Inman, Dismissal of School on an October Afternoon, 1845
Most people don’t read the Sketch Book in full anymore, focusing instead on its two most famous tales: “Rip Van Winkle” and, of course, the object of our purpose, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These are bumper crop works that repay and repay, but that’s the gist of the thirty-four essays, stories, anecdotes, and musings that comprise the Sketch Book itself, a weird piece of Americana by turns folksy, Gothic, chatty, and terrifying which also happens to be exceedingly accessible. And, wouldn’t you know, entirely modern, as if Irving’s words have piggy-backed atop the Horseman’s mount and rode into the latest age, ready to gallop off with a willing reader.
I return to at least “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” every Halloween. We all know the story: The somewhat vain new schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane, arrives in the village of Tarrytown in New York to take up his post, climb some social ladders, and cadge a number of free meals in the process. He falls for one Katrina Van Tassel and is fronted with a rival for her affections, the brawny Brom Bones. There’s a harvest dance at the Van Tassel residence where scary stories are told, including one of a dead Hessian whose shoulders represent the highest point of him, who patrols the glen in search of a replacement head. The skinny is that this demon rider can’t go past the bridge, so the key is in getting there. Ichabod and his plow horse head home late at night, a monstrous rider appears, a chase ensues, a fiery pumpkin is launched, and poof, there goes the schoolteacher. Cooler heads — ha — conclude he was a broken man and left in the night, but as Irving implies, the true townies knew the truth. Hessian monster gonna get you, in other words.
I love Irving’s prose: I love the narrative, the combined rustic charm and apprehension, but what brings me back yearly is the story’s visual aplomb. It reads, as much as any work I have ever read, like a painting taking on prose form. The reader is all but placed in these hillocks and cart-worn back paths where pheasants poke out their heads and the latest sound of the latest cricket has you looking amongst a pile of leaves to see if that was a bug or something else. That sense of the visual is so strong that its allure and festive shadings render what ought to be an outright terror tale as something more pleasingly conspiratorial. We pass along the knowledge that sometimes being scared can be fun, especially if it is autumn, and especially if you are in the northeast, where being scared at Halloweentime often means having a good imagination — something we should all cultivate and celebrate.