Irving’s narrator opens “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with a brief description of Sleepy Hollow itself, “one of the quietest places in the whole world,” a place of “uniform tranquillity.” Before moving on to introduce his characters he concludes, ”If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.” In this opening, Irving establishes Sleepy Hollow as both of-this-world and not-of-this-world, an “enchanted region” of unparalleled beauty and fertility. Tapping a literary tradition that stretches back literally thousands of years, he sets his story in a comic American version of what is often called an Earthly Paradise.
A. Bartlett Giamatti explains in his book The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic that “the desire for a state of perfect repose and life eternal has always haunted mankind, and poets have forever been the spokesmen for the dream.” Poets—and, more recently, prose writers—have created “idylls, eclogues, odes, epithalamia, epics, satires, romances, and occasional verses all [abounding] with descriptions of such an ideal life in an ideal landscape.” These works of literature have tended to depict their landscapes using a traditional set of images and ideas, and Irving uses and adapts many of them in creating his own “enchanted region.”
Stories set in an earthly paradise often take place in a Golden Age, a distant time and way of existence without strife and care. In the eighth century BC the Greek poet Hesiod outlined the five ages of man in his Works and Days; the five were the golden age, the silver age, the bronze age, the age of heroes, and the iron age in which we live now. The golden age was the first, the most simple and noble, and the yearning to return to the golden age has figured in ancient and more recent literature. As Giamatti writes, the image ”never failed, or fails yet, to evoke that time when the world was fresh with dew and man was happy.” Even today, Americans look to the past (”those were the days”) as a happier time, and tell themselves that “things were simpler then.” In creating his earthly paradise, Irving comically sets his story in a new nation’s version of ancient history, “in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since.”
The attractive thing about the golden age landscape is that it does not change. The narrator pines, ”Though many years have elapsed since I trod the drowsy shades of Sleepy Hollow, yet I question whether I should not find the same trees and the same families vegetating in its sheltered bosom.” Sleepy Hollow is the kind of place where “the population, manners, and customs remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.”
But it is the landscape, not the society, that makes an earthly paradise. One of the most common ways of depicting paradise is as a garden, for example, the Bible’s Garden of Eden. Giamatti finds that “in a garden, meadow or field poets have always felt Nature most nearly approximates the ideals of harmony, beauty and peace which men constantly seek in some form or other.” Another common depiction is the beautiful but somewhat wilder landscape used in pastoral poetry as a setting for love to bloom. Albert J. von Frank sees elements of both the garden and the pastoral in ”The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In a 1987 article in Studies in American Fiction, he writes, “Like other ideal settings, the larger Dutch community, Sleepy Hollow, and the Van Tassel farm are enclosed gardens, here concentrically frames, inviting, seductive, and as dangerous to itinerants as the island of the Sirens or the land of the Lotos-Eaters. The societies sheltered by these nested gardens are themselves closed and static . . . yet magically productive. Following pastoral convention, Irving describes the land.”
One example will demonstrate the images that Irving is working with. Theocritus, the third century BC Greek poet who is credited with inventing the pastoral, wrote a series of “idylls,” or brief poems about contentment in country life. In his seventh idyll is found this passage: Many an aspen, many an elm bowed and rustled overhead, and hard by, the hallowed water welled purling forth of a cave of the Nymphs, while the brown cricket chirped busily amid the shady leafage, and the tree frog murmured aloof in the dense thornbrake. Lark and goldfinch sang and turtle moaned, and about the spring the bees hummed and hovered to and fro. All nature smelt of the opulent summertime, smelt of the season of fruit. Pears lay at our feet, apples on either side, rolling abundantly. And the young branches lay splayed upon the ground because of the weight of their damsons.
Although Irving’s story takes place in the fertile harvest time of autumn instead of summer, he builds his descriptive passages out of nearly the same images, adding a comic twist here and there. The approach to the Van Tassel farm resembles the opening lines of the Theocritus passage, if a barrel can be asked to stand for the cave of the Nymphs: ”A giant elm-tree spread its broad branches over it, at the foot of which bubbled up a spring of the softest and sweetest water, in a little well formed of a barrel.” Where the Greeks had lark and goldfinch, here in America Irving boasts of a long catalog of birds,”taking their farewell banquets. In the fulness of their revelry, they fluttered, chirping and frolicking, from bush to bush and tree to tree, capricious from the very profusion and variety around them.” Even the tree-frog appears, not murmuring but giving a “boding cry.”
And the food! The fruits of the American paradise are so much more than pears and apples and damsons (plums). There are apples, of course. Ichabod beholds ”vast stores of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press.” But there are also ”great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts” and “yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun” and the ”fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive.” Nearly every feature of Theocritus’s poem is present in Irving’s description.
One detail that is missing is the cricket, but Irving handles that in another way. In one of the most vivid images in the story, he shows Ichabod Crane riding off to meet his lady with “his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers.” Theocritus’s cricket is brown, but Crane wears “rusty black.”
This is not to say that Irving had read Theocritus (though he may have), but rather that Irving and Theocritus had read the same things, and had drawn from the same well of images. The earthly paradise often has other features, some of which Irving adopts or adapts: the landscape is situated on a high mountain (here it is ”a little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills”), there is a fountain (here the brook which seems to flow past every building in the valley), the west wind blows. In poems of the fourteenth century and later, the earthly paradise may be dangerous, the mountain may be in shadow, as Sleepy Hollow is. Giamatti describes a “beautiful-seeming earthly paradise where man’s will is softened, his moral fiber unraveled, and his soul ensnared. It is the garden where insidious luxury and sensuous love overcome duty and true devotion.”
The danger appears in a familiar form. Giamatti traces the idea of the danger to the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, in whose Triondo d’Amore ”a man is tempted to let down his guard, to succumb to the desire for security and female domination which the garden promises. Man is weakened in such a place … in the arms of the woman who animates the place.” Ichabod lets down his guard—loses his head—in the same way. The narrator claims that ”he would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was—a woman.”
Irving’s use of classical images and themes was not an accident of native talent and inspiration. He was adequately literate in several languages, and had read the important literature of Europe and the classical world. He was well acquainted with Sir Walter Scott, whose own novels and poems were based on legends and myths. As Daniel Hoffman argues in Fame and Fable in American Fiction (1973), Washington Irving was … something of an antiquary. His early Knickerbocker’s History of New York reveals him to be enchanted with the very past he satirized. . .. Wherever Irving went he collected popular sayings and beliefs; he was prepossessed by a sense of the past, and recognized the power—and the usefulness to a creative artist— of popular antiquities.”
Irving knew the value of calling up old images. By echoing the ancients he borrowed some of their power, and claimed for his story—even if in a mocking way—a place among them. By adapting European imagery to use American details, he showed in a form of shorthand that America had as much to offer as the Europeans, and more. In this, he was not alone. But he was one of the first, one of the reasons Giamatti can state that “American literature is constantly read as a record of the quest for happiness and innocence in the great unspoiled garden.”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Washington Irving, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000