Working on a doctorate changes the way you think. Or at least it’s supposed to. Easy answers have to be examined closely, and sources critically scrutinized. One of the side-effects of this is that many Ph.D.s tend to think that only others of that status are able to do good research. An essential piece of research, however, is passion. This part isn’t always logical and can’t always be explained. A recovering academic, I first resisted Gary Denis’ Sleepy Hollow: Birth of the Legend because it was self-published. I’ve had bad experiences with self-published books before but what I discovered here is that Denis is quite a capable researcher, driven with a passion for Washington Irving’s tale. The execution may be a little rough, but the data-gathering is very good. He tries to point out where accounts have problems and attempts, where possible, to resolve them.
Denis is driven by the question of what in Irving’s story is factual, if anything? This is probably not a question an academic would ask, presuming that fiction is fiction. Still, there is data. The first four chapters are very good. Here he lays out the background to the region, Irving, and stories of headless horsemen. I learned quite a lot from it. The final three chapters turn to the main characters of the story—Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones—asking who they might’ve been based on. The best drawn of these is the first and there’s good reason to suppose Irving based Crane’s situation on that of his friend, Jesse Merwin. The other two, however, are sketched rather hastily and lots of people have suggestions for who might’ve been behind them.
Clearly aware that authors borrow and make things up, Denis knows that Katrina and Brom may well be pretty much imaginary. He also knows that Irving did indeed borrow much from previously known stories and legends. Irving’s real genius was in the way he expressed these stories in colloquial English, making American literature a blend. Although Irving wrote many books, his fame was largely due to two of his stories published early in his career. One of those stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has left quite a paper trail and Denis leaves no rock unturned in his efforts to collect data on it. I’ve read a fair number of self-published books over the years—they’ve been easy to produce since the internet began—and I’m wary of them. This book, however, is one that I’m glad I found and it serves as a useful reminder that good research isn’t limited to the privileged few in the academy.