The remarkable persistence of ‘Sleepy Hollow’

November 15, 2013
SLEEPY HOLLOW: The new adventure drama began this fall on FOX. Pictured : Nicole Beharie (left) and Tom Mison. ©2013 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Brownie Harris/FOX
SLEEPY HOLLOW: The new adventure drama began this fall on FOX. Pictured : Nicole Beharie (left) and Tom Mison. ©2013 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Brownie Harris/FOX

Almost 200 years later, Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” still keeps us awake. Retold for generations in countless forms, the legendary story is even the inspiration for a quirky new adventure drama on Fox.

On Thursday, at noon, American University law professor Lewis Grossman will deliver a talk about Irving’s classic at the Library of Congress.

For Grossman, who also has a PhD in American history and describes himself as “an extremely nostalgic person,” “Sleepy Hollow” has both personal and intellectual appeal. He was raised in Connecticut — “not far from Sleepy Hollow,” he said. “Irving’s portrait of the autumnal splendor of that area conjures up many boyhood memories.”

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” originally published in “The Sketchbook” (1820), was one of the 88 texts included in the “Books That Shaped America” exhibit at the Library of Congress last year.

It’s remarkable to consider that when Irving was writing his famous legend, the United States was still a very young nation. Grossman says, “Irving intentionally constructed it as folklore rooted in the country’s history and traditions. Thus, it survives not only as a wonderfully written tale, but also — particularly through the immortal characters of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen — as part of American popular culture and legend.”

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Washington Irving (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899). Margaret Armstrong Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899). Margaret Armstrong Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Despite his scholarly background, Grossman doesn’t turn up his nose at the new FOX version of “Sleepy Hollow,” but he does note that “apart from the names of the characters and the town — it has almost nothing to do with Irving’s story.” The incongruities are numerous and a little ridiculous: “Ichabod Crane, one of American literature’s archetypal Yankees, is weirdly turned into an Oxford professor,” Grossman points out. “Instead of taking place in the tranquil village of the story, it is set in a modern-day, urbanized Sleepy Hollow that actually seems more like Yonkers. And the Biblical allusions — the Headless Horseman is apparently one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations — are utterly absent from Irving’s tale.”

Grossman’s talk on Thursday, Nov. 21, in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress is free and open to the public. Call (202) 707-4642.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Ron Charles | November 15, 2013