through or decide to call the place home “begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions” (966). Likewise, the first settlers in America came as dreamers, searching for a new world, a new life, riches, and freedom.
Ichabod Crane is essential to this allegory of the new nation, because he is the representation of the American nation itself. The description of this character does not conform to one of a strong favorite, but to that of an underdog: “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and leg, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole fame most loosely hung together” (967). He is not a well-built man but an awkward one. As a schoolteacher he is intelligent, but does not hold a prestigious position in society; this reflects the rank of the new nation in a world order of countries. Nonetheless, he is optimistic and determined: “He had, however, a happy mixture of pliability and perseverance in his nature; he was in form and spirit like a supple jack—yielding, but tough; though he bent, he never broke; and though he bowed beneath the slightest pressure, yet, the moment it was away—jerk!—he was as erect, and carried his head as high as ever” (973). The personality of Ichabod Crane reflects the same qualities of the newly independent states of America—he is, like they are, an optimistic underdog.
The personality of Ichabod Crane also reflects the status of the American nation in his want for maturity. Crane, although a grown man, displays certain qualities of youth in his superstitious beliefs and his “his appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, [which] were equally extraordinary” (969). These traits imply that he is still young and childish, not yet mature like an adult: “No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow” (969). Nothing pleases him more than to “listen to marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges and haunted house, and particularly of the headless horseman” (969). Terence Martin breaks these ideas down: “By fitting the notion of gullibility into the dominant metaphor of Ichabod’s oral preoccupation, Irving emphasizes the childlike quality of his protagonist. Ichabod can swallow and digest anything; therefore he is always and increasingly gullible.… Irving couples the oral stage and imaginative indulgence; both signify childhood” (143). The young colonies of America are certainly lacking the wisdom and maturity of their relative, Great Britain; “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1820, just over 40 years after the Declaration of Independence, is set in “a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty year since” (Irving 967).
Martin agrees that “America … was a new nation which saw itself … [as] fresh and innocent” (137), but explains that it wanted to become an “adult” as quickly as possible, and therefore needed to stay away from child-like obsessions of fancy and the imagination. “A childish (primitive) society might legitimately take an interest in things imaginative; such a society, however, was precisely what America wanted not to be” (Martin 139). Washington Irving obviously shared this belief, because in the end of his tale, Crane’s excessive imagination leads to embarrassment and failure. This is, in a way, a warning for adolescent America. Martin concurs: “It would appear that for Irving there is no place, or a very limited place, for the hero of the imagination in the culture of early America. A nation of [Rips and] Ichabods, Americans might reason, would soon be no nation at all” (144).
Crane and the American nation have in common one more imperative attribute: ambition. This ambition is demonstrated in many ways. Just as the colonists of this new nation hungered for a better life, Ichabod Crane hungers: “In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting pig running about with a pudding in its belly, and an apple in its mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes” (Irving 971). Delicious food is not the only luxury Crane hungers for; he longs for material possessions, too, such as land and the many animals that provide his scrumptious meals: “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.… He beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heel, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where”! (971).
This desire and ambition to possess and expand reflects the American initiative of Manifest Destiny. Crane is ambitious and confident that he is meant to fulfill these big plans: “He could not help, too, rolling his large eyes round him as he eat, and chuckling with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendor” (977). Lloyd Daigrepont states that “Ichabod [also] represents the modern debasement of imagination by materialism, a pious utilitarianism, and the idea of progress, particularly as these were supported in early 19th-century America” (72) and goes so far as to call Crane himself “a representative of progress” (73). However, this ambition and desire for progress borders on greed. Crane is overly confident that he will one day acquire for himself the beautiful daughter and land of Baltus Van Tassel, a wealthy Dutch farmer. His motives for this possession are not supported by any reasons but personal desire. This same kind of greed and personal desire was demonstrated by the American states, as their motives for Manifest Destiny (although the particular term had not been coined quite yet) transformed from those of exploration and expansion to dominance and control over the native people and their land.
Brom Van Brunt, nicknamed appropriately Brom Bones, represents the strength of America’s motherland, Great Britain. He is a formidable man, “a burley, roaring, roystering blade … the hero of the country round, which rung with his feats of strength and hardihood” (Irving 972). He is powerful and skilled, always coming out on top: “He was famed for great knowledge and skill [in horsemanship] … he was foremost at all races and cockfights, and with the ascendancy which bodily strength always acquires in rustic life, was the umpire of all disputes” (972). This strength, knowledge, and skill—along with his competing interest in Katrina Van Tassel, the “apple” of Crane’s eye—makes him “the formidable rival with whom Ichabod Crane had to contend” (973). And although he is respected and admired—“The neighbours looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will” (973)—he can be a bit of a bully, especially in said rivalry:
Ichabod became the object of whimsical persecution to Bones, and his gang of rough riders. They harried his hitherto peaceful domain; smoked out his singing school, by stopping up the chimney; broke in to the school-house at night, in spite of its formidable fastening of withe and window stakes, and turned everything topsy-turvy, so that the poor schoolmaster began to think all the witches in the country held their meetings there. But what was still more annoying, Brom took all opportunities of turning him into ridicule in the presence of his mistress, and had a scoundrel dog, whom he taught to whine in the most ludicrous manner, and introduced as a rival of Ichabod’s, to instruct her in psalmody. (974)
This list of grievances against Ichabod is reminiscent of the list of grievances claimed in the Declaration of Independence. Brom Bones is the powerful, respected rival of Crane, the slightly awkward underdog. And just as Great Britain used its power and strength to worry the colonies and then later the young American states, Brom uses his to harass Crane.
Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the aforementioned Baltus Van Tassel, completes this allegory of an adolescent America because she is the prize, the treasure coveted by each nation—she represents power, honor, respect, and abundant resources. She is described as “blooming … plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed” (970). The land of America is likewise copious in beauty, nature and wildlife abounding, the land is lush, fresh, and immense. People from all around the world would soon be immigrating to this new world in hopes of building a better life. “So tempting a morsel” (970) she was, yes, but also difficult to conquer: “Ichabod … had to win his way to the heart of a country coquette, beset with a labyrinth of whims and caprices, which were forever presenting new difficulties and impediments, and he had to encounter a host of fearful adversaries of real flesh and blood … keeping a watchful and angry eye upon each other” (972). Not only did many different countries and groups of people lust over the ample land, but this new world also created a struggle for power. Great Britain, the motherland, had been disowned by its young child. The American colonies decided to break away from this unfair and oppressive parent and start a life of their own, as a new nation. This budding nation, youthful and inexperienced as it was, found it necessary to work its way up in the world. This adolescent American had proved its ambition to be free, but now hoped to gain the respect of the world, power in the world order, pride in itself, and a sense of nationalism to infuse its people. Great Britain, however, was struggling to maintain its own pride and power after its defeat to the adolescent America; this once all-powerful empire wanted to uphold the respect it had earned throughout history. Which country would ultimately prove itself to be superior? This was the rivalry between the two nations. And that is the rivalry between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones: who is the better man, who will win the girl and all her treasures, the respect, and the power?
While it appears clear that Irving’s tale is an allegory for a budding America and the rivalry between this underdog and its stronger, older relative Great Britain, some would disagree. Many critics, in fact, depict the rivalry as one between the regions and cultures in New England, and label Ichabod as the “threat,” or the bully. Donald Ringe boldly claims that “Ichabod Crane is clearly a Connecticut Yankee invading—and threatening—a New York Dutch society” (455). Following suit, Daniel Hoffman calls Brom Bones Irving’s “realistic Dutch frontiersman, who meets and bests a Yankee” (427). Their idea of Irving’s tale is summed up by Lloyd Daigrepont, who argues that “Brom is no musclebound bully, but rather a vigorous youth with a puckish spirit and a joyful exuberance for life” (75), who simply “wishes to rid Sleepy Hollow of the threat of Ichabod Crane” (76–77).
This claim that Brom Bones is the story’s hero and Crane the threatening force, while intriguing, seems misguided, especially as Irving himself described Bones as Crane’s “formidable rival” (973), as previously mentioned. In addition, Jeffrey Insko points out that Irving’s “body of work includes ‘serious’ histories (notably, biographies of George Washington and Christopher Columbus) and fictional sketches—among them ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’—that are themselves deeply concerned with matters historiographical” (609). Regional conflicts in an adolescent America’s New England were much more recent and current for Irving’s time than conflicts between America and Great Britain. Levine and Krupat note these concerns: “There was a sense during the 1790s and early 1800s … that American nationalism was provisional, vulnerable, fragile. The War of 1812, which emerged from trade disputes with England, can therefore be seen as a war that, at least in part, spoke to Americans’ desires to put an end to such anxiety by in effect reenacting the American Revolution against England and winning a victory once and for all” (931). Although the rivalry between America and its overseas lineage was indeed current and ongoing, it extended a bit farther back into history. Before there could be conflict between regions of the American nation, it had to become a nation. The first major conflict was between America and Great Britain.
When readers understand that the rivalry in Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy of Hollow” is not only between the opposing forces of two characters, but also between an underdog and a powerful bully, then they can understand a central allegory of the story: an allegory of a young and developing America. Irving meant his tale to convey a warning to the budding nation: it is a reminder of its vulnerability, its problems, and the obstacles and hardships that stand in the way of its success. While Irving and other members of “the American literary nationalism of the 1820s … ultimately raised tough questions about the nation’s future, about its strengths and vulnerabilities, and about its character and potential as a democratic republic” (Levine and Krupat 934), these questions and criticisms, along with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are not without a sense of hope or optimism. Readers should remember that “Ichabod is not ultimately the loser in this legend. All he has lost is a farm girl’s love and a measure of self-respect; the former was no real passion, the latter can be repaired” (Hoffman 433–34). The American nation, like Ichabod, has the potential to succeed: to grow up, to learn from mistakes, and then to thrive against all odds.
Daigrepont, Lloyd. “Ichabod Crane: Inglorious Man of Letters.” Early American Literature 19.1 (1984): 68–81. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
Hoffman, Daniel. “Irving’s Use of American Folklore in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’” PMLA68.3 (1953): 425–35. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
Insko, Jeffrey. “Diedrich Knickerbocker, Regular Bred Historian Early American.” Literature 43.3 (2008): 605–41. Project MUSE. Web. 11 Dec. 2010.
Irving, Washington. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Norton Anthology of American Literature.Ed. Robert Levine and Arnold Krupat. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. 965–86. Print.
Levine, Robert, and Arnold Krupat, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed., Vol. B. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007. Print.
Martin, Terence. “Rip, Ichabod, and the American Imagination.” American Literature 31.2 (1959): 137–49. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
Ringe, Donald. “New York and New England: Irving’s Criticism of American Society.” American Literature 38.4 (1967):455–67. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.