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Few stories have captured our imagination like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” This very American story became an instant classic when Washington Irving penned it nearly two centuries ago. Set in New York’s Hudson River Valley, the tale of Ichabod Crane and a Headless Horseman combines comedy, romance, and horror. Crane, a superstitious outsider, competes with local hero Brom Bones for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Brom’s pranks on the jittery schoolmaster set the stage for one of literature’s most famous rides. Diane and her guests discuss this month’s Readers’ Review of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.
- Sian Silyn Roberts Assistant professor of literature, Queens College. Her latest book is titled, "Gothic Subjects The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861."
- Brian Jay Jones Award-winning biographer of "Washington "Irving: The Definitive Biography of America's First Bestselling Author."
- Caetlin Benson-Allott Associate professor of English at Georgetown University; faculty member, Georgetown Film and Media Studies Program. She specializes in the horror genre.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When Washington Irving wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" nearly two centuries ago, it became an instant classic here and abroad, and its appeal has endured. The tale of the superstitious schoolmaster and a galloping ghost still fascinated readers today, some even call it one of America's earliest horror stories. Joining me for this month's Readers Review of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Sian Silyn Roberts of Queens College, Irving biographer Brian Joy Jones, and Caetlin Benson-Allott, of Georgetown University.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us as well, 800-433-8850, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet, and happy Halloween, everybody.
MS. SIAN SILYN ROBERTSThank you.
MS. CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTTThank you.
MR. BRIAN JAY JONESHi there.
REHMGood to have you all here. Sian, I'll start with you. An awful lot of people consider "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to be one of America's most important stories. Why?
ROBERTSWell, I think it really has sort of embedded itself in our kind of collective national conscious, if you like, because it has this incredibly sort of resonant dramatic iconography of this headless horseman, and that figure has been reproduced across, you know, countless kind of cultural productions, you know, it sort of continues into popular culture today. But it was also, you know, unlike anything that American readers might have encountered up until this point, you know, in the early 19th century.
ROBERTSBut that's not to say that, you know, American writers hadn't been experimenting with the gothic form, but I think Irving was one of the first to really kind of popularize this style of writing. And that said, there were a number of Americans who had already kind of paved that ground for him earlier in the late 18th century, Charles Brockden Brown, Sally Wood, these were all authors who had experimented with that fiction before him. But, you know, he wrote this incredibly sort of like resonant story, I think, that has kind of continued today.
REHMBrian, there's a fair amount of history underlying this story. Tell us about that.
JONESYeah, Irving was sort of one of the great borrowers from other sources. He had heard...
REHMAren't they all?
JONESYeah -- and I think, as Sian says, I mean, one of the reasons it worked so well is because there's a lot of American history in Sleepy Hollow. Some of it made up, some of it real, some of it stories Irvin had heard when he was young. He was sent up to Tarrytown to escape yellow fever in New York, and heard among the Dutch some of their horror stories that they used to tell each other. You know, women out on the rocks, crying -- you know, making ships dash themselves against the rocks.
JONESWhen he was traveling through Europe as a young man, they escaped from a rainstorm in a cave, and a woman there told them the story of a headless horsemen that had terrorized her and her sister in Europe at some point. So he heard a lot of these different stories, a lot of these different legends, and sort of compressed them and put them together, and you know, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has a reference to the tree where they hanged Major Andre in the American Revolution. I mean, gives it a very distinct American setting in there.
REHMSo Caetlin, there's a lot of mythology going on here as well.
BENSON-ALLOTTMm-hmm. Yes, absolutely. I think one of the things that distinguishes horror as a genre is its willingness and enthusiasm for attaching symbols, and as Sian said, these sort of iconic figures to underlying social anxieties, or social expressions. But they're never fully commensurate, right? It has to be a kind of translation, a way of looking at what makes you nervous, or what's frightening you in the real world, but looking at it askance.
REHMSian, read for us, if you would, that sort of critical description of Sleepy Hollow, where the legend begins.
ROBERTSOf course. So this is on page 313, OK? "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 her early days of the settlement, others that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there before the country was discovered by Master Hendrick Hudson."
