Pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow

Irving grave

Washington Irving’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Photo by Tracy Hoffman

President of the Washington Irving Society

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

After a recent visit to the Old Dutch Church and old graveyards in Sleepy Hollow, New York, I’ve been mulling over religious references in Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Typically, I like to handle gender in Irving’s writing. I contributed to the Washington Irving and Islam (2018) collection, but even that article was gender-related. Despite our work on Islam, Washington Irving scholars have not focused nearly enough on religion in Irving’s biography and legacy.

So here’s the scholar from Baylor University—the largest Baptist university in the world, as well as the largest and oldest private university in the great state of Texas—here to save the day!

(We have no shame in our recruiting efforts. Sic ‘Em Bears!)

Seriously, much work still needs to be done, and like I said, my recent trip to Irving’s “neck of the woods” surprisingly steered me toward this religious area of study.

I won’t take the time to flesh out anything too detailed, such as a Baptist reading or the influence of Irving’s Scottish-Presbyterian father, but I want to point out a few general ideas from the story which lend themselves to religious interpretation.

First off, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is part of Geoffrey Crayon’s Sketch Book (1819-1820). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Irving borrows from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Instead of the Wife of Bath and the Knight, Crayon gives us Squire Bracebridge and Katrina Van Tassel. Our narrator even displays a madrigal dinner in the Christmas sketches.

If Geoffrey Chaucer writes of folk on pilgrimage to Canterbury, it makes sense for Crayon to sketch folks on pilgrimage as well. Is it possible for each character in each sketch to be a pilgrim on a journey? Certainly, Ichabod Crane enters Tarrytown as an outsider and vacates the area by story’s end. His final destination remains questionable, but we know he’s had a rough ride in his journey through Sleepy Hollow.

Ironically, too, Washington Irving himself was on a pilgrimage of sorts while writing the book: a journey to prove himself as an American writer in a foreign land.

WI would have been well-versed in Chaucer, but how intricately he weaves Chaucer into his writing, in my opinion, has not been thoroughly analyzed. Dozens of articles and handfuls of books could further address this parallel. Here’s hoping more Chaucer experts will consider Irving’s Sketch Book as we continue celebrating its 200th anniversary.

Secondly, we forget about Ichabod Crane’s religious connections.

Perhaps we overlook Christian imagery because of the tantalizing details competing for our attention in “Sleepy Hollow”: the headless horseman, ghosts, the angst between Brom Bones and Ichabod, the flirty Katrina, and more. This is true of my students, as well as scholarly circles and Irving enthusiasts in the Hudson Valley area.

But Ichabod Crane reads Cotton Mather and sings hymns, and he’s following the lead of Brother Jonathan from Royall Tyler’s Contrast (1787). This Connecticut Yankee type has continued with us, now most obvious in our representations of Uncle Sam. As we’ve stripped Uncle Sam of religion, we likewise skim over Ichabod’s Calvinist ways.

For those who know James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, David Gamut serves as the buffoon of the story, singing psalm tunes to ward off evil spirits during battle scenes. As a contemporary of Cooper, Irving writes Ichabod Crane the same. He’s the butt of the jokes, but he’s also an instrument of religious fervor.

I thought about our Connecticut Yankee on my recent trip when we accidentally ventured into Connecticut in the rental car. We folks in the heart of Texas sometimes forget how close neighboring states are on the East Coast. How interesting in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that someone from Connecticut contrasts so greatly with the nearby community of Tarrytown.

Those in Texas might understand it this way: Ichabod Crane is like a Texas A&M Aggie in town for Baylor homecoming. Even though Bears and Aggies don’t live that far apart, an Aggie would be an obvious outsider in the Baylor Bubble. And I’ll wrap up this blog, since it appears the conversation is going downhill into football smack.

My intent is to jump specifically into a religious subject on my next blog, something of interest to most Irving scholars and fans. I’m leaning toward religious practices kept at the Old Dutch Church.

It makes sense for me to work on a Baptist reading of “Sleepy Hollow,” but I’ll save that for a scholarly journal. For years, I’ve wanted to do a book on Connecticut Yankees, but it will have to wait until I knock out some other projects. Clearly, I need to take up the Gamut. Pun intended.

I love receiving feedback from readers! Please feel free to drop comments wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. If you need a reply, please message me at Tracy_Hoffman@baylor.edu. I try to respond to all Washington Irving Society-related email on Wednesdays, and I also update the WIS page on Washington Irving Wednesdays.



Published in: on October 30, 2019 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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