What really goes on in somebody else’s mind?  At best we can guess, and when that person’s been dead for a long time that guessing involves some reasoned speculation.  I enjoyed Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s reasoned speculation in Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving.  The book itself is a few decades old now, but it does raise many relevant issues.  For me personally, it was, in parts, like reading my own psychological profile.  Irving is an interesting study.  (Unlike me) he had early success as a writer but he was a continual self-doubter.  He was also a poor investor, making money on his writing only to lose large sums investing in ventures that failed.  He also had a sense of not belonging which would seem strange for a New Yorker today.  Although he finally felt he fit in when he settled, as a famous writer, in Tarrytown, this book really only covers his European years.

While traveling for seventeen years in mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Irving wrote four very different “Sketch Books.”  These weren’t really short stories as we’ve come to understand them, at least not always, but they affirmed his place in the literary firmament.  Adrift in the Old World covers these four books while bringing incidental mention of several others into the picture.  Irving must be a difficult writer to cover.  He was not only prolific, but he wrote about diverse topics and sometimes at great length.  Of course, he was trying to make a living as a writer and people in those days had more time to read.  Breaking out a set of only four of his books makes this more digestible.

Even though I learned a lot from this book, it wasn’t always easy reading.  It gets a bit academic in parts and the paragraphs are far too long.  Still, there’s good information here.  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Irving for some time now, as a glance at the books I’ve covered recently ought to suggest.  Although he’s not ignored by literary scholars, there aren’t many general interest books written on him.  There are other writers that more capture the modern imagination.  Still, literary history of the early United States is a fascinating venture in its own right.  For those who like to try to figure out what other people are thinking (and I have to admit to that avocation) this is a good entryway into what may have been the mental world of Washington Irving.

Funny about Irving

The successful writer, John Green, has been on a tuberculosis kick lately.  You see, writers swing that way.  As the writer of books few people read, I’ve had my own little Washington Irving obsession lately.  So it is that I read Martin Roth’s Comedy and America: The Lost World of Washington Irving.  Roth knew a lot about comedy and he framed Irving’s early work as burlesque, rather than the more usual categorization as satire.  In doing this, he groups Irving together with other writers in the genre such as Laurence Sterne (who sounds like a fascinating character) and François Rabelais, among others.  (Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith also make appearances.)  Irving is analyzed in comparison to these other writers and his comic style is considered as polite satire, political satire, and domestic humor, as well as burlesque.

Insightful while occasionally assuming quite a bit on the part of the reader’s background, Roth provides quite a bit of good chewing here.  Roth was, by reputation, an unorthodox thinker.  He sounds like the kind of professor you would’ve wanted to have had in the classroom.  A book trying to parse comedy is a good sign, I suppose.  I learned a lot from reading it, and was pleased to see that I had independently come to some of the same conclusions he had.  That signals to me, anyway, that I’m not too far off track.  The benefit for those interested Irving is that, while critical, Roth isn’t judgmental.  It has always seemed odd to me that the premier biography of Irving had been written by a scholar who really seemed to hate him.  Roth, on the other hand, likes a good laugh.

As a used book my copy had lots of pencil marks in it.  So many that I had to erase them so that I could spot my own.  When I worked in the theology library at Boston University one summer I was introduced to the electric pencil eraser.  This was a device for heavy-duty removing of the marks of thoughtless patrons.  Before working for the library I stared in wonder when I would see students (perhaps not the brightest) sitting in the library, underlining in books they’d pulled off the shelf.  I think I was always too well aware that library books were not my own.  Because such folks, I’m sure, the electric pencil eraser was invented.  None of this took away from my enjoyment of Roth’s book.  I learned quite a bit about Irving’s context and, as an added bonus, got to remember using an electric eraser.

I would like to have had an image of the book cover, but mine lacks the dust jacket and finding it without violating copyright was difficult. I tried to trace this image to its origin, but I found it on Pinterest and the link didn’t take me back to the original poster. If you see and own this and want me to erase it, just let me know.

What Kind of Night?

