Call it nostalgia.(“It’s nostalgia!”)What with major expenses rolling in like the longer nights—a major plumbing job followed by the roofers back again to fix another leak—I try to accept my joys in inexpensive doses.I’ve written before about how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” caught my childhood imagination.My brothers and I, growing up in quite humble circumstances, were collectors.Not having much money, the collecting tended to be of free stuff, much of which drove our mother crazy.Bottle caps, believe it or not, could be had for free from the openers on vending machines that dispensed genuine glass bottles.We had bags full and the aroma was wonderful.We had baseball cards—which were cheap and would now be worth something had they been kept—by the boxful.And we collected stamps because they came free in the mail.
Yes, even bills used to have stamps.The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stamp was released for Halloween in 1974.I don’t recall how I heard about it, because there was no internet in those days.I knew, however, that I fervently hoped one would come so that I could add it to my collection.It never did.In fact, I never actually saw the stamp itself.When we moved house my childhood philatelic ambitions met an abrupt end as those endless childhood collections (which included metal slugs dropped from trucks rumbling out of the local steel mill and fossils found by the river under the bridge where those slugs pinged) were simply thrown out.I would never see the coveted stamp, and now we use email.
It took many years—decades now—to occur to me that the stamp might be available online.I guess I had pictures of the price tag of that upside-down airplane stamp in mind as I navigated to a vendor who was asking less than a dollar for a mint copy of a ten-cent Sleepy Hollow stamp.Gritting my teeth between plumbing and roofing bills, I finally clicked “check out.”With postage ironically costing more than the contents, still I felt giddy.This was a piece of childhood on a simple slip of sticky paper.I am not a stamp collector.I will likely never be.I do have vivid memories of bags full of aromatic bottle caps, and shoeboxes groaning with baseball cards, and cheap albums with common stamps.They’re long gone.But on my desk I now have a small piece of memory from many years ago, andI have to wonder if I’m the pedagogue or his headless haunter.
It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.
The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.
Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons.
It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”
You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.
That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.
Less known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.
Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.
This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.