by ZJ Czupor
The Father of American Literature
When I was in grade school, at Halloween time, our teacher would read to us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819) by Washington Irving (1783-1859). To this day, I still find it frightening to think of a black and towering headless horseman racing through the gloomy woods at night.
Irving’s gothic ghost story is set in 1790 in a small fictional village near Tarrytown, New York known as Sleepy Hollow, on the east bank of the Hudson River. In those days, the Dutch settlement was infamous for its tales of ghosts and haunting atmosphere which enchanted the local inhabitants.
The legend of the headless horseman, who rides in nightly quest of his head, is believed to be the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the American Revolution.
Irving’s tale draws upon the mystery of our imagination. The story follows Ichabod Crane, a superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Crane sees an opportunity for riches if he can wed Katrina. But one night as Crane is riding home on his horse, Brom Bones dresses as the headless horseman to scare Crane. It never occurs to Crane that his ghostly rider might be a prank.
Irving leaves the ending vague as to what really happened to Ichabod Crane. But after his disappearance, the old Dutch wives believe Crane was spirited away by the supernatural.
But there’s more to this author’s legacy in literature than ghost stories. Once you read past The Legend of Sleepy Hollow you will discover a writer who not only enthralled us with his ghost stories, but a writer who influenced America’s emerging literary landscape.
At the encouragement of Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), Irving explored German romance authors, folklores, and legends. Then, he took a European ghost story and created an American original. Among Irving’s many works, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the most anthologized, studied, and adapted into film, television, theatrical plays, and music. For it’s more than a ghost story, Irving wove in descriptions of how ordinary people really lived outside of cities.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of thirty-four essays and short stories Irving wrote in a collection titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). He wrote these stories while living in Birmingham, England. Another short story in the collection is “Rip Van Winkle” which he wrote in its entirety one night. These two stories are thought to be the first examples of the American short story. And the Sketch Book was a milestone in American history for it was the first piece of American writing to capture European recognition.
Irving’s Sketch Book was issued in seven installments in New York and in two volumes in London. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appeared in the sixth issue of the New York edition and in the second volume of the London edition.
Since there were no copyright laws at the time, some of his stories were reprinted in periodicals without his permission. To prevent further piracy, Irving paid to have the first four American installments published as a single volume by London publisher John Miller.
Out of that experience, Irving promoted America’s maturing writers and advocated for stronger copyright laws pending in Congress. He said, “We have a young literature springing up and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance, which…deserves all its fostering care.” Unfortunately, the legislation did not pass at that time.
Irving was born in New York City on April 3, 1783, the same week as the British ceased fire to end the American Revolution. Irving’s mother named him after George Washington, and when Irving was six he met his namesake when George Washington was living in New York after his inauguration as President in 1789.
Irving made his literary debut at the age of nineteen when he submitted letters to New York’s Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. He often commented on the city’s social and theater scene. His brother Peter edited the newspaper. The founder and co-publisher of the Chronicle was Aaron Burr (1756-1836), who would become the young nation’s third vice president under Thomas Jefferson. Burr, as you may recall, during his last year as vice president in 1804 fatally shot Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) in a pistol duel.
As an adult, Irving made several bad investments and declared bankruptcy. He became an attorney but never practiced. And with no prospects for work he turned to writing to generate income.
He successfully published several books of history and a western series and began to attract a following. At one point, he learned from a playwright friend that English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)—the author of Frankenstein (1818)—was romantically interested in him, but he did not pursue her.
According to Tracy Hoffman, president, Washington Irving Society, Shelley most likely pursued Irving as her last potential male companion before she settled into the single life. Shelly also influenced Irving’s book Tales of a Traveller (1824), a two-volume collection of essays and short stories under his pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. That collection also featured ghosts and playful ironies about the American narrator’s travels of stories which are expressed as overheard and sometimes heard second-hand through England, Italy, and Dutch Manhattan.
Unfortunately, the book was a failure. “Most likely,” Hoffman said, “because it was dark and depressing. That book changed the trajectory of his writing.” Hoffman added that Shelley influenced his writing for ill and is one reason he rejected her. (Blog, March 25, 2020).
And Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) sought Irving’s comments on his stories “William Wilson” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Irving also exchanged letters with Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and hosted Dickens and his wife at his home in Tarrytown, New York.
Oddly, after Poe sought Irving’s advice on his own writing, in 1838, Poe wrote that “Irving is much overrated.” He thought Irving should be given credit for innovation but that his writing was unsophisticated.
Nevertheless, Irving contributed enormously to American culture:
He popularized the nickname “Gotham” for New York City, borrowing it from the English village of Gotham, which in the Middle Ages was known as the home of “simple-minded fools.”
He also invented the expression “the almighty dollar,” as derision for people who gave the bill undo reverence. The phrase first appeared in a travel story in 1836 wrote about a steamboat trip through the Louisiana bayous in which he praised the rural resident’s simple values. He wrote, “The almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages.”
And “Knickerbocker,” a name often associated with New York and New Yorkers comes from Irving’s book A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (1809). The book was written by Diedrich Knickerbocker, a pseudonym invented by Irving. Hence the nickname for the pro basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers, or Knicks.
