As a father of American literature, Washington Irving has often seemed an embarrassment if not a downright liability. His modern biographer, Stanley T. Williams, unenthusiastically felt that by 1822, Irving’s "veneration for England had become effusive, watery," and noted that "Democratic reviews… abused Irving for his adulation of the British.1 For all Irving’s subsequent years of public honor in America – to leave England aside – and his enshrinement in hagiographic school textbooks, our century has found the origins of a true American literature to lie anywhere but with him – whether with Puritan divines and statesmen, with Whitman, with Fenimore Cooper or with "a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn" (Hemingway).

Irving himself felt anxiety over this very point. Anticipating the cultural debate in which his writings would be come enmeshed, he seems to have regarded his absence from America in the years after 1815 as in need of explanation and extenuation. The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Is a letter to America encoding a deeply felt self-justification, an attempt to claim that his equivocal role was in fact precisely that which his country required in an author to commence an American literature. In The Sketchbook Irving does not appear as either a belated "refugee" or, of course, as an autochthonous democrat, but as the master of a personal but nationally necessary synthesis – which Randolph Bourne would a century later label transnationalism. The Sketchbook asserts that an author may be an American and yet build upon the literature and culture of the British past. I compare György Lukács: "it is not a question of concocting something ‘radically new,’ but – as Lenin taught us – of assimilating all that is valuable in previous development and adapting it critically".2 Irving presented himself as just such an assimilator and critical adapter, carrying forward into the new, changed time much which other Americans felt would be required to be abandoned. We recall that Cooper, anticipating Mark Twain, fretted over the "danger to the American readers" of the works of Walter Scott.3 But in other moods Cooper knew that "chips of his [Scott’s] log as we [American authors] in good sooth" (I:136), and he felt that "If any man is excusable for deserting his country, it is the American artist" (II:123). Washington Irving, "indecisive… timid and dependent" as he may have appeared to Williams (I:xv), showed less dubiety, more stomach here than Cooper.

I will examine the Anglo-American complexity in Irving’s art by reference to his two most famous stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The crucial question is the extent of the "critical adaptation" of materials to create a significant synthesis of old and new. The touchstone, as we might well expect, is the War of Independence itself.

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When Rip Van Winkle returns home after twenty years of absence, he finds his house empty and in apparent bewilderment repairs to the village inn which, in any case, had always provided him with a more hospitable reception. The inn is gone, in its place "The Union Hotel, by [sic] Jonathan Doolittle." Doolittle has been as good as his name, in that the "hotel" is "ricketty… with great gaping windows, some of them broken and mended with old hats and petticoats." Social comment edges into the fable. For "the great tree, that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of yore," there is substituted "a tall naked pole with something on top that looked like a red night cap." (So much for the Liberty Pole, to the unbiased observer.) And clearly the "naked pole" is no more proper shelter for "The Union" – or the United States, we might say – than is the now "empty, forlorn and apparently abandoned" hearth which has replaced the "neat order" Dame Winkle once kept. Just as the inn sign, once "the ruby face of King George under which [Rip] had smoked so many a peaceful pipe," has been "singularly metamorphosed" into GENERAL WASHINGTON," so "[t]he very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity." Instead of his old cronies, Rip sees "a lean bilious-looking fellow with his pockets full of hand bills… haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens – elections – members of Congress – liberty – Bunker’s Hill – heroes of seventy-six…."

Rip’s apparent bewilderment isn’t the only point here. The delicate tale is being freighted with the notation of epochal change, of social transformation including but deeper than the surface of political change. An easy-going, feudal way of life has passed an been replaced by an atmosphere of bourgeois business and calculation. What was once to be found only within the walls of Rip’s house, in the person of the scolding Dame Van Winkle – from which could periodically escape to inn or mountainside – has now passed outwards into the communal and public life. Rip is now harassed by "tavern politicians" and "bystanders" as he had once been only by his wife: "The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired ‘on which side he voted’. (My italics.) Only "partly aside" because the orator wishes no real privacy for Rip and himself but rather a performance in front of an audience. He demands that Rip categorise himself as Federal or Democrat. Rip is sternly quizzed, by a man with "keen eyes and sharp [cocked] hat penetrating… into his very soul." Rip has a gun on Election Day. Despite his obvious infirmity and the gun’s rust, "[did he] mean to breed a riot?" And when Rip declares himself a "loyal subject of the king," the bystanders in "general shout" brand him "’A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee!’"

