The Dutch in New York
In its earliest days as an outpost for Europeans, New York was settled by the Dutch, or people from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Henry Hudson, referred to in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as “Master Hendrick Hudson,” sailed in 1609 from present-day New York City to Albany up what the Dutch called the Tappan Zee, and what is now called the Hudson River; the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York City commemorates this today. Hudson was British by birth, but was working for the Dutch East India Company, and after his explorations the Netherlands claimed what is now New York as its own territory. The first Dutch settlers arrived at present-day New York City in 1624. Although the territory eventually came under British and then American control, the Dutch people were still numerous and influential throughout New York in Irving’s day.
As with any ethnic group, stereotypes of the Dutch were abundant. They were said to be jolly, prosperous, well-fed, and foolish. Irving had poked fun at Dutchmen in A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, whose fictional author was Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker is supposedly the source of this story as well, and the stereotypes are used to comic effect in the characters of Baltus Van Tassel, his daughter Katrina, and their superstitious and somewhat pompous neighbors. It should be said that there were also widespread stereotypical notions about Yankees, or people of Anglo-Saxon descent, who were considered—like Ichabod Crane— to be vain, overeducated, sophisticated and lacking in common sense.
Irving made use of the folklore about Dutch people, and in a minor way contributed to it. When he created the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker, he made up the name “Knickerbocker” to sound funny and at the same time come close enough to a genuine Dutch name to be believable. With Irving’s growing popularity, people began to associate the last name with the people. Dutch people were referred to as “knickerbockers,” and later the baggy pants gathered below the knee that the men wore came to be known as “knickerbockers” and then “knickers.” Knickers fell out of fashion after the 1930s, but the name is still used by the professional basketball team the Knickerbockers, or the New York Knicks.
The New American Fiction
Irving was alive and writing at the moment in American literary history when a true national literature was being called for and created. Previously, the writing coming out of the colonies and then out of the new nation was primarily religious or historical, and was scarcely different from the same kinds of writing coming out of Europe. Ichabod Crane’s own favorite writer, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), was a preacher and a political writer of rational, stern treatises on subjects of the day. His books about witchcraft grew out of the Salem witchcraft trials, and they were neither imaginative, nor intended to entertain or to express the writer’s experiences or emotions. Instead, in The History of New England Witchcraft, which Daniel Hoffman has identified as Magnolia Christi Americana (1702), Mather presented case histories of what he believed to be actual and Satanic events, for the purpose of informing his readers and arguing against the witch trials.
By the end of the eighteenth century, there was a demand for American characters and American themes, and plays filling this need had already begun to appear. The popularity of novels imported from England led to the beginnings of the American novel, and to serious discussions about what kinds of literature would best reflect the values of a democratic society. Irving was among the first American writers who had both the talent and the will to write American fiction, but he had no American models.
The Sketch Book, written in England, contains more than thirty sketches or stories, and nearly all of them have to do with English life and English characters. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was unusual, though not unique, in being set in the United States. To create the story, Irving borrowed heavily from the German legends of Ruebezahl from the Volksmaerchen der Deutschen, transporting the basic action and characters to Upstate New York. It was a beginning. The Sketch Book became the first book by an American to sell well in England, proving that it could be done.
Historians and critics have debated for over a century whether Irving invented the short story when he wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Some have argued that the two are not actually stories at all, but merely tales. Whether he was a creator or an adapter, a writer of stories or of tales, Irving expanded the possibilities of American writing, and helped make possible the explosion of new forms and idioms that would come along at the middle of the nineteenth century.
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.