“It was a dark and stormy night.”  If you’re like me, this evokes images of Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse, clacking away at his typewriter, trying to write the great American novel.  Many of us have tried a hand at that.  And as a writer, finding that allusive incipit, or opening line, is a major preoccupation.  For many years I believed the sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” originated with Edward Bulwer-Lytton since his 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with this sentence.  Now considered melodramatic prose of the purplest kind, it may have been serious back then.  1830 was early in the days of novel writing.  Then I found the phrase from an even earlier work, Washington Irving’s A History of New York, from 1809.  Had Bulwer-Lytton read it?  Irving was quite popular in the pre-Dickens days.

This raises a question encapsulated in the other old phrase, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”  Unless someone tells us explicitly that they read something—journals and footnotes often convey this information—it’s difficult to know.  There’s a whole genre of history books these days that examine the libraries of deceased historical individuals to determine what they read.  I suppose in the days before mass book sales there was a better chance that owning a book meant you’d read it, but not necessarily.  In college I worked as the secretary for the chaplain, Bruce Thielemann.  When he read a book he wrote a category of note in the margin and paid a secretary to go through and write the citation under a heading in a set of looseleaf binders he kept, with several pages dedicated to each category.  For sermon preparation he’d look up his theme and immediately see what he’d read.  I knew he’d read those books.

So, was Washington Irving the origin of the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night”?  Many websites, many of them authoritatively, insist that the credit goes to Bulwer-Lytton.  I located an edition of A History of New York that replicates, word for word, the 1809 edition.  You see, Irving, like many writers, revised after publication and not all (or even most) modern editions tell you which version they use.  Irving indeed used the phrase in 1809, I confirmed.  The internet is wrongly giving credit to Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a phrase first printed by Washington Irving.  The two were contemporaries and ironically, Wikipedia points out that Irving first used “almighty dollar,” another phrased credited to Bulwer-Lytton.  It doesn’t however, point out that “it was a dark and stormy night” also belongs to Irving.  Something to ponder on a dark and stormy night.

Literary Detective

A writer’s life can take many forms.  Alexandre Dumas, for example, (the father, just to be clear) had tremendous success with his novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Due to the politics in his lifetime, he was exiled and repatriated.  Of the upper classes, he had many affairs.  And finally, in 2002, was reinterred in the Panthéon in Paris with the president of the nation renouncing past racism.  You see, his father was a creole born in Haiti and apparently for that reason he’d been denied burial with France’s other luminaries.  I’ve been reading early European and American novels lately.   I just finished Dumas’ lesser known The Woman with a Velvet Necklace, which was originally published together with some other “stories” (this one alone is over 200 pages) in French, of course.

The story itself seems to have been based on a short ghost story by Washington Irving titled “The Adventure of the German Student.”  In brief, a student meets his dream girl in Paris during the revolution.  She wears a cloth necklace and when it’s removed her head falls off.  Tracing the origin of Dumas’ version on the internet took considerable detective work.  It involved learning the book in which it was originally published (long out of print), translating the title into French, and reading the French article in French Wikipedia since there’s no English article on it.  The story was originally published in 1850, some quarter-century after Irving’s tale, and logic compels one to conclude that either Dumas knew Irving or that Irving was using an old French ghost story that was in circulation at the time.

Since few internet sources exist on the novel, its origins remain somewhat of a mystery.  The French Wikipedia article doesn’t address them.  We know that Washington Irving was a writer appreciated both in America and Europe, having spent many of his years living in the latter.  We also know that Irving borrowed the basis of the story from materials he picked up while traveling.  There’s more literary detective work to be done here, but we live in an age when literary scholarship is devalued (it doesn’t bring in money) and until someone who’s an academic gets on this trail, Dumas’ use of Irving will always remain speculative.  The novel itself does reveal, after the first forty or so pages, why Dumas was a popular writer.  He has a way of drawing the reader in.  The story itself is odd and sad but has a message.  And, as it turns out, a mystery as well.

Becoming American

Image credit: John Wesley Jarvis, via Wikimedia Commons

I love reading literary scholars if they write accessibly.  William L. Hedges did, mostly, in Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832.  There were several moments in my reading when I had to pause and consider the connections he was making.  This was his only book of note, but noteworthy it is.  You see, as a young person I had a difficult time figuring out what I was supposed to be as an American.  I read a lot about Europe and considered the various identities in the long histories there.  I tended to read European literature while having a lifelong soft spot for Poe.  Over time I began to read more American classics—ironically this wasn’t much part of my formal education in rural Pennsylvania.  Mostly I picked things up on my own.