He wrote the book as a satire on the city’s self-important history and contemporary politics. He used irony and sarcasm to point out flaws. While he was authoring the book, he mourned the death of his 17-year-old fiancée Matilda Hoffman. After she died, he later proposed to one other woman, but she declined. He never engaged or married anyone.
Irving also contributed to how we celebrate Christmas. In his 1812 book A History of New York, he inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon bringing presents to children. In his Sketch Book he also filled forty pages with five Christmas stories in which he fondly portrayed an idealized Christmas celebration based on his experiences in England. He describes family dinners, blazing fires, carol singers, an atmosphere of good cheer, and the charm of a merry Christmas. At that time, America had not yet recognized the Christmas holiday. Irving expressed only its essence. Americans would later embrace Irving’s idealized Christmas. And, his friend, Charles Dickens, would later fine-tune our early visions of Christmas 23 years later in his A Christmas Carol (1820).
Irving became America’s first “Man of Letters” and the first to solely earn a living by his pen. He is considered by some as the “Father of American Literature” as he was the first American author to gain success in both Europe and in America. He earned the title because his writing began to shape the American identity. Previously, American colonies and literature were linked to English literature.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was also called “the father of American literature” as he wrote about America’s transformation and how that guided American literature. Then, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the same title was bestowed upon Mark Twain (1835-1910) years later because of his unique reflections on American life.
Interestingly, all three authors traveled extensively throughout America and Europe and wrote about their observations of America’s changing landscape.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the only other contemporary American writer to garner an international reputation, but he remained more popular in Europe than in the States.
In addition to Irving’s two most famous works, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving produced twenty short stories, three novellas, five non-fiction books, and thirteen collections of stories, along with essays, poems, travel books, histories, and biographies of Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), the prophet Muhammad (570 CE-632 AD), George Washington (1732-1799), and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).
Not surprisingly, the Halloween season always sparks renewed interest in “Sleepy Hollow.” While Irving never mentions Halloween he set the story’s climax in the evening of a “fine autumnal day” in a valley with haunted fields, brooks, bridges, and houses. The link as been secured by artists who show the rider carrying a jack-o-lantern as a head, which is an embellishment of Irving’s simple suggestion that the horseman’s head was a pumpkin.
Elizabeth Bradly, a historian at Historic Hudson Valley, said, “It inspires people because it reminds them that there are still some American mysteries, some half-truths that may never be fully known—and that’s the whole point. The “Legend” lends itself to any interpretation, and it continues to fascinate and terrify us in the best possible way.”
On the night before he died, his niece Sarah heard him announce, “I feel so dreadfully depressed. Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! If this could only end.” At that instant, he grabbed his left side, and fell backwards.
Irving died of a heart attack in his bedroom at his home in Tarrytown, New York. He was seventy-six.
In 1997, Tarrytown, New York officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow. Befittingly, Washington Irving is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
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Tales of headless horsemen were born throughout Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Britain. Some believe the headless horseman myth in America is based loosely on the discovery of a headless corpse found in Sleepy Hollow, New York after a violent skirmish with the British during the Revolution.
Early in the American Revolution, the British hired a mercenary army of German-speaking troops from the principality of Hesse to supplement British forces. The Hessians were alleged to be Europe’s most bloodthirsty army. American Founding Father John Hancock (1737-1793) wrote that Hessians fought without remorse or compunction…” American parents believed the Hessians would capture and eat their children.
According to Irving, Tarry Town earned its name from the “good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.” The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Irving’s legend had broad geographic influence. There’s also a Sleepy Hollow, Illinois, in Marin County, California and a Sleepy Hollow, Wyoming, with street names like Pumpkin Court, Gunpowder Street (Gunpowder was Ichabod Crane’s horse), Ichabod Avenue, and Raven Street; an annual event called Sleepy Hollow Days, and the town’s water tower has a mural based on the legend.
There’s an Irving, Texas and Knickerbocker, Texas; and Irvington, New York (formerly Dearman); Irving Street in San Francisco; Irving Park neighborhood in Chicago and Indianapolis; and Irving College in Irving, Tennessee.
In 1842, Secretary of State Daniel Webster (1782-1852) endorsed Irving as the U.S. Minister to Spain and Irving was appointed by our 10th President John Tyler (1790-1862).
In November 1814, after two newspapers published Francis Scott Key’s (1779-1843) poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” and Boston’s Carr Music Store republished the poem and lyrics under the new title “The Star Spangled Banner,” Irving was the first to reprint words and music in The Analectic magazine which he edited.
In 1940, Irving became the first author to be featured on the “Famous Americans’ series of postage stamps.
Irving is one of several writers of the era who unwittingly perpetuated the myth of a flat-Earth. In 1828, he wrote and published a romanticized biography, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Irving wrote a fictional account of the Spanish commission, which raised biblical objections to Columbus’s assertions that the Earth was spherical. In fact, the commission members were concerned about the safety of the travelers. Every scientist, astronomer, and academician of the day knew then that the earth was round. Aristotle proved the earth was round a thousand years before Columbus.