ROBERTS"Certain it is 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're given to all kinds of marvelous 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 nightmare, with her whole nine folds, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambles."
ROBERTS"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 said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk, hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance."
ROBERTS"Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning the specter, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak."
ROBERTS"Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild tale -- story in that region of shadows, and the specter is known at all the country firesides by the name of the "Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."
REHMSian Silyn Roberts, pardon me, she's assistant professor of literature at Queens College. Her latest book is titled "Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism In American Fiction, 1790 - 1861." Do join us, your thoughts, your comments, 800-433-8850. Brian, tell us how he came to write this story.
JONESSure. Nothing could really spurn Irving to inspiration than the thought of bankruptcy. He was known throughout his life when he was renovating his house, he would write a book, knowing it would sell a lot of copies. Although at this point in his career, Irving was still an unknown. He had one other book under his belt, called "The History of New York," which he actually wrote in the guise of a character named Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old historian. And when he turned to writing "The Sketch Book" in 1817, the two stories we remember from "The Sketch Book" are "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," both of which were written as Diedrich Knickerbocker in there.
JONESBut Irving had gone to London in 1815 to start writing, but as soon as he got there, his family business, they were merchants in New York, immediately ran into financial troubles, and Irving spent two years trying to bail that company out. And what finally happened was, after they'd gone through these horrors of bankruptcy and Irving was sort of down in the dumps, he had just started to decide to write, when he got a job offer.
JONESHis brother, who was a Congressman, said we have a job for you in New York, all you have to do is return home to New York and you can have this job. And Irving told him no. It was actually a pivotal moment sort of in Irving's life and in American history, because what would have happened had he gone back to Washington, D.C., we don't know if he would have still been writing. So he actually sort of wrote this at a time in his life when he was really desperate to figure out what he was gonna do next.
REHMSo this area of New York he knew fairly well.
JONESHe did. He was raised in Manhattan, but he had spent a lot of time up in Tarrytown and in Sleepy Hollow, he makes references to visiting Sleepy Hollow as a teenager. He had a friend, James Kirke Paulding, who was from up there.
REHMAnd what was it like at the time?
JONESWell, there wasn't much there, but it was very Dutch, and you know, the Dutch architecture was there, the -- they were still preaching in Dutch in the churches, so it was still very old school. It would have been a great place for ghost stories, which Irving did hear when he was up there. People loved to tell those tales, it was very much in the oral tradition.
REHMYou know, this is a story of a ghost, but it's also the story of a little bit of avarice on Ichabod Crane's part. He sees this beautiful young woman, he sees the wealth in which she lives, and he wants it. how does he think he, as this gawky, long-armed, long-legged young man, can compete with this other sort of athletic, very personable guy, Brom Bones?
BENSON-ALLOTTWell I think what we see in the story is a conflict between two forms of American masculinity, that you could argue were still, are still fighting today, right? So you have the athletic prowess and the mischievous nature of Brom Bones. He's not pictured as a great intellect. He's a physical force to be reckoned with. And Ichabod Crane insinuates himself with the local townswomen by approaching them through their interests, by teaching singing, by joining them at the fireside to tell these tales and listen to these tales.
BENSON-ALLOTTHe's constructed as a kind of, well, in the '70s, what we called the new man, right? As a sensitive type.
REHMAnd he dines at their tables.
BENSON-ALLOTTAbsolutely. He's incredibly fixated, he's incredibly driven by his desires and by his hungers. Both his physical hunger, he's described as a rapacious eater, and also by his hunger for social stature, right? He's an itinerant schoolteacher at the beginning of the story, and when he sees Katrina Van Tassel, what he sees is the possibility for great wealth.
REHMCaetlin Benson-Allott, she's associate professor of English at Georgetown University. Short break here and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. For our October Readers' Review we've chosen "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, a story -- a short story actually. I mean, it's what, 100 pages at most or even less than that. Isn't that correct, Brian?
JONESYeah, it's a short story sort of embedded in the middle -- well, Irving reordered everything late in his career, but it was written right in the middle of a collection of short stories called -- the greater collection is called "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon" which most people can't remember that. The front end of it is actually "Rip Van Winkle."
