Not so Hollow

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. 

Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.

Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

Local Lore

SomersetOne of the true joys of having more than a day off work at a time is the privilege to spend days reading. Although I read on the bus as a matter of course, it is a defined time, and editing isn’t as much reading as most people think it is. While doing research for my Sleepy Hollow paper, the question naturally arose: where did Washington Irving get the idea for the headless horseman? According to Irving’s biographers, the story was not an uncommon one. Headless ghosts are not unique, and he wrote the story while living in Europe as part of the serialized Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. There is no practical way to know where he first heard the story. During my research I heard of a local source: Legends and Lore of Somerset County (New Jersey), by Michael Haynes. In this little compendium of stories of my current county, there is a claim that Irving learned about the story right here in New Jersey, where a traditional headless ghost rides. Again, it is impossible to say where he got the idea, but people like to feel that their local traditions are important enough to engage a major writer’s imagination.

Haynes presents several other regional tales that may rival the Jersey Devil and give ghosts a location just down the road. I suspect most places have tales of ghosts and mysterious beasts. It is always interesting to find out about those lurking in your own neighborhood. Scholars are now beginning to turn their attention to the sanctity of space. Location is very important to mobile beings like ourselves. The place where we find ourselves becomes “our place” and with the patina of time, often a personally sacred space. Tales of what happened here often take on the cast of the supernatural.

Local history has always held a deep fascination for me. Any region that I know, in a sense, intimately, is a region that has become part of my personal history. My region of Pennsylvania, for example, defines me although neither of my parents, or their parents were born in that state. And Massachusetts, Michigan, Scotland, Illinois, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, places I’ve lived, have become somehow alive with history. Legends and Lore of Somerset County contains tales that are not always believable in the workaday world we inhabit, but that’s the beauty of sacred space. Going beyond the mundane is entirely the point. Although Washington Irving may or may not have first heard of the headless horseman here, we have that legend, and there’s only so much that history can do to remove such a claim.

Birth of a Legend

I was sitting in the restaurant attached to W, a boutique hotel cum chain, with my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson. He was on a book tour and kindly treated me to breakfast. Above his head I noticed a slightly salacious painting portraying a nude lady in bed saying “Of course I think you’re adequate. I love you!” In the doorway stood a headless man in a red coat, clearly intended to be the headless horseman. I pointed it out and Neal, being an author, made some inquiries about it. Nobody in the hotel seemed to know anything about the image’s relevance, so I did some internet sleuthing. I knew Washington Irving was born in New York City. I don’t know where precisely, and I’m not really sure how to find out. New York, in those days, didn’t reach so far up Manhattan Island, and we were near downtown, at Union Square. Probably this was the outskirts back in Irving’s day. I had already started my research for my paper on Sleepy Hollow, so I was attuned to the clues. W is now a chain, but I think the first W was the very one where we met. The restaurant where we had breakfast was the Irvington. The website said nothing about the origin of the name. Had we been eating where Irving had spent his youth?

This was a slight synchronicity. I had been researching Irving and had ended up meeting someone at a hotel which, it may turn out, had been named after him. Which Washington was the Squire really named after anyway? Washington Irving had been named after George Washington, so perhaps the point was moot. Months passed, and I wrote and honed my paper for public delivery. I’d almost forgotten the existential pleasures of following a lead and drawing some conclusions, whether or not history might bear them out. My brain was fully active.

759px-John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_Project

My flight to Atlanta yesterday for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting took off from Newark Airport on time. I thought I had a row to myself, but a couple of guys came in, talking, just before the cabin door was closed. They obviously knew one another, but not terribly well. One asked if the other was from Valatie, “where Ichabod Crane is buried.” These were not professorial types, which you often see at the airport this time of year. Just regular guys. “Yeah, there’s an Ichabod Crane High School,” the other replied. Their conversation moved on to other topics, but I sat there thinking about the synchronicities my paper seemed to be generating in my life. Of course, many people do watch Sleepy Hollow, not many, I suspect, are academics looking for connections to American religious thought. It seems that research never really ends.

The Lure of Lore

SleepyHollowOne of my doctoral advisers, Nick Wyatt, has become a friend over the years. I’m sure he would agree that he is often called a maverick, but in the best possible way. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever known. When it was time for his Festschrift to appear, I had been unceremoniously tipped out of academia and left to my own devices. Being his first doctoral student, I had to contribute a piece, and so I settled on one I had written about an Edinburgh ghost story that seems to have roots in ancient Sumer.  Nick is the kind of scholar who can appreciate such ventures. This paper came to mind while reading Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley by Jonathan Kruk.  Kruk labels himself a storyteller, and that was a venerable role in ancient times.  In fact it was a priestly one.  Kruk draws out the many tales of headless horsemen and other spirits mentioned in Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nothing is proven here, but that’s not the point.

Headless ghosts were a staple of nineteenth-century lore not only in the Hudson Valley, but also in Scotland and Germany, as well as in many other locations.  How a spirit became decapitated is generally part of the draw to such ghoulish stories, and Kruk convincingly points to the tradition of the Wild Hunt as an element in Ichabod Crane’s famous ride.  The point is that stories often contain a truth that facts can’t match.  Case in point: the legend of Sleepy Hollow is alive and well. There have been periods, and will likely be more periods, when interest wanes, but we keep coming back to the story because it teaches us something about ourselves.  Empiricism is all fine and good until you find yourself facing a headless phantom on a nighttime highway.  Experience all of a sudden takes the wheel.

What does this have to do with Professor Wyatt?  My Festschrift article was reviewed, at a much earlier stage, by the journal Folklore.  I received a very sniffy rejection letter, citing, among other scholarly infractions, that I had referred to a popular publication (say it isn’t so!) as a source of the Edinburgh ghost story text. Where else was I to find it?  What scholar would bother to replicate an obviously—let’s just say it—uneducated tale?  Isn’t it beneath scholarly dignity? The stories we tell, I’ve always believed, make us who we are. It may be that materialists will have the last laugh.  When they are carted to the graveyard, however, I can guarantee that there will those among the common mourners who will be able to make a believable tale that their lives meant something after all.