It is all but impossible to read this otherwise than as the writer’s allegory of himself, his situation and his writings. Irving is sending his modestly-titled "sketches" back to the United States after his own long absence. ("Rip Van Winkle" was the concluding sketch in the first packet of five to be printed in America.) Rip the character stands for the story named for him, for The Sketchbook as a whole and for Irving himself. Will they be treated as the equivalent of "refugee tories", turncoats, traitors? The allegory may betray Irving’s fears of rejection, but it is equally his attempt to surmount them – in part by humor, wit and insight – and Rip is not in the end lynched or even rejected by the so-far harsh and humourless society to which he has returned.

What enables Rip to gain a foothold back in his village is the story he tells to explain his twenty-year absence – which is, of course, the story Irving is telling us. The story is fetched up by Rip in extremis, to avert the sharpness and penetration of his "self-important" peer, the responsible citizen who stayed at home and can affect patriotism in every pore. The chances are that the dour community doesn’t accept Rip’s tale for a minute: "The neighbours stared when they heard it; some were seen to wink at each other, and put their tongues in their check…. [T]here was a general shaking of the head throughout the assemblage." Probably they take Rip to be a smart fellow, like they think themselves to be. But, "To make a long story short," the narrator says, the people "turned to the more important concerns of the election," leaving Rip to the care of his daughter, and to refine the various versions of his tale into "precisely the [one] I have related."

Just as it is this tale which affects the new Americans sufficiently to avert their wrath, so it comes to have a strong effect upon the rising generation." The younger generation of Americans to whom Rip turns – and to whom Irving is himself appealing in 1820 – is more at easy over the transition of authority than are the revolutionary elders who quiz Rip. Rip prefers them a friends, and "he soon grew into great favour" with them. For them, he becomes as much a patriarch as those who had fought the War, "and a chronicle of the old times ‘before the war.’" It is claimed that on the matter of his absence Rip came to be believed, but we may suspect some admixture of admiration for Rip’s having invented to wonderful if specious a story to explain his having run off from Dame Van Winkle and his familial responsibilities and perhaps his public ones, too. Being shrewd, these Americans are prepared to accept Rip as one of them, possessor of a crafty madness at the least.

Perhaps as well the duties and responsibilities which Dame Van Winkle was always trying to inflict upon Rip represent a foreshadowing of the democratic responsibilities to come. They certainly have a similar accent. The Rip’s evasion, which is the evasion of art – being his story and Irving’s – simultaneously acknowledges an unfitness for the strenuous demands of democracy and adumbrates a personal and artistic method of dealing with that unfitness. Rip gains a place in America despite his having opted out of the Revolution; Irving hopes for one despite his absence and despite the commitment to English literature, culture and tradition evident throughout The Sketchbook in which he placed this story – a commitment thus obliquely acknowledged to need apology. Despite it, he is claiming a place in America, his knowledge of the past – when America was English (and partly Dutch) and things English hers as well – being comparable to Rip’s chronicles of "old times ‘before the war.’"

Rip’s story and Irving’s "Rip Van Winkle" are then substitutes for the Revolution. "What did you do during the War," asks a character of James Joyce in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. Undaunted, Joyce replies, "I wrote Ulysses."

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"Rip Van Winkle" was a first instalment. In part it was proof offered by the writer that he had undergone a proper apprenticeship and that he would be able to turn it to American ends. We may well think that a combination of what its creation called out in Irving and the success of its reception led to the deeper penetration of the story with which Irving concluded the completed Sketchbook, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow".

While Ichabod Crane stuffs his "anaconda" appetite with the plenitude of the Van Tassels – the "Blooming" Katerina being but another choice "morsel" in his expectations – he overhears "tales of ghosts and apparitions" from the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow:

as usual, [they] were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighbourhood.