Hedges, nevertheless, ties many of these things together in discussing Irving’s writing.  As he did so I started to realize that an American is a distinct kind of being.  Now, intellectually I’ve known that since childhood.  I was born and raised here, after all, as were the generations before me.  Still, recognizing the guilt of taking someone else’s land, it has taken many years to appreciate the literary accomplishments of the various writers who helped shape our national identity.  Hedges addresses many aspects of this through his analysis of Irving, but he’s at his best when he’s tying him together with Poe or Melville.  These early American literary lights offered a view of a nation haunted by history, but also funny at the same time.

This book was published three years after I was born.  Of course, I really didn’t start reading about Irving until about a decade ago.  You get the sense that he wasn’t sure of himself as a writer, but like many of us he had a thin skin when it came to criticism.  You see, writing is putting yourself out there for others to see.  It’s only worth doing if you believe you have something to say and you want others to hear it.  For many writers that means being discovered after death.  Today many make livings writing acclaimed novels.  They can only do so, however, because Irving and his generation suggested something new: you didn’t have to have a traditional job and just write on the side.  You could, if chance cooperated, create literary works that others would purchase and support yourself that way.  And then, more than a century after you’d gone, someone else would write about what you had written.  Thankfully, sometimes accessibly.

Irving the Writer

From the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

No writer is “on” all the time.  I often marvel that, with the busy lives they lead, they manage to finish any books at all.  Even so, not all are uniformly good.  Following up a biography of Washington Irving with a book by that eponymous title, this was my first foray into the Twayne’s United States Authors Series.  Written by Mary Weatherspoon Bowden, this volume (Washington Irving) seems fair-minded and honest about Irving and the irregularities of his writing.  My impression, not having read all his work, is that he started out great and became good further down the line.  Not that I’m in any position to judge.  We read and we like what we like.  Bowden pretty much goes through all of Irving’s writings—sometimes story by story—giving a sense of what they’re all about. (The book was released in cloth with no real cover image, so enjoy Irving’s smile instead.)

As famous and influential as Irving was, his reputation as a writer has been in decline for many decades.  One reason for this is that his first major twentieth-century biographer, Stanley T. Williams, apparently despised him.  So much so that he wrote a two-volume biography demonstrating his faults as a writer.  This demolition job meant that works like Bowden’s had to try to counter the prevailing opinion of Irving’s ability.  Bowden shows how carefully planned out many of his works were without denying that Irving had to try to make money from his writing.  The thought at the time seems to have been that literary pursuits were best left to the wealthy—those with leisure to indulge in letters.  Irving showed that it was possible to write your way to a reasonable living.

Of course, not all of his writing is that good.  And several volumes of it are “history.”  Today you have to earn an advanced degree, or at least a masters, before you can pass yourself off as a historian.  Irving did it the old fashioned way.  He read as much as he could get his hands on and synthesized it.  Today he’s not really remembered as an historian, or as a statesman.  He’s known as the author of a few, mostly brief, American classics.  Even though Bowden writes of Irving appreciatively, she doesn’t really inspire you to run out and read all his work.  He did have a tremendous output for the time and was an extremely influential author.  Nevertheless, others came and surpassed him, even as they were his contemporaries.  Still, it seems there ought to be some credit in being first, and some integrity in actually managing to live by the written word.  Irving is worth another look.


Washington Irving is one of those people with an outsized influence on American history who nevertheless has become ignored.  He met nearly every US president from Jefferson through Franklin Pierce, and what’s more, most of them knew who he was.  Sometimes decried as a less-than-original writing talent, Irving nevertheless led a remarkable life and through it all, treated others with respect and gentility.  He’s also a bit of a mystery.  All of this is captured quite well in Andrew Burstein’s biography, The Original Knickerbocker.  Burstein does go off on some diversions from time to time, but most of them are quite interesting.  One of the facts that astounded me was just how many early American political leaders were writers.

I don’t mean wealthy individuals hiring ghost writers to praise them in their “autobiographies,” but actual writers.  Fiction and all.  These were, pardon the period phrase, “men of letters.”  Writing was a way of not only influencing people, but of improving one’s mind.  Some of these individuals became presidents, others cabinet ministers, or foreign diplomats.  Once his literary star ascended, Irving could get struggling writers a government post by a letter sent to the chief executive.  It was a different day than that in which we live.

