Tag Archives: Washington irving

‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch Book’, by Washington Irving – review

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch BookThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories From the Sketch Book by Washington Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Washington Irving is more of a representative American writer than many contemporary readers, general or academic, wont to think of in spirit and style with an agenda to set the new distinctive culture in Postcolonial America. He is also a forebear of self-indulgent American narrative style in the manner of indolent solipsistic monologue principally via stream of consciousness. Independent of the genre, unpretentious of caliber, Irving is a freelancer writing when he could, not when he should, in the vanguard of American literary pioneers including Robert Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Ernest Hemingway. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories from The Sketch Book is emblematic of Irving’s unique literary bent that fuses American consciousness’s singularity and the commonality of the universal mind. The book is a fascinating collection of 35 stories written by the curious spirit of whimsical and perceptive observation of people, places, and events – real or imagined, American or international – that grab the reader’s attention without distraction.

Irving is, first and foremost, an engaging raconteur with a dazzling combination of erudition and heart crisscrossing the boundary of time and culture. He is an American version of Homer and Aesop in creating legends in the likeness of truth and anchoring it in reality with ingenious storytelling skills and knowledge drawn on a wealth of letters and original scholarship. To illustrate, the story of “Roscoe” represents a new model author unassuming of his learning and generous of sharing it with the public. “The Art of Bookmaking” is an amusing tale of literary poacher witnessing a fantastic literary masquerade of great writers of all time coming alive in the British Library gallery. Irving criticizes the British intelligentsia’s snobbishness that belittles honest-to-goodness American hospitality toward strangers but extols the joy of British folks in ‘The Inn Kitchen.’ Irving’s admiration of Shakespeare’s natural wit and genius use of the language transcendent of ages and societies is touchy-feely in ‘Stratford-on-Avon’ without blind idolization of the Bard. Besides, Irving’s perspective on American Indians is a heartfelt testimony against sordid mistreatment of them by his civilized proud countrymen without a sanctimonious statement in the selfishness of the lettered case.

Irving’s honest narratives speak of the practical purpose of language of literature, which he tries to attribute to the bedrock of American literature. The social function of language as the active medium of cultural transmission that embeds the amiable and noble feeling of humanity becomes the foundation of Irving’s cultural agenda of establishing unique American culture independent of the old world’s cultural and political authority in consequence of the Revolutionary War. His use of the war exploits inventive thematic elements of folklore and history in the background of a tremendous chaotic break with the Empire via circuitous engagement. In this regard, Robert Waldo Emerson is a direct descendant of Irving to confirm the American literary baptism in the Living Streams of Knowledge that always flows in new, functionary divides.

The book is Irving’s textual testimony to the American literary and cultural independence trying to mark itself in the world’s literature following its seismic detachment from the mother country as if to rebel against the authoritarian upbringing that would stunt the growth of the child. However, contemporary American intelligentsia seems to betray Irving’s advocation of the inclusiveness of language. It’s either too cerebral or overtly esoteric with an excessively complicated play of words that do not consider general readers in mind. Knowledge is free to all, and by the charity of sharing the light of education, the cultural enterprise thrives in the continuation of civilization. Writers are extraordinary because they represent humanity by the medium of words from intellect with a heart across the divide of time. For this reason, this collection of stories defies the encroachments of time, regaling the posterity with the pleasure of vivid storytelling dipped in wit and erudition that is remarkably American in the bliss of eternal youth.

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‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, by Washington Irving – essay

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Shakespeare once said that ghosts were amiable, harmless in want of company to console their haunting loneliness, lost in the crossroads between this world and that world. But that is not the case of the headless ghosts – the angriest and most terrifying of all other specter ilks, evoking the most primitive sense of fear to the eyes of beholders by the sheer eeriness of the appearance.  Because they despaired and died in oft violent ways, the headless ghosts are putatively the most furious and vengeful with the domes of their souls forever lost. No wonder there are legends of headless knight riders prevalently existent in the universal world.

Meet the famed headless nightrider of the Sleepy Hollow in New York. Originally hailed from a province of old Germany, he used to be a soldier fighting on the British side during the Revolutionary War who was decapacitated by an American cannonball. His battle buddies buried him without the missing shattered head. The residents of Sleepy Hollow believed that the soul of the unfortunate young German soldier risen from his grave by his supernatural ire burning with vengeance against the earthlings that killed him was restlessly riding his phantom horse at night furiously brandishing a Jack-o’-Lantern in a semblance of face made out of a displaced pumpkin as his a makeshift head, glowing in a flame of fury as to light his nightly way.

The indelible image of the restive headless horseman is terrifically and vividly resurrected by the literary alchemy of the great American writer Washington Irving in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which the unlikely protagonist of a meek, naive, willowy school teacher of New England by the name of Ichabod Crane stumbles into his frightful encounter with the Horseman on his fateful night during his doomed journey home. Woe betided the unfortunate benevolent schoolteacher believed to be spirited away with the headless horseman to the legion of wandering spirits in between the world of the living and that of the dead till the eternity.

Apart from the spectral elements of the story, Irving’s characters in the story convey the displaced post-colonial sentiments of unease for the present and uncertainty for the future in the chaotic aftermath of the war that was supposed to beget promptly promising bright outcomes to the post-colonials. The nervous semi-detachment from the old world’s cultural and political authority and the unsettled practical value of the war due to all kinds of border chicanery in the still socially volatile post-war valence of setting intersperse the story in the fumbling figure of naïve Ichabod haunted by the furious ghost of a fallen soldier from the war. The legend of Sleepy Hollow is Irving’s superb storytelling of the birth of a new culture begotten from its old motherland at its infant stage of building a national character afresh with its own cultural capital, such as folklore endemic to the new land of hope that Irving so cherished.

The good teacher Ichabod Crane

Flees from the Headless Horseman

With all his gentle might in vain

For the ghost rider outruns the man.

Now the riders roam in the shadow

Looking for recruits in Sleepy Hollow.

P.S. This short essay on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is my contribution to a weekly Twitter event whose theme for this week is ‘The Headless Horsemen”, which seems to prevalently existent throughout the cultures of our global village. What uncanny synchronicity is to come upon this subject matter since I am currently reading Irving’s eponymous book that also contains many other stories from his wonderful ‘Sketch Book’.  

The legend of the Catskill Mountains

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courtesy of google

Where the earth meets the sky on the mountain, 

An old mountain spirit opens and closes the doors

Of Day and Night every day at the proper hours

And works the wonders of nature in the divine design.

 

The vault of heaven, the dome of Sky God’s palace

She frescoes with celestial ephemerals every night

With new moons hung and old moons cut into stars

Sprinkled across the nightly firmament golden bright.

 

The garden of the earth, the parterre of Earth Goddess

She waters with rains spun out of soft summer clouds

Woven by early morning’s gossamer cobwebs and dews

Flake after flake, like those of fluffy white cotton balls.

 

The wise mountain spirit, the wonderful divine artist

Adorns the heaven’s frescoes every night with cheer;

The wise mountain spirit, the wondrous fairy gardener

Cherishes nature’s garden every day with delight. 

 

P.S. This poem is based upon my reading of Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ in which the fictional historian character named Mr. Knickerbocker relates to the native American legend of an old squaw spirit living on the Catskill Mountains in New York. I envision her as a fantastic fairy version of Michelangelo frescoing the vault of the Sistine Chapel and as a fabulous gardener tending the earthly garden with tenderness and quiet assiduity. What a fascinating vision of a magical magnitude it is!