The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Themes and Colors
History and Storytelling Theme Icon
Reality, Imagination, and the Supernatural Theme Icon
War and Battle Theme Icon
Consumption, Appetite, and Greed Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History and Storytelling Theme Icon

At the beginning of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” we learn from Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional historian narrating the tale, that it took place “in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since”—meaning in 1790, thirty years before the story was published in 1820. A classic example of Irving’s irony and humor with its description of 30 years ago as a “remote period,” this quotation nonetheless underlines a real problem for early American storytellers, who lacked a long, distinguished American history from which to draw. They could neither rely on this history as material for fiction nor rely on its aesthetic legacy in fitting their own stories into a larger meaning. Irving’s use of older Dutch and German sources was one way to get around this problem. In fact, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is full of references to Dutch names, places, and social groups. Early American New York was, indeed, inhabited by many people of Dutch origin, but the references also served to create an artificial historical heritage. Irving even claims historical veracity for this tale by creating the fictional character of Diedrich Knickerbocker. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is supposed to have been found among Knickerbocker’s papers, so Irving’s story is no more than a transcription of this “true” story. Such a device, called framing, helps to lend a sense of age and legitimacy to the tale (and would have been especially attractive to Irving, as a historian and essayist himself). This historical frame is also complicated and nuanced—while Knickerbocker is referred to as a “historian,” there are parts of the story he doesn’t know. It turns out that Knickerbocker’s story is also a frame for the tale of another storyteller, who appears in the postscript. “I don’t believe one-half of it myself,” this storyteller admits concerning his own tale, thus melding and confusing history and fiction in both humorous and disconcerting ways.

In addition, even within the tale, history and storytelling interact and often fuse. Tarry Town is described as one of the quietest places in the world; even Ichabod Crane is only “tarrying” there, passing his time idly until his “real” life can begin. History doesn’t happen in Sleepy Hollow—it takes place elsewhere, offstage. Nevertheless, many of the tall tales the Dutch residents tell, including those of Major André and the Headless Horseman, take place during the Revolutionary War and are unthinkable without this true historical context. By mixing history with tall tales, therefore, Irving helps to construct an artistic heritage to go along with a budding historical legacy for the new American nation.

History and Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History and Storytelling appears in each section of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History and Storytelling Quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Below you will find the important quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow related to the theme of History and Storytelling.
Main Story Quotes

The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; star shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols. The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Headless Horseman
Related Symbols: Head of the Headless Horseman
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Irving opens his tale by describing in detail the setting of Sleepy Hollow, which is located in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York—an area that, in the 18th century, was almost entirely settled by the Dutch and their descendants. This passage is a combination of careful, objective description and fanciful storytelling, which sets the tone for the rest of the story, in which the boundaries between fact and fiction, between history and storytelling, are not always clear.

According to Knickerbocker (the narrator), this setting is ideally suited for a supernatural tale for several reasons. In some ways, he seems to suggest that the inhabitants of the town are simply more likely than the general population to swap ghost stories and to believe fantastical tales. This would situate his story within such a tradition. However, he also implies that there is indeed something in the very air or "spirit" of the setting that is supernatural—the shooting stars, and the meteors glaring across the sky. In this sense, Knickerbocker is merely a historian, chronicling the stories of a particular region. 


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It is remarkable that the visionary propensity I have mentioned is not confined to the native inhabitants of the valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by every one who resides there for a time. However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Knickerbocker continues his suggestion (in the voice of both a storyteller and a historian) that the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow are not simply mad or naturally superstitious, but become so by "imbibing" the very air of the place. Not only does the setting make one see visions and dream strange dreams, but it invites anyone who stops there to slow down, to remove himself or herself from the regular rhythms of daily life in order to embrace new rhythms and a new standard. Setting, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, almost possesses a power of its own in its ability to affect other characters. By acknowledging its might, Knickerbocker prepares the reader for the entrance of the protagonist, Ichabod Crane, who—even though he is not native to this region—will before long begin to embrace the "witching" influence of the place to an even greater extent than many other residents.

I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remained 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.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

This story takes place around 1790, not long after the end of the American Revolutionary War. At the time the United States of America was just coming into being as a unified nation, and many people continued to feel greater allegiance to smaller, more contained areas, whether the "great State of New York" or even a certain town or group of descendants sharing a common heritage, such as here the Dutch. The end of the eighteenth century saw many great changes sweeping the country, but here Knickerbocker seems to prefer the old-time charm of a town where little has changed. Furthermore, linking the town's heritage to the Dutch allows Irving to give a greater scope of history to his story—the U.S. was still very young as a country, but Americans holding on to their Dutch roots would have a much longer history to look back upon.

Of course, as has already been suggested by the apparition of the Headless Horseman—headless from a Revolutionary War battle—even such a town forgotten by time as Sleepy Hollow is not exempt from historical change. Indeed, Knickerbocker seems to be stretching the historical truth in order to situate his tale within a particular frozen moment in time, where the rules of modernization and of objective history may not apply as they do, increasingly, in the rest of the land. 