In my mind, Irving also stands out in that his fame came early and his later writings, while perhaps selling better, never eclipsed his early fame.  And honestly, never reached his earlier shine.  It began with his satirical History of New York.  This book established him as a wit and a gifted writer.  Since his family ran a secure business, Irving was able to travel without working for several years and didn’t produce his next book for another decade.  The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. may not be known to many today, but two of its sketches are still told and retold.  One is “Rip Van Winkle” and the other is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  This book also helped to establish the American celebration of Christmas, something begun in his History.  Although he would write many more books, he’s still best remembered for two short stories from his second.

Burstein takes his cues in this biography from “Rip Van Winkle.”  This particular story is kind of a parable of Irving’s life.  Irving couldn’t know this, of course, having published the story when he was about 36.  His subsequent books sold well enough, and apart from a stint as American minister to Spain, he was able to make his living through his pen.  There’s quite a lot in Burstein’s treatment that I’ll come back to, I’m sure.  But for the moment, it left me feeling as if I’d met a great, if struggling, writer in person.

The Romantics

It takes one to know one—or so they used to say.  My current preoccupation has me learning about the Romantics.  This isn’t the same as “romance,” although both words derive from the Old French for “verse narrative.”  Novel, in German, is Roman.  In any case, Sir Walter Scott cordially embraced Washington Irving when the latter arrived unannounced at Abbotsford.  Reading the account in Irving’s own words, it sounds like a bromance, and some modern interpreters—inclined as they are to look for genital contact—have suggested Irving, a lifelong bachelor, might’ve been a homosexual.  Although there’s nothing wrong with that, I do wonder if it misunderstands the language of the Romantics.  To borrow a sentence from Andrew Burstein (more to come anon): “This had to do with intimacy, not sex as we understand it.”

I recently gave a talk about Herman Melville’s spiritual orientation.  I mentioned his close friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  During the discussion period the question of whether they might’ve been lovers was raised.  I’d read this before.  I don’t know what went on in Melville’s bedroom—it’s none of my business—but I think the Romantics were all about intimacy.  We’re now familiar with the genre of bromance.  Guys, usually two, pairing off for pursuits of significance to both of them.  Or two women. I think of all the great same-sex pairings throughout literary history and wonder where we’d be without them.  Since our culture has long demonized sex, our mind is constantly creeping between the sheets.  Who touched whom?  Where and when?  Isn’t intimacy enough any more?  Where’s the Romance?  I’m no prude, but I wonder if we misread sex and the Romantics.

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul – On the mountain, public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Romantic Movement produced the culture I taught myself living in a run-down house with no spending money.  I borrowed recordings—actual records—of Beethoven symphonies from the library that I had to listen to with headphones because nobody else wanted to hear that kind of thing.  I read Poe.  I read about Poe.  Gothic, a subset of Romanticism, became my muse.  I had no intimate friends with which to share this.  Not until seminary—that place where such unusual, unspoken things occur.  Of course I was in Boston, the most Romantic of American cities with New Bedford to the south and Salem to the north.  To the east the boundless ocean.  We still read the Romantics.  We still read about them.  I can’t help but think we might misunderstand them.  Yes, Irving and Scott were together “from morning to night,” but thinking back to my own Romantic ideals as a teenager, I suspect they just talked.  Intimately.

Not Sleepy Yet

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.

Sleepy Hollow West

You’ve got to admire those who are determined to be writers on their own terms.  As someone who’s tried and tried again to break into even indie presses, I know few established publishers will even consider fiction from someone who’s not already established.  As my regular readers know, I’ve been reading a lot about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow lately.  So I came across Austin Dragon’s Hollow Blood.  Part of a two-volume novel set, the story takes a creative approach while retaining several of the original characters, even having clever nods now and again to the wording in the original.  Although clearly self-published, Dragon is able to let his imagination go on this one.  Julian Crane, Ichabod’s nephew, is out to avenge his uncle’s death.