Ichabod swallows these tales as he does any sucking pig, for as we know from his "perfect master[y] of Cotton Mather’s history of New England witchcraft,"

His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary, and both had been increased by his residence in this spellbound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow.

The inhabitants are particularly given to "marvellous tales of ghosts and goblins, and haunted fields and haunted brooks, and haunted houses, and particularly of the headless horseman" – tales Ichabod greedily devours, and in return for which (and for roasted apples and other delicacies) he tells "his anecdotes of witchcraft" out of Mather and frightens "them woefully with speculations upon comets and shooting stars; and with the alarming fact that the world did absolutely turn round, and that they were half the time topsy-turvy!"

That the apprehension of the British spy Major John André had occurred "in the neighbourhood" identifies the locale of the story as the notorious Neutral Ground, which is at once both a symptom and a partial explanation of the mysterious atmosphere which hangs over the region:

The British and American line had run near [the neighbourhood] during the war; it had, therefore, been the scene of marauding, and infested with refugees, cow-boys, and all kind of border chivalry.

The dubious political allegiance of the "skinners" who apprehended André returning from his meeting with Benedict Arnold is reflected in the somnolence which almost implies a curse on the land:

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. Some say the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; other, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his powwows there…. 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 are… subject to trances and visions;… The whole neighbourhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions: stars shoot and meteors glare oftener… than in any other part of the country.

Sleepy Hollow, we might say, has a bad conscience. It played a very equivocal role in the struggle for American independence: in the Neutral Ground one "fought… for plunder more than for politics".4 The ghost of the executed André moans, possibly out of injured innocence, possibly in guilt and expiation for having allowed himself to play the equivocal game of the region when he donned civilian garb and opened himself to the charge of being a spy rather than an enemy combatant.

Here too the Hessian trooper lost his head, to a cannon-ball, "in some nameless battle during the revolutionary war." Further up the river, every farmer’s field claims to the site of a famous battle, but here in the neutral Sleepy Hollow, "the dominant spirit" died in an uncommemorated encounter. Bad conscience again? The legends of the people preserve the tradition of the Hessian mercenary unwilling to credit his decease – and like all classic ghosts haunting the place where he was surprised in death. But why was the Hessian surprised? Did he, like André, believe he was among friends and allies? Did the residents consult their best advantage, draw their man out and then seize the opportunity, judging patriotism would attach to their deeds ex post facto – whatever their previous reputation. Irving’s reference to "border chivalry" may mean less the romanticism and idealism of genuine Highlanders than the dubious, dark and uncanny canniness of the border peasants in Scott’s Rob Roy.

Ichabod Crane meets his comeuppance at the end of the Van Tassel revel. From his interview with Katerina he parts "with an air quite desolate a chop-fallen." She had blown him off. "Was her encouragement of the poor pedagogue," asks the narrator, "all a mere sham to secure her conquest of his rival?" Has Ichabod been served much like André and the Hessian trooper? In a famous passage in The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carraway speculates as to what the world might have looked like to Jay Gatsby if, before he died, he realised that Daisy Buchanan was not going to telephone him. Gatsby’s world would not only have turned upside down, it would have become unreal:

He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about….

Sleepy Hollow is not a million miles from The Great Gatsby’s "fresh, green breast of the new world" which "flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes," and a "fantastic" ghost would likewise take its revenge on a shattered dreamer.5 For Ichabod, "The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him, the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters…." In this de-created world, reality becomes phantasmagoric. Ichabod rides hard by André’s tree, "the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid." The tulip-tree appears as a symbol of the agonised André himself, and now a symbol of the ravaged Ichabod too:

Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic… twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air…. [It] was universally known by the name of Major André’s tree. The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition, partly out of sympathy for the fate of its ill-starred namesake, and partly from the tales of strange sights and doleful lamentations told concerning it.