REHMAnd here's an email from Bob who says, "I could not agree more that this story is one of the very truly original American horror tales. Like many of his contemporaries, Irving relied heavily on time and place specific to the newly forming American experience to provoke the imagination of his countrymen. And as an author of travel tale from all over the world, Irving had a particular fascination with locale and the stories that grew out of those places," Sian.
ROBERTSI think that's a very astute comment because this is a story that very consciously locates itself in this town of Sleepy Hollow. And you can tell that Irving is deeply, deeply fond of this location and it's beautiful. And he has all these incredibly evocative scenes that are designed to kind of make us almost long for this place. And one of the ways that we might think through, you know, these lush descriptions of Sleepy Hollow is through the idea of nostalgia, if you like.
ROBERTSThere's a guy called John (word?) who has this great book on nostalgia coming out where he talks about the idea that social ties can be formed through collective longing. And, you know, the narrator at the beginning of the story sort of longs to kind of take himself outside of history to bury his head in Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow itself is kind of imagined as this timeless place outside of history where the rest of American kind of rushes by. And, you know, so it is very much a tale that is deeply wedded to its kind of regionalism, if you'd like.
REHMHe actually creates this chain of characters. And I wonder why he does it that way, Caetlin.
BENSON-ALLOTTWell, one of the things that I took from the chain of characters is that it's a very interesting way to tell a horror story. So when we think about horror -- when I think about horror, one of the first things I want to do is distinguish between horror and fear. Fear is an action emotion, right. It's a response to a threat. But the philosopher Robert C. Solomon suggested that horror is slightly different. Horror is a recognition that things are not as they ought to be. It's more of a kind of existential disruption. And it's really social in that way, right. It's about a world view, a habitus. And so we need to see the society of characters and how they interact.
REHMSo -- but they all are aware of Sleepy Hollow's sort of ghostly inhabitant. And that affects the entire town.
ROBERTSAbsolutely. Absolutely. We hear about the legend of Sleepy -- I'm sorry, the legend of the headless horseman from Brom Bones first. And it's just one of the many ghost tales that people are filling Ichabod Crane with. But it's one that for him seems to take root.
REHMHe's superstitious to begin with.
ROBERTSYes. And there are fabulous descriptions of how he transforms the world of Sleepy Hollow into a terrible place in his mind.
REHMIn his mind but not in others' minds?
JONESWell, there's a moment in the story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" where everyone's sort of sitting around the fire telling stories.
JONESAnd Irving sort of parks himself in this corner and takes almost great relish in terrifying himself even more. But they do -- Irving talks about -- in the book several times about Irving leaving parties and hearing these stories and then being scared to death to ride home. So Irving already has established very early on in the story that Ichabod Crane is a bit of a nervous Nelly.
REHMJust to -- that's his character.
JONESRight, right. We were saying earlier it's sort of the geeks versus the jocks in this. And this is Ichabod Crane who's the geek, who's terrified of his own shadow.
REHMAnd tell us about Brom Bones.
ROBERTSWell, I mean, what a name, right? I mean, it's -- this guy shoots from the hip, you've got to imagine. So -- and he's kind of the masculine center of this town. And his prospects are pretty good because we learn at the end that Katrina has been very slyly kind of manipulating the local courtship rules to negotiate her own match with Brom Bones. She's being sort of flirting with Ichabod...
ROBERTS...to make Brom Bones jealous and make his sentiments sort of felt. Poor Ichabod, right? He had no clue all along that he was -- his own inflated sense of erudition meant that he had no idea that he was completely ineligible as a husband for Katrina. But, you know, Brom Bones is, actually within sort of the universe of the story, a far more appropriate choice for her because he's the one who's going to perpetuate this state of hers. You know, he's the one who's going to preserve the vitality of Sleepy Hollow.
ROBERTSIchabod is a very destructive character. He's imagine as the genius of family. He's going to come in and he's going to devour the place. He's going to devour its stories. He's going to devour its food. And he wants to convert the entire state into cash and transport Katrina into the wilderness. I mean, this is a captivity narrative. Is that fantasy you're allowed to play out? I mean, he would turn into the kind of rapacious outsider that would transport her outside. But Brom Bones is going to secure that estate. He's going to marry Katrina. They're going to have lots of happy children. And Sleepy Hollow will continue, right.