In Sleepy Hollow he confronts Brom Bones with the crime, but wrongly.  It turns out that the Marshal—there are elements of the old west in this too, with cowboys and showdowns—knows where Crane has settled and offers to take the nephew to him.  So unfolds a story that feels a bit more like a western than a horror story at points.  I don’t want to give away too much since Dragon, like most of those who make their living by writing, needs to move copies to stay solvent.  The thing is, Sleepy Hollow seems to be an evergreen subject.  America keeps coming back to it.  Many writers try to take it on as the basis for more modern reboots.  Of course, I have to read the second volume to find out how it really ends.

I can’t help but think that the internet has made it difficult for writers by allowing anyone to establish him or herself as one.  If you can build a fan base, you can make a living at it.  The publishing industry faces problems of its own, of course.  Paper shortages are a problem.  Not only the pandemic, but the assumption that ebooks were going to spell the death of print led paper mills to cut production.  Funny thing—print has been seeing a resurgence of interest.  Large media seems surprised, scratching its metaphoric head and saying “People like actual books—who knew?”  But I digress.  The simple tale of a love triangle in the 1790s with a ghost on the loose has spawned a great number of offspring.  Some published the traditional way, and others on a writer’s own terms.  It’s a story worth the retelling.


It must be both difficult and easy writing the novelization of a movie.  I suppose it depends on the movie as well.  Sleepy Hollow is a film based on a story already, but Washington Irving’s tale isn’t a novel and the movie was a collaboration between Irving’s original, re-envisioned by Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker, and Tim Burton.  The novelization was done by Peter Lerangis and it, naturally enough, follows the movie.  As a novelizer, however, you need to try to make sense of some scenes where a film only implies what’s going on.  Now, in this case I’ve seen the movie many times and any deviations come across as “that’s not the way it goes” moments.  Still, it’s competently done.  It  even helped me make sense out of some things that had me puzzled since the start of the millennium.

In the “book or movie” debate I tend to think a book should be read first.  Sometimes it should go the other way around.  Novelizations are, of course, intended to increase the profits for a film.  You’ve got the box office take, and if there are advertising tie-ins or other merch, you can add to the haul.  A novelization can also help.  In this case, the movie has a somewhat complex plot with revenge and double-crossing, and so a novel helps to make all that clear.  However, when the novelist asks you to accept what a character is thinking you may have already come up with your own ideas on that point and any postmodernist would tell you that your opinion is just as valid as that of the writer.

Movie scripts tend to be a bit short for novels—if the movie isn’t based on a novel, of course—and sometimes extra material is needed.  This novelization includes the public domain story by Irving as well, even though the movie completely recasts all the characters into unfamiliar roles.  Brom, for example, is a minor part, whereas Katrina is a witch and Ichabod a constable from New York City.  All of that having been said, there really aren’t many surprises here.  I read this because I’m interested in the life of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Its many retelling and re-envisionings.  The original story was published less than fifty years after American independence and has memories closer to the time.  It tells us something of what it was like in those early days.  And this novel both retells and redacts a movie already a couple decades old itself.

Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.

Sacred Hudson

As scientific as we may wish to be, there’s no denying that there is a sense of place.  We know that some animals, at least, also feel it.  Whether theirs is a more pragmatic desire to return to where conditions were favorable to be born, or whether something deeper draws them there, we have no way of knowing.  People feel it too, this sense of place.  We know where we’re from, and if we don’t we often want to find out.  The space is somehow part of us.  There’s a compelling exploration of this in Judith Richardson’s Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley.  While not America’s first haunted location, the Hudson Valley was singled out for this treatment by Washington Irving.  He, however, didn’t invent it.

I’m not from the Hudson Valley.  I could never afford to live there.  That doesn’t mean the area can’t speak to me.  Richardson’s approach is academic yet readable and she considers how hauntings fill needs and how they play a role in that ever-contentious enterprise of land claims.  Ranging through literary treatments, whether the fiction of Irving or tour books of the next generation, or indeed, more recent literary efforts, Richardson deftly guides the reader through American Indian and Dutch and other inhabitants’ stories of themselves.  Race inevitably plays a part, and her tracing of the origins of some traditional tales is really remarkable.  Who owns the land?  Who truly owns anything?   