As Ichabod draws close, "he thought he saw something white, handing in the midst of the tree": a corpse, André, himself. It is "a place the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare." Further symbolising the identification, Ichabod hears the tree "groan": it is "the rubbing of one huge bough upon another."

Then, "at [the] identical spot that the unfortunate André was captured," Ichabod "beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering." Precisely where the three skinners had waited for André, Brom Bones, impersonating the Headless Hessian Horseman, waits for Ichabod Crane: "under the covert of those chestnuts and vines were the sturdy yeomen concealed who surprised [André]." One of the three, Paulding, was a giant of a man; one is reputed to have been wearing "a torn Hessian coat".6 (James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press), 357). History is repeating itself.

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The world of Sleepy Hollow is more ambiguous that Rip’s village. One’s sympathy for the "poor pedagogue" is eroded by his greed and sexist objectification of Ms Van Tassel and perhaps hardly reinstated by his harsh treatment at the hands of the collusive Katerina and Brom. Unlike the action of "Rip Van Winkle," that of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" adumbrates no solution; rather it implies repetition, and it leave the locale under the same equivocal cloud as it finds it. Just as the stories of André and the Hessian trooper, among others, were the stock in trade of the residents of the Hollow, so the story of Ichabod Crane is a legend for us. The same dubiety attaches to all. Irving is not now projecting a modus vivendi for the imaginative and the active; "Sleepy Hollow" is his nightmare, the place where the mindless man of action earns his all-American pumpkin. This perhaps paradoxically demonstrates less the fear of being unwanted in the author, less nervous appeals to be given a safe place by the American chimney-corner.

Both stories exist in the classic ground of the historical fiction as described by Lukács: the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois society. Irving, like his master Scott, accommodates both sympathy for the old with a sense of the necessity (or at least inevitability) of the new. As in so many of Scott’s Waverley novels, the question is, what of the values of the past can survive into the present. Rip, character and story, is the answers: as the character transmits his story to the post-revolutionary generation, so does the author. Indeed that is the precise role of the author, to be such a transmitter.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" presents a more ambiguous case. In relation to the classic historical fiction, Sleepy Hollow is a hangover or prolongation of the period of crisis and transition. Sleepy Hollow is the place where the new did not replace the past in the appropriate manner, and it is thereby condemned to repeats its acts of indeterminate duplicity. It lacks the central transitionary figure, who is split into Crane and Bones. It will remain under its curse.

In both stories the American Revolution is traversed. In one an action is invented to stand in lieu of the revolution, to excuse non-combatancy and to made a peace with and define a role in the harder, meaner public world which has come to pass. In the other, a representative revolutionary event is repeated by the action, in a tale of ambiguity and duplicity veiled by the comic tone.

By the end of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Washington Irving has arrived at a view which is critical and sharp. The people of Sleepy Hollow, for all their self-esteem, were neither sheep nor goats in the revolution, and their way of life a false and inauthentic pretence. If the story embodies Irving’s own fears of the impossibility of synthesis, it established a vision which is not uniquely based on either a nostalgic (Anglophile) or a bourgeois-patriotic commitment.


1 Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, Vol. l, pp. 208, 211.

2 Lukács, The Historical Novel (Penguin Books edition), pp. 13-14.

3 James Fenimore Cooper, England, Vol. II pp. 15-16.

4 George F. Scheer and Hugh F. Rankin, Rebels and Redcoats (New York: Da Capo Press), 438.

5 And compare Katerina’s leading on of Ichabod Crane to secure the attentions of Brom Bones with Daisy’s leading on of Gatsby to force Tom Buchanan to assert his rights.

6 James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press), 357.


This essay was delivered at an American Bicentennial British Association for American Studies Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1976. It was to have been published in a volume of essays delivered there. The volume never appeared. This essay was lost until the author, clearing out a lifetime of paper files in 2008, came across a copy. I have made only a few alterations to correct spelling, grammar, some obvious infelicities etc. I’ve not altered the argument or tried to bring it up to date in scholarly terms.

At that time (1976), I was Professor of American Studies at the University of Keele, Keele, Staffordshire, England.

Arnold Goldman

4 September 2008