JONESI'm just glad because I always equate Brom Bones with the captain of the football team in this one. And he is the appropriate match for her. And, you know, every -- there's a lot going on behind the scenes that Ichabod's not aware of, including the ending where there's one version -- what I love about the story is Irving gives us several endings we can choose from. And in one of those endings they talk about Ichabod Crane getting hit in the head with a pumpkin and Brom Bones always, they said, winked and laughed knowingly at that moment. So there's a lot going on there behind the scenes.
REHMAll right. And we've got lots of callers who'd like to join the conversation, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Jeremy in Orlando, Fla. Hi there.
JEREMYHi, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
JEREMYSo I live in Brooklyn full time and every year some friends and I take a pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow around this time of year. And this year was our first year visiting Sunnyside. And while we were there, which was Irving's home. While we were there we learned that he actually wrote "Sleepy Hollow" while in Europe. And I was wondering if your guests could talk about the influence that perhaps even Europe had on his writing of the story.
BENSON-ALLOTTThat's really interesting. I mean, I certainly want to hear what Brian has to say about that. One of the things that I would suspect is that it gives Irving a certain amount of distance on the American scene at that particular historical moment. I see the story as a conflict of cultures, right. It's really interesting to me that Brom is so threatened by Ichabod. We all understand Ichabod as something of a joke as a suitor, and yet Brom goes to extreme measures in order to humiliate this man and run him out of town.
BENSON-ALLOTTWhy is Ichabod such a threat? It seems to me that Brom represents a version of America, a pastoral America that was passing out of the record. And we might think about whether Irving's trips abroad helped him to conceive of America as being at a historical and cultural turning point.
JONESYeah, I would agree with that. What's really fun and interesting about this time, you know, again Irving's sort of our first international best-seller here at this point. He's writing this in London. He's been reading a lot of European literature, some at the behest of Sir Walter Scott who was a friend of his. But Irving was sort of trying to prove himself and prove that Americans were legit in this. And one of the big comments that kept coming back is the British loved the sketch book. They loved all these stories and they kept saying that Irving was the finest English writer that America had ever produced.
JONESIt was, you know, very parochial over there and, you know, there was a lot of pride over here. And the fact that here we had somebody who could do this. You know, for the first time we were proving that we could stand on the same stage with European writers.
REHMBut what about the idea of class structure here in America as opposed to perhaps what Washington Irving was seeing in Europe?
ROBERTSWell, it's interesting that to me -- I couldn't agree more that there are sort of two different versions of America at stake here. You know, one is the rural sort of a bucolic tradition. And the other, Ichabod is very much a representative of this fast-paced America that kind of exists outside of Sleepy Hollow. And in the story often refers to the kind of restless movement of populations in this larger America.
ROBERTSSo he's imaging America as a rapidly industrializing space at this point...
ROBERTSYeah, very rapidly changing. And, you know, Ichabod actually has a lot in common with a lot of the characters that we see in American gothic fiction from this period. You know, his -- he has no fixed social function. He's opportunistic. He's mobile. You know, he's always on the move, if you like. And, you know, it's interesting that sort of, if you like, you know, class kind of gets redistributed along those lines, you know, of like how well you can adapt to new spaces as opposed to sort of strict hierarchy of class structure that one might see in Britain.
REHMAnd Ichabod is a dreamer. He is not what one would call a practical man, Caetlin.
BENSON-ALLOTTNo, absolutely not. And it's really his status as a dreamer that makes him vulnerable to the stories he hears in Sleepy Hollow, but that also makes him such a good protagonist for America's first horror story. He believes. And in order to tell a good horror story you need a tension between those who believe and those who do not.
REHMAnd are there among the group he's with other believers to the extent that he believes?
BENSON-ALLOTTWell, it's very difficult to say because we're so embedded in his perspective. I mean, our narrator here, who's not Ichabod, has some distance on him. He doesn't always agree with Ichabod and yet he paints Ichabod into these scenes, especially with the Dutch country wives around the fireplace where it's clear that Ichabod is not alone in his superstitious beliefs.