In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, “tarried,” in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

The names that make up the setting in this story are often, as mentioned, an active part of the plot: the name "Sleepy Hollow" suggests a slowing down of the tempo of daily life, while "Tarry Town" (the name of the region where Sleepy Hollow is located) is appropriate because of how easy it is for characters like Ichabod Crane to linger or "tarry" there. Ichabod, we learn, is not from Sleepy Hollow originally, and indeed only means to stay there for awhile: his schoolteacher's position seems to be not a serious career but merely a means of supporting himself as he wanders through the East Coast and lives out his youth.

The notion that Knickerbocker's tale took place in a "remote period of American history"—a mere thirty years ago—is a tongue-in-cheek reminder that American history itself, at the time of the story's publication, was not long enough to have any kind of "remote" past. Thus the term "remote" has to be stretched to take into account how little time the United States had been a nation. Knickerbocker takes on the language and tone of a chronicler of myths or national origin stories, while also acknowledging the difficulty of doing so compared to a place like Europe, populated by its own tale-tellers for many more centuries.  

The neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

Ichabod has ridden his horse to the Van Tassel farm for a quilting party, and after the dancing many of the guests have gathered around to tell stories. Ichabod has gone to the dance principally with the desire to win over Katrina, but because of his love for storytelling, he cannot stop himself from being drawn into the circle to participate.

Once again, Knickerbocker assigns an active role to the setting: not only are Sleepy Hollow and Tarry Town places of supernatural activity and a bewitching influence, but they are also privileged sites for important events from the historical past. In fact, as the stories are related, there seems to be little explicit distinction made between ghost stories and historical tales. Rather, the word "chronicle" is made to stand in for both true historical facts and tales made up, or at least exaggerated in their retelling over time. The story suggests that any attempt to unravel history from storytelling is, if not futile, then certainly fraught with difficulties.

Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long-settled retreats; but are trampled under foot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country places.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker)
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

The guests at the Van Tassel quilting party are still exchanging historical and fantastical tales. As he has done before, Knickerbocker suggests that there is something about this region that is frozen in time, immune to the historical changes and modernizing processes that have come to characterize much of the rest of the young American nation. Here, he specifies more precisely what that means for storytelling. In other areas of the country, people come and go at such a rate that few remember what things were like even in the recent past. In Tarry Town, however, Ichabod is the rare interloper into a society that has remained in the same setting for many generations. As a result, it is much easier for local stories to be passed down from person to person. In addition, it is more possible for such tales to be confirmed by the inhabitants, since many of them may have witnessed the events of the past themselves. Such witnessing puts a veneer of authenticity on tales that might otherwise be dismissed as fiction, even if those who are telling the tales admit that they exaggerate and fictionalize elements of them. 

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire.

Related Characters: Diedrich Knickerbocker (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

Directly after seeming to convince the reader of the true answer to the mystery of Ichabod's disappearance, Knickerbocker balances that view with another, that of the "old country wives" who were always Ichabod's preferred companions for exchanging supernatural tales. Now the cycle continues without him, as Ichabod becomes one more character in these women's arsenal, just like the many figures that have preceded him and that have served as fodder for their stories.

Once again, Knickerbocker is ambivalent on the relationship between reality and the supernatural, between imaginative tales and historical fact. On the one hand, we are told that the women are, in fact, the "best judges" of such events, implying that they are to be trusted as historical chroniclers. On the other hand, these purportedly historical facts are told around the fire, for what seems like the evening entertainment of the town. Of course, this does not mean that the wives' opinion is false—indeed, at the quilting party historical anecdotes from the war were recounted along with supernatural tales. But the effect is to once again blur the line between what counts as "truth" and what does not.

Postscript Quotes

“That there is no situation in life but has its advantages and pleasures—provided we will but take a joke as we find it:
That, therefore, he that runs races with goblin troopers is likely to have rough riding of it.
Ergo, for a country schoolmaster to be refused the hand of a Dutch heiress is a certain step to high preferment in the state.”

Related Characters: Storyteller (speaker), Ichabod Crane
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

In the postscript, the storyteller is asked to tell the "moral" of the legend of Sleepy Hollow, and this quotation is what he comes up with. On first glance, the passage seems nearly nonsensical. It employs terms like "therefore" and "ergo" that recall the language of philosophical argument, or at least of maxims stemming from the culture of the highly educated. But the relationship between cause and effect—between failing to marry a Dutch heiress and gaining an important state position, for example—is far from clear. 

Of course, the storyteller is alluding to Ichabod Crane's own luck, following the rumor that he did end up in an important position after the luckless mishaps of his youth in Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod, the storyteller suggests, actually won the battle against Brom at the end of the day, because he was able to break out of the sleepy village frozen in time. Still, we cannot take this "moral"—that every situation of life "has its advantages and pleasures"—entirely at face value, given the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone of the storyteller's words. Indeed, this tone suggests that any effort to assign a fixed meaning or a final cause to events is bound to be at least somewhat random. Rather than draw conclusions about Ichabod's trajectory and make a pronouncement on what it means for the listeners' own reality, the storyteller evades such an "educational" purpose and instead revels in the sheer delight of storytelling.