Closer Readings Commentary

The Headless Horseman rides again!

"What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!”

These words mark the frontispiece of the 1899 edition of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a Halloween classic that has entertained people for over a hundred years. Do students know Washington Irving was a beloved and influential American writer during the nineteenth century? Irving penned this tale which became one of the most popular and long-lived ghost stories in American literature as evidenced in its countless film, television and popular culture adaptations. So what is it about this author's spooky tale that continues to capture the imagination of readers and viewers today?

EDSITEment’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow explores the artistry that made Irving our nation's first literary master and ponders the mystery that now haunts every All Hallows Eve -- What happened to Ichabod Crane?

Washington Irving’s story about a gullible and self-centered schoolteacher was first published as part of a collection know as The Sketchbook in 1820. Books That Shaped America cites, “Irving’s vivid imagery involving the wild supernatural pursuit by the Headless Horseman has sustained interest in this popular folktale through many printed editions, as well as film, stage, and musical adaptations. The bold cover art of the 1899 edition is the work of Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944), the preeminent designer of decorated cloth publishers’ bindings between 1890 and 1913.”

In our contemporary culture, place and story - literature and image often merge within motion pictures and television programs. Irving's village in Sleepy Hollow New York was one of the film sites for Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollows, a recent film interpretation. Students may be surprised to discover the way Burton's version chose to characterize the teacher, Ichabod Crane, and his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, differently from Irving's original conception. And a brand new incarnation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" can be found in a current TV show that is quite unlike any other version of the terrifying tale. With its modern day setting in Sleepy Hollow New York, the plot twists Ichabod Crane into a Revolutionary soldier who wakes up in 2013 along with the Horseman (one of the four from the Apocalypse.) The two adversaries continue their centuries old battle in contemporary America, though each episode includes historical flashbacks to life in 1776!

The New York Times Learning Network articles “Rediscovering a Giant” and Sleepy Hollow Capitalizing on Legend” transport students back to the New York village where Washington Irving set his tale over 200 years ago (it has since changed its name from North Tarrytown.) Sometime after Washington Irving wrote his story, another little town, Milford CT, earned the nickname "Sleepy Hollow." Exactly why is something of a mystery, but students will uncover connections between the story and that town in Connecticut's Sleepy Hollow in the state encyclopedia, Connecticut History.

Students interested in learning how Halloween was celebrated in America in the late 19th century through turn of century may peer back in time through historic newspapers of the day. Have them tap into historic newspapers Chronicling America's topical essay on Halloween. One article from 1907 Los Angeles Herald discusses "Hallowe'en--A Holiday Tradition" and highlights well-known, holiday customs that are still practiced nowadays like mischievous pranks and Jack-O-Lanterns. It also presents more obscure, old-fashioned rituals, like divinations, which were performed on Halloween to forecast the matrimonial futures of lovers.

Originating as a blend of mythology and Christian superstitions, Halloween is celebrated on October 31st every year on the eve of All Saints’ Day (November 1) otherwise known as All Hallows Eve. It is believed that on this night the veil between the worlds is permeable and spirits of the dead (like Irving's terrifying Headless Horseman) can cross over to the land of the living to pay a friendly visit...or can come back to haunt! Delve into the ancient Celtic roots and learn the Latin American traditions of this holiday in EDSITEment's feature Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

By the way, Halloween is not the only red letter calendar day to benefit from Washington Irving's fertile imagination....we also have him to thank for a certain jolly character who lands on rooftops and makes his way into many homes on Christmas eve. Yes, it was Washington Irving who penned "dreams one night that the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children..."and conjured up the image that has come to exemplify our modern day Santa Claus! But that is another story...maybe a subject for a post next month?