REHMWhat about the name Ichabod? Who ever heard of somebody named Ichabod?
JONESWell, I actually read something just the other day on this that they believe there was a soldier in the War of 1812 named Ichabod Crane who Irving may have run into at Sackets Harbor. Irving was a military sort of gubernatorial appointee during the War of 1812. I only just read that the other day. I didn't run across it in my research. But Irving loved the way goofy names sounded.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Sian, I know you wanted to add to that.
ROBERTSOh, I just want to add, I mean, there is a pun in Ichabod Crane's name because, you know, the slippage between Crane and cranium and the headless horseman who is always hunting for heads, you know, when he throws a pumpkin at Ichabod Crane's head. So I guess I hadn't thought about the name Ichabod first but I think Crane was quite a deliberate choice.
REHMWhat about the anxieties that do exist in Sleepy Hollow either beneath the surface, are they economic, are they specifically because of the presence of this ghost? What are the uncertainties that are there, Caetlin?
BENSON-ALLOTTWell, we've already mentioned the cultural tension between this highly mobile Yankee culture and an old Dutch more pastoral vision of America. The place is also haunted by the history of the Revolutionary War, right. This was only 20 years prior to the start -- to the setting of the story, and is very much present in the characters' minds with Major Andre's tree in references to Benedict Arnold.
BENSON-ALLOTTSo I think we see a historical crisis here as well as the class crisis and a gender crisis. It's interesting to me that at one point the narrator says, you know, basically Ichabod would've gotten along fine if he hadn't met that worse demon of all, a woman.
JONESWell, yeah, I think that's one of the great moments in the book. It's a big reveal, especially the way Irving places that at the very end of two very long paragraphs in there.
JONESWell, I mean, Irving's got a number of great reveals. He does it with the headless horseman as well. But Irving, his entire life was an unsuccessful suitor as well. He -- his first real love was a 17-year-old who died when Irving was 26. And he never really got over that, a lot of people thought. But he had proposed to another woman later in life who also told him no. So, you know, there's a little bit going on here, I think, as well from Irving personally. He was an unsuccessful suitor. Incredibly charismatic guy, got invited to all the best parties. But as soon as it came to matters of -- affairs of the heart, he never did well.
ROBERTSWell, just to move away from the topic of the woman but to -- I think it's fun to think about the sort of iconography of the headless horseman himself. I mean, we know very little about the horseman. We know that he was a Hessian mercenary during the Revolutionary War. We know he was killed in some nameless battle. But that's really all we know. It's like he's a gap in the history of the Hollow. And of course that's what a hollow is, right, it's a gap.
ROBERTSAnd, you know, the fact that he's headless is very striking. I mean, I have to imagine that Irving's readers, you know, in 1820 would have been familiar with the iconography of the French Revolution and the guillotine. Because what happened, you know, during the reign of terror in America was that a lot of commentators were looking across to France with a great deal of concern about what was happening there and the sort of the ease with which, you know, a war fought on principle could deteriorate into mass hysteria and violence.
ROBERTSAnd of course, I mean, just come out of our own revolution, Americans were obviously concerned about that prospect themselves. So we have this horseman who doesn't have a head so he kind of suggests the chaos and violence that can come with revolution. But he's also a mercenary and that's interesting too because he's a soldier that is not fighting for principle. He's fighting for money. And which sort of suggests the kind of despicable side of a war fought for patriotism, that there's always profiteering, that there's always someone looking to switch sides.
ROBERTSAnd of course, you know, it's worth keeping in mind that Sleepy Hollow historically was on the front line of the Revolutionary War. But the loyalties there were very, very fluid and it was very chaotic. At one point Irving writes about the skinners and the cowboys. And these were patriot and loyalist highwaymen who would sort of rampage through the area. So this mercenary figure is very much this kind of lawless revolutionary soldier who is driven by profit.
REHMSian Silyn Roberts. She's assistance professor of literature at Queen College. Short break. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. Stay with us.
