Faith, sir, replied the storyteller, as to that matter, I don’t believe
one-half of it myself.
– From “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
By Washington Irving
Every October for the last several decades, with Halloween looming as the days get cooler and shorter, I give myself a treat by reading the unabridged version of Washington Irving’s classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — and I read it from a hardcover, small print American literature book I used in college.
When our children were little, I used to read it to them, just a little at a time because dealing with the words Irving uses and his 50-plus-word sentences is like eating filet mignon as opposed to hamburger: Every sentence, every phrase benefits from careful savoring and consumption, not a couple of quick chomps and a swallow.
After they outgrew their interest in Daddy’s favorite Halloween story, I kept up the tradition by reading it to myself — usually as I’m preparing to doze off for a night’s slumber. Sometimes I can make it through a couple or three pages, other times it’s just paragraphs before the book falls on my face.
“The Legend” isn’t a fast-paced murder mystery by any means, especially not in the original form, before it was reworked to make it, well, more palpable for those seeking little-adorned facts. Footnotes abound for the words or references you don’t understand.
What a beginning!
Oh, you just have to love it! “The Legend” begins thusly, and I won’t reproduce the entire sentence since it’s seven lines in small type.
“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee …”
When Irving penned those words in the early part of the 19th century, writers were called upon to “paint” word pictures and let their readers create their own images since there were no picture books, let alone the Internet.
Along with writers like Charles Dickens and James Fennimore Cooper, the rule seemed to have been, “If you could say it in 10 words, 100 would be much better.” To a degree, many of James A. Michener’s books in the 20th century reflect the style where more is best.
We all know the tale of Ichabod Crane, “a worthy wight … who sojourned, or as he expressed it, ‘tarried’ in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity.” And we know, too, Sleepy Hollow was just a bit strange, particularly given to tales of ghosts and apparitions, the favorite being the Headless Horseman.
Irving describes Sleepy Hollow “… like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream; where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor undisturbed by the rush of passing current.”
Can’t you just see that? Haven’t you seen that very image along the bank of a creek or river? Ah, the beauty is in the simile, if not in the tale itself!
He says of his “hero,” as he calls Ichabod:
“The cognomen of Crane was not in inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels and his whole frame hung loosely together …”
You can see him, can’t you?
Irving continues, “To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from the cornfield.”
Irving describes the “security system” at Ichabod’s schoolhouse:
“It was most ingeniously secured at vacant hours … though a thief might get in with perfect ease, he would find some embarrassment in getting out; an idea probably borrowed by the architect, Yost Van Houten, from the mystery of the eel-pot.”
A what? Look it up on the Internet.
You’re part of it
By the time Irving gets to the theme of the story that’s captured in the title, you’ve become virtually a “resident” of Sleepy Hollow. You’re comfortably “settled in” by the fireplace in an old Dutch home listening to ghost stories; you’ve “worshipped” in the church where he is the choirmaster; you’ve “visited” his schoolhouse and perhaps “filled your plate” from the ample table at the Van Tassel mansion. You know now that Ichabod loves to eat and has, as Irving writes, “… had the dilating powers of an anaconda” when it came to culinary delights.
Only a wordsmith of Irving’s stature could have described a banquet table as he did, going eons beyond simply “there was a lot to eat.” How boring would that have been?
By the time Ichabod leaves the Van Tassels’ fall frolic, having apparently been rejected by his amorous interest, the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, since Irving writes “… with an air quite desolate and chop-fallen,” he’s been plied full of the strange tales of Sleepy Hollow — especially the legend of the headless horseman and his midnight forays through the region — and the antics of one Brom Bones.
If the first part of the tale moved at the speed of the town itself, the end is fast paced as Irving regales his hero traveling absolutely scared to death across the barren countryside, encountering the “Headless Hessian,” being chased and …
“Just then (as he crossed the creek) he saw he goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late …
“The next morning the old horse (Gunpowder) was found without his saddle, and with his bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance …” and was ultimately presumed to have died or somehow been whisked away.
Oh, friends, get a copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the original, download it from the web, borrow it from a friend … and enjoy a work unequaled … in my opinion! It will make your Halloween a real treat.