City versus Country
One of the great themes of American literature and American folklore is the clash between the city and the country, between civilization and the wilderness. As the theme is played out in literature around the world, it carries one of two interpretations: either the city is seen as beautiful, civilized, rich, clean and safe, and the country is ugly, dirty and dangerous, or else the city is dirty and dangerous, populated by swindlers who love nothing better than tricking the kind, gentle people from the beautiful country. American folklore from the nineteenth century tends to favor the second view. Settlers were proud of their wilderness, and excited by it, and their stories celebrated the skills and qualities one needed to survive on the frontier. The heroes from this period—Daniel Boone, Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, the Swamp Angel—are rugged, strong and clever. When supposedly educated city slickers venture into the countryside, they are outsmarted by these heroes every time.
Ichabod Crane, a native of Connecticut, is a typical scholar who wishes he were an outdoorsman. Irving points out that there are two types of men who come out of Connecticut, “pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest,” who become “frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters.” Crane is not completely out of place in the forest—he is able to help with the ”lighter labors” on the farm— but thinks of himself and is considered by others “a kind of idle gentleman-like personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains.” On Sunday afternoons, while he strolls about with the young ladies of the village, “the more bashful country bumpkins h[a]ng sheepishly back, envying his superior elegance and address.”
Brom Bones, Crane’s most formidable competitor for the hand of Katrina, is as unlike Crane as he could be, “burly, roaring, roistering.” Where Crane is “esteemed by the women as a man of great erudition,” Brom is “the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood.” Crane is “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders,” while Brom is “broad-shouldered” and has a ”Herculean frame.” Crane courts Katrina “in a quiet and gently insinuating manner,” while Brom’s “amorous toyings” are “something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear.”
Irving sets up a confrontation between these two opposites, and any reader of American folklore knows how it will turn out. Crane’s education is no match for Brom’s native wit, his scrawny body and awkward riding are no match for Brom’s strength and skill, and the woman chooses the rough and strong man over the refined and delicate one. Neither man is particularly unlikable, but in America, a young country with frontier to be tamed, the values of the country win out over those of the city.
Creativity and Imagination
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a story about stories and story-tellers, and a lesson in keeping the line clear between fiction and reality. The title is significant. Irving identifies this as a legend, a type of story that may be loosely based on truth but is clearly fiction, that may feature the supernatural, that is handed down by a people and that reflects the national character of that people.
This quality is captured in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as the narrator reminds the reader again and again of the special nature of the valley where the story takes place. The name of the valley is no accident, for “a drowsy dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.” The place “holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.” Ichabod Crane is not immune to the influence, for even outsiders, ”however wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region,” are sure to “inhale the witching atmosphere of the air, and begin to grow imaginative.”
One function of imagination and story-telling is to bind a community together, as seen in the party scene. Most of the stories told are unverifiable and untrue: “Just sufficient time had elapsed to enable each story-teller to dress up his tale with a little becoming fiction, and, in the indistinctness of his recollection, to make himself the hero of every exploit.” The exaggeration is just part of the fun, and so long as everyone understands this there is no harm.
Crane, however, does not understand the limits of imagination. His dreams are too grand; he tries to make them reality but he can never live up to them. When he sees the bounty at the Van Tassel home, he dreams “in his devouring mind’s eye” of “every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly” and every turkey and duck and pigeon becoming a meal for him. When he looks over the Van Tassel land, “his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash.” And when he looks into the mirror as he prepares for the party, he sees a cavalier, where the narrator sees only a “grasshopper.” No wonder Crane is bold enough to ask for Katrina’s hand, and no wonder he is surprised when she refuses him.
This lack of discernment is Crane’s downfall. Because he imagines himself to be a ”knight-errant in quest of adventures,” he humiliates himself in front of Katrina. Because he does not understand that the story of the headless horseman is just a story, he is easy prey for Brom. If only he were as wise as the story-teller in Knickerbocker’s postscript, who says of his own story, “Faith sir … I don’t believe one half of it myself.”
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.