REHMAnd our book for this month, Washington Irving's really spectacular novel, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Here's an email from Nancy in Syracuse. She says, my husband and I visited Sleepy Hollow two weeks ago. We attended a telling of the story at the old Dutch church, went on a tour of Sleepy Hollow cemetery where the headless horseman himself rode by. It's his name and characters that are ever present. And she's talking about Washington Irving all these years later. Thousands of people visit the town, especially at this time of year, Brian. It was called something else for a long time.
JONESIt was North Tarrytown for a long, long time. We were trying to do the math on it and I think Sian said it was 96. They finally just went with it and said, we're Sleepy Hollow. You know, that even happened in Irving's lifetime. They were trying to name the cemetery where Irving is now buried. But in his lifetime, they were trying to come up with names for it and Irving said, you're Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
REHMAnd here is a really good point from Chet. He says, Diane, you just asked about the name Ichabod. I thought it pertinent to mention that the name Ichabod goes back to biblical times. In the Old Testament, he name Ichabod is given and it is defined as meaning the glory has departed. And he ends by saying I think this is interesting in relation to the character of Ichabod Crane. And finally, from Ewan, he says, would you please your guests to elaborate on the motif of a supernatural being who cannot cross a bridge?
REHMThis figured in Tam O'Shanter, a ballad by Robert Burns. Tam and his horse narrowly escape capture by witches, making it over a bridge just in time. Though they manage to nip off the very end of the poor beast's tail. Sian.
ROBERTSWell, if I had to speculate, I would say that, you know, a bridge passes over running water, right? And to me, running water suggests the passage of time. Or the sort of, you know, irrevocable passage of something moving. And so a horseman being unable to cross over that suggests something that is kind of caught in time. Caught in this moment. And I think, certainly in the con -- I don't know if this would be, you know, applicable outside the frame of the story, but within "Sleepy Hollow" itself, it seems that the horseman is most certainly caught in this kind of timeless space, you know?
REHMAnd what do you think, Brian?
JONESWell, you always have to lay some ground rules for your specters on where they can and can't go, I think. That's the part -- if you don't establish that he can't cross the bridge, then they're chasing him for no reason. He's got to get to that bridge. You know, it's one of those things through literature and film. I mean, people love that sort of confrontation at the bridges. You know, Sherlock Holmes falling off the waterfall, and in "Monty Python," you can't cross the bridge without knowing the secret word. I mean, it sort of shows up everywhere. It's a, I think, a very sort of common source of drama.
BENSON-ALLOTTTo me, I think the existence of the rules is horrifying in its own right because it suggests there are rules for this being. But he doesn't obey our rules, right? He does not have a head. How can he be ruled by a logic and yet not have a head? And that inconsistency is part of the source of the horror for me.
REHMAnd to Cincinnati, Ohio. Alisha, you're on the air.
ALISHAThank you for taking my call, Diane. Great show.
REHMSure. Thank you.
ALISHAI just had one comment. I remember being absolutely horrified by the tale when I read it as a child. It was only decades later that I thought to myself, wait a minute. Was there actually, in fact, a headless horseman who carried off Mr. Ichabod Crane? Or was this some elaborate joke played upon him by Brom? And I think you could make the case that this tale is actually a comedy dressed up in horror clothing.
REHMCaetlin, would you agree?
ALISHAI will take my comment offline, thank you.
BENSON-ALLOTTAbsolutely. I think the intersection of horror and fear -- I'm sorry, of humor and fear is incredibly important for the pacing of this story. But for the genre at large, I think you make a really good point that the story does eventually reveal to us, rather strongly, it hints repeatedly, that there is no headless horseman. That this is just a practical joke, if the story is true at all. But we want to believe the same way Ichabod wants to believe. So, as much as we may mock Ichabod, when we're terrified, we're sharing his terror.
BENSON-ALLOTTAnd it's an interesting kind of move that Irving is doing there. Because you have to be self-critical in moment, right? We think he's a bit of a loser. It sounds like we've characterized him on the show. And yet, when our heart races, we're right there with him, so what does that say?
ROBERTSWell, I think, you know, one of the most overlooked aspects of the story is that it's very funny at times. You know, I mean, we have, yes, we have this frightening headless horseman, but we also have someone like Ichabod, you know? He sings badly, but we don't -- he doesn't realize it. He invites himself over at tea time. You know, he looks like an escaped scarecrow. He really thinks of himself as a bit of a player. And, you know, but I think, you know, Irving might be doing one of several things by juxtaposing the horror and the humor of this story.
