Storytelling shaped Washington Irving and his life as much as he shaped it. Irving describes how from boyhood he rambled about the countryside and “made myself familiar with all its places famous in history or fable. I knew every spot where a murder or robbery has been committed or a ghost seen. I visited the neighboring villages, and added greatly to my stock of knowledge.” His subsequent travels abroad, those west of the Mississippi, and his literary ambassadorships lent much to his accumulation of folklore and story skill. Irving interned with the best of tale masters in his travels, and it is everything to his way with words. Tales within tales are a specialty.
His Sketch Book (The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman), however, was written after a ten-year lapse in his writing and published in 1820. Irving admits that he “attempted no lofty theme, nor sought to look wise and learned. I have preferred addressing myself to the feeling and fancy of the reader, more than to his judgment.” The friendly and entertaining tone of this collection of stories is clear, and it charmed an international audience.
But perhaps the most unique element that blends both humor and fear is his stories’ settings. From the Dutch environs of the Hudson River Valley to the forests of Germany, Irving seems determined to stir a chuckle through his satire. As he introduces “The Spectre Bridegroom,” his own footnote explains that a wise reader “well-versed in good-for-nothing lore” would know his German tale was both Swiss and French as well. Tongue in cheek, he romantically begins with a sweeping landscape of rivers and castles “in the heights of the Odenwald.” The arrogant castle is so high in fact that it literally looks down on all the surrounding lands and estates as it “carries a high head.” As we enter the tale with Irving, we meet and greet our host Baron Von Landshort who is determined to cherish old feuds and protect the dry old relics he inherited. The castle’s banquet hall is filled with stereotypical portraits of “dark old warriors” staring at the guests along with trophies of hunt and battle. Grim boar tusks, wolf jaws, banners, and battle-axes abound. The Baron even lowers a drawbridge on his daughter’s wedding night to welcome her groom. The grand little castle also boasts his daughter’s secluded bedroom complete with a private garden where her ghostly suitor sings to her. The tale is set it seems in a wholly unoriginal place, which might appear slightly frightening on a stormy night.
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Irving’s detailed attention to setting expands. The vastness of the entire Hudson River Valley narrows to a single cove and one sleepy market-town, Tarry Town. Irving’s dry humor continues as he relates how the “good housewives” gave the name because of the “inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market-days.” The neighboring glen of Sleepy Hollow is soon introduced as one of the “quietest places in the whole world,” where a soft brook and whispering animals dwell under “a drowsy, dreamy influence.” But there, early in the story yet, the calm is interrupted by Irving’s own insertion of witchcraft, superstitions, and Indian powers, an influence that affects the good people who live there. He directly describes the most famous legend of the figure on horseback without a head, and it seem that everyone who lives there has “imbibed… the witching influence of the air, and begin[s] to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.” The tale is set.
Our central character, Ichabod Crane, enters, and Irving elaborates upon Sleepy Hollow’s lonely schoolhouse where Crane rules as a “cruel potentate.” We meet the farmers, their families, the old wives, and the tales that prey upon the superstitious mind of Ichabod. And this is where Irving veers from his own story routine. He describes a simple setting where Ichabod returns home one evening along an innocent country lane. But instead of embracing a peaceful night stroll, every part of the countryside frightens Ichabod, from being startled by the sudden light of a firefly to being hit by a beetle, or was it a witch’s token? The interplay with character has begun. We, the readers, know not to be frightened, but we also understand Ichabod’s fear of the “terrors of the night.”
Irving’s stock characters in these tales are some of his best, but the word stock is by no means the typical insult. In “The Spectre Bridegroom,” the Baron himself is short and squat, “the greatest man in the little world about him,” a little oracle and monarch among his horde of poor relations. He is indeed Landshort. Irving’s dry humor continues. The Baron’s only daughter and heir remains nameless throughout the entire story. Nameless, and what a prodigy she is! It is said she can write her own first name large enough for her two spinster aunts to read without glasses. And those aunts. Once upon a time, they were presented at a small German court and were great flirts, so great that they never married, and yet they are in charge of the Baron’s daughter. Our suitors’ names are indeed suitable. The first, Count Von Altenburg, or translated “count of the old castle,” is the named fiance, but he is mortally wounded by robbers in the German forest and dies in a hilarious deathbed scene while his veteran friend Herman Von Starkenfaust is set to deliver the bad news. Starken does mean to strengthen, but I do wonder about faust. Did Irving mean fist, and thus strong-fisted? Or did he lightly allude to the German tale Faust, a much darker meaning? Regardless, Starkenfaust’s family has been in an ancient feud with the Landshorts, and he is the one who must journey to the castle to say the Count is dead. The humor of the story continues with a case of mistaken identity and a timely ghostly tale.
In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane is a stock character like no other, for Irving describes him for pages. Heavy-handed in the classroom, nasal melodies issuing from his throat, spindly and laughable and paranoid and perpetually hungry, Crane is hilarious to watch. Irving writes that his “long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels” gave him the appearance of a weather vane. Oh, and as a teacher, “he had read several books quite through.”
But the one characteristic that lends itself to a potential love interest is appetite. We meet the Van Tassels, an apt name for a rich farmer of corn and the like, but it is that vast and gorgeous description of fertile harvest fields and two feasts within the tale that expose Crane’s love of food. Katrina is an only daughter who is “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” She was a “morsel” in Ichabod’s eyes, and if won over, represented the bounty of food for the rest of his life. What’s not to salivate over? Poor Ichabod, because then we learn of another earnest suitor, our villain, if you will, who is a “burly, roaring, roystering blade” by the name of Abraham or Brom Bones. His description mimics that of Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” and Ichabod avoids his rival, but he becomes the “object of whimsical persecution to Bones and his gang of rough riders.”
By the time we reach tale’s end, the ultimate prank is in play. Though Irving directly avoids telling us, he leaves blatant clues as to the identity of the headless horsemen: a black horse, a towering figure riding it, a pumpkin found the next day by the bridge where Ichabod disappears, and finally the fact that Brom looked “exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.”
To tell a tale well is a skill, but to weave and worm into the reader’s mind and heart is another ability entirely. Setting, character, humor, and a taste of fear—Washington Irving blends all in ample portion to fasten the power and influence of superstition upon our human minds. Perhaps this is why his Sketch Book became a bestseller overseas. He was the first American author in fact to break the barrier of the American stereotype. He was no ignorant colonist or rough settler as assumed, but rather the best of tale spinners.
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 “The Author’s Account of Himself.” Washington Irving’s Sketch Book (New York: Avenel Books, 1985), 19.
 Phillip McFarland, “Foreword,” 13.
 “The Spectre Bridegroom,” 211.
 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” 450.
 “Sleepy Hollow,” 452.
 Ibid., 458.
 “Spectre,” 214.
 “Sleepy Hollow,” 454.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is an illustration by John Quidor from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”