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
History and Storytelling Quotes in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
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.
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.
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.
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.
The neighborhood, at the time of which I am speaking, was one of those highly favored places which abound with chronicle and great men.
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.
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.
“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.”