ROBERTSIt's no coincidence that some of the most successful horror movies, recently, have also been comedies. You know, I'm thinking of "Shaun of the Dead," or "What We Do in the Shadows." And what makes these movies so successful is that they take these tropes that have become so stale, by virtue of being repeated through popular culture, and they make that very familiarity the basis of their humor all over again. And Irving may be doing something very similar with this here.
ROBERTSYou know, he's obviously very fond of his "Sleepy Hollow" inhabitants, but he's also pointing up the potential for satire in bucolic traditions and, you know, ludicrous outsiders. But this is also a story about incongruities. About inconsistencies and incompatibilities. We are given -- there are so many incompatible stories in this tale, you know. At the very end, I'm not sure if I'd agree that, you know, there is no horseman. Or that it's actually that Ichabod, you know, did escape. We're not told either way. We're given two incompatible versions of the same story.
ROBERTSIchabod is obviously completely incompatible with Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is incompatible with this wider America. And I wonder whether or not Irving is doing something similar at the level of form, if you like. Or something to do with the structure of the story itself, where he writes in what might be considered two incompatible styles of writing, horror and humor. And it's almost like he's imposing the idea of incompatibility onto the very structure of the story itself.
REHMLet's go to Cookson, Oklahoma. Marjorie, you're on the air.
MARJORIEGood morning. Great show.
MARJORIEI always picture Brom Bones as a, as a bully. And earlier, you spoke of him as more of a jock type. But since I've not read the book yet, I wonder if the characterization is different between the book and the Disney movie.
JONESWell, the characterizations are almost always different between the books and the movies on almost everything. You know, the Disney movie really sort of, I mean, they really, sort of play him up as almost like a churl in that. You know, he's very big and bulky.
REHMAlmost a bit of a buffoon.
JONESYou know, sort of like the, you know, the one you see in "Beauty and the Beast" or, you know, Disney does that kind of character very well. The sort of clueless, big guy. Again, it's working in what's now become a stereotype. Irving kind of did it first, but you've -- you have to set up that tension. Again, we were saying, it's the geeks and the jocks. You have to have that tension in there.
REHMThat Disney movie, by the way, is 1949.
JONESNow, now if you do read the description of Ichabod in the book, that translates almost directly to the way he looks in the Disney cartoon. That character is ripe for animation.
ROBERTSHe does not look like Johnny Depp.
JONESOr Tom Mison.
REHMOkay. Talk about the Johnny Depp movie. How is that different from -- how is that related to what Washington Irving wrote?
JONESWell, you know, someone asked me what Irving would think of that movie. I think he would love it, because Irving himself was a great borrower, a great adapter of source material. And I think he would enjoy seeing what they're doing with it in the movies and on the "Sleepy Hollow" television show. That said, the "Sleepy Hollow" movie sort of adapts certain things we've come to expect from the story. There is the flying pumpkin being thrown, there is a headless horseman. The similarity kind of ends there at that point. I think Ichabod Crane would be lucky to look like Johnny Depp.
BENSON-ALLOTTIt's interesting that in the movie, Brom Bones actually comes to Ichabod's aim -- aid. The story, as it's told in the Burton film, which is a very different story.
REHMThis is Tim Burton you're talking about.
BENSON-ALLOTTYes. Tim Burton's direction. It really takes up the theme of witchcraft, which is underlying Irving's original story. Right? In the original story, we know that Ichabod Crane traveled with Cotton Mathers' accounts of the Salem Witch Trials, and I think Burton takes up the anxiety about women and gender and that American history to expand the horror of the story. But one of the interesting facts about the production of that film is that they actually shot it all on soundstages in the United Kingdom.
BENSON-ALLOTTThey were looking at Sleepy Hollow, formerly North Tarrytown, and at a few different colonial villages in Massachusetts, and couldn’t find the kind of set they wanted. So, they said, well, we're going to go back to England, where they, yet again, could not find the kind of setting they wanted and decided to build it on sound stages. But I thought it was an appropriate twist, given that Irving himself was in England to write the story.
