Friday, October 08, 2010

"I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud," Or, Stopping off in Sleepy Hollow

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Now this is the kind of place where one ought to spend October:
From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, than an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson. Certain it is, that the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots,.and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the night-mare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
You wouldn’t want to spend your whole life there, but a few autumn weeks to set the proper chill in your bones before winter sounds about right.

Even though the story is as deeply burned into my brain as into any American's, I hadn't actually read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" before taking it down from the shelf this week. It was a pleasant surprise, a ghost story that is also a gently wry portrayal of small-town life and the petty, mostly harmless vanities and foibles that thrive there. Like The Turn of the Screw, it leaves the question of the supernatural--was the Headless Horseman really a ghost, or was he a mere prank of Bram Bones?--deliberately vague, if clearly inclining towards skepticism. But unlike James, Irving is out merely for fun, not a deep exploration of the nether reaches of the human mind, so he delivers the climactic chase with great gusto:
An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand. The wavering reflection of a silver star in the bosom of the brook told him that he was not mistaken. He saw the walls of the church dimly glaring under the trees beyond. He recollected the place where Brom Bones' ghostly competitor had disappeared. "If I can but reach that bridge," thought Ichabod, " I am safe." Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath.

There’s so much to cherish in this story's brief extent: the perfectly tuned portrayal of Ichabod Crane’s narcissism and priggishness, the beautifully described autumn countryside surrounding the Hudson River, the way that the battles and heroes of the Revolutionary War remain an active presence in the region--as seen in the Horseman himself, thought to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier--in the days when Irving's namesake was forming the first presidential administration.

Most of all, though, the joy of reading "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" comes from reconnecting with what has become an American myth, a story that symbolizes everything I was thinking of when I wrote last year, regarding the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories,
that New England, and the colonial past it represented, were the home of ghosts. Now that I'm an adult, despite the fact that I know much more about the realities of American history and those dark forests, that's where ghosts and spirits still live for me, and it seems natural to find them lurking in everything from the shadows of Hudson River school paintings to the Berkshire towns of John Crowley.
Even for this life-long Midwesterner, New England is home to America’s ghosts; in the autumn, it’s where I always find myself turning my gaze.


  1. Apropos Crowley, have you written on Little, Big and atmosphere, by any chance? Regards, Kevin

  2. I haven't, K, though I can immediately see how it would be a good topic. I've, while I've written a lot about the Aegypt books in thsi space, I've not written about Little, Big at all, simply because I haven't re-read it in the five or so years I've been writing this blog.