JONESIt really is a Hammer horror film.
BENSON-ALLOTTIt is. It was very directly inspired by Hammer horror. And I think you can really see that, especially in Depp's performance, in the way that he takes up the kind of theatrical grace of some of the great English horror actors.
REHMAnd to Jim in Tallahassee, Florida. You're on the air.
JIMHi. Thanks very much for having me on the show.
JIMI really love it.
JIMI just was making the comment, when we were in grade school, when we got to "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Ichabod Crane surfaced, my last name is Crane. So, of course, for about a year, I suffered with the name Ichabod, which you talked about earlier. The other thing is I've been watching the "Sleepy Hollow" TV show and I much prefer the twist on Ichabod where he's a very heroic character, but from forward into the future. But I just wondered what your -- who's there, what the discussion of thought about that.
REHMHave you seen the television program, Caetlin?
BENSON-ALLOTTSo, I'm really intrigued by the way that the television program is taking up so many myths at once. And I don't want to say -- let's say blending them together in order to create a bigger world for the seriality of television. So they can -- they've been renewed, so they can keep this story going. It's an interesting way of solving the problem, because the world of Sleepy Hollow, in Irving's story, is very small, right? We have a very small cast of characters. And if you want to tell a good television serial narrative, the world needs to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
BENSON-ALLOTTAnd so, I'm impressed by the way that the television series has aligned the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow with the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
REHMCaetlin Benson-Allott. She's Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I think we have time for a couple of callers. Let's go to Tim in Enola, Pennsylvania. Hi there.
TIMGood morning. I'm really enjoying your show.
TIMEarlier, you talked to your -- you asked your guests about the name. And I was surprised that neither one of them mentioned the meaning of the word Ichabod. As of its history, it actually originated in Hebrew -- I don't know if you'll remember this, but if you think about it, Washington Irving would have had a classical education. This would have been common knowledge in his day that Eli, the Priest of Israel, when the Philistines took the arc of the covenant, fell and broke his neck.
TIMAnd one of his sons had -- his wife was home birthing while his two sons had been killed in battle. So as the news reached back home, and she gave birth, she named her son Ichabod, which means there is no glory. Or inglorious. And so, when you think about that, and then you think about the story of "Sleepy Hollow," it sort of all makes a whole lot more sense.
REHMBrian, you were shaking your head.
JONESI was shaking my head. I love Irving. I try not to give him too much credit for a classical education. Irving was pretty much one of the worst students ever. So I doubt he would have -- been quite that (word?) in that Irving loved the way that words sounded. He loved fake names. One of the first things he did was something called Salmagundi, which was sort of a 19th century Mad Magazine. And everybody in that magazine had made up names like, you know, Lancelot Longstaff. And Irving just loved goofy, weird sounding names.
REHMSo, from all of your perspectives, who do you think the headless horseman is? Caetlin?
BENSON-ALLOTTI think the headless horseman is a figment of Ichabod's imagination. The things that are in our own heads are far scarier than anything out there in the world.
JONESI think it was Brom Bones up to no good. I think it was Brom Bones taking what was already out there and making it work in his favor.
ROBERTSI think it was both and neither. I think that Irving was very much invested in kind of creating a world where you simply can't tell which story was the right one.
REHMAnd what about the post script to the book?
ROBERTSWell, the post script is just one of the many imbedded narratives, you know, of the story. This is very much a story that stages its own transmission as an oral tale. And of course, in the post script, we learn that the persona of Dietrich Knickerbocker overheard this story at this corporation meeting in Manhattan. Where this sort of shabby, disheveled narrator, who is sort of telling this story to an economic elite, an unappreciative audience.
JONESIn mid drink.
ROBERTSIn mid drink. You know, and half asleep. You know. You know, and someone in that audience says, well, you know, was it true or not? And the narrator himself says, I don't believe one half of it.
REHMSian Silyn Roberts, Brian Jay Jones, Caetlin Benson-Allott. We've been talking about "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Thank you all so much.
BENSON-ALLOTTThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd for our next Readers Review, "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" by Anne Tyler. That's on Wednesday, November 26th. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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