Similar treatments (I can’t help but feel somehow lesser) must exist of other haunted locations.  Richardson doesn’t engage in arguments over whether ghosts are factual since ghosts serve so many other functions.  Our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves.  Many of those tales involve the place we are or places we’ve been.  In our highly mobile society, few of us, it seems, can make a living where we’re from.  Those of us born in small towns range far and wide to find employment.  In many cases we may not want to go live where the drama of our childhoods unfolded.  Yes, there are pleasant memories there, but there are also ghosts.  Richardson explores how this plays out in one small stretch of the country.  Indeed, it’s a small stretch of New York state.  Stories of hauntings continue in that particular valley.  Uncanny, perhaps, but there are places in this world like that, and this book is a sure road post on this particular overgrown trail.

The Horseman

Washington Irving’s tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” perhaps due to its being the earliest literary American ghost story, has been retold time and again.  When I saw that Christina Henry had a take on it that came out last autumn, I knew I’d be reading it.  I’d read her The Girl in Red late last year, but I couldn’t wait until fall to read this one.  Henry has a way of taking traditional stories and making them relevant.  Horseman is set two generations after Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel, but they all appear in it.  According to Irving’s story—and this is often changed in cinematographic treatments—Brom and Katrina wed.  The narrator of this tale is Ben, who in today’s terms would be considered transgender.  He (his preferred pronoun) is the grandchild of Brom and Katrina.

Henry is a master of magic realism.  There really is something in the woods of Sleepy Hollow and it’s taking children’s heads.  Some influence from Tim Burton’s film version is found here, but the story has its own trajectory and inner logic.  Ben actually sees the monster, but nobody will believe him.  Not until it’s too late.  The one person who does believe is Katrina, Ben’s grandmother.  She, however, wants Ben to act like a girl because he was born female.  She wants him to stay home and learn sewing and cooking.  Ben’s hero, however, is Brom.  He’s a good man, if rowdy.  He married Katrina for love, not wealth.  Ichabod Crane does appear, later in the story, but since how he appears is a spoiler I’ll need to let you read for yourself.

Americans are often raised with the wrong-headed notion of canon as the one way a story goes.  Retelling is as ancient as writing itself.  Homer, Apollodorus, and Ovid were retelling stories.  So were many Bible writers.  People tell one another tall tales.  Washington Irving didn’t invent the Headless Horseman out of whole cloth.  Neither did the people of Tarrytown.  How the story goes is a matter for discussion.  Bet yet, it’s also a matter for retelling.  Henry’s version could be made to fit with Irving’s, but with a bit of prior assumption, some posthumous collaboration.  Hers, however, is a tale for our times.  Just like in Red, the protagonist isn’t conventional, according to conservative sexual standards.  Both are, however, authentic.  And although both may be flawed in various ways, there’s no denying that they’re heroes.

Keeping Your Head

Horror is a gift that keeps on giving.  Not many horror fans are among my regular readers, but I like to keep a finger in the pie nevertheless.  Just earlier this month it was announced that Paramount has hired Lindsey Beers to direct a new big screen Sleepy Hollow.  It’s early days, of course, and the movie hasn’t been titled, let alone filmed.  Beers is just wrapping up a prequel for Pet Sematary (not yet titled) that I’ll be eager to see.  Women horror directors tend to bring refreshing angles to the genre—and why shouldn’t they?  Women writers were crucial in developing the Gothic genre that evolved into horror as we know it.  No matter what the Supreme Court says, they are just as important—probably more—than males.

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Sleepy Hollow over the past several months, which is how I came across the intelligence about this new movie.  It’s nice to know that the Hudson Valley is evergreen.  My visits there have offered brushes with the uncanny, but nothing explicit.  A weekend near the ice caves of Sam’s Point, geocaching in the woods outside Poughkeepsie, a visit to Sleepy Hollow itself to visit Irving’s grave and tip my hat to the Old Dutch Church.  With deep family roots in upstate New York, I’ve always thought it would be a great place to live.  Alas, not on an editor’s salary.  It’s been too long since I’ve given the area a visit.

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been many takes on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Even in the silent era movies were made of it.  In retrospect, it seems odd that it took so long for Tim Burton to bring it back to the big screen.  There were some television movies, usually with plodding plots to draw the story out to commercial length.  Disney had early on devoted half a feature to it, as if the story couldn’t support its own weight.  For better or worse, that film was probably the first introduction to the tale that many people had—the story itself was written for adults.  Of course, many written kids’ versions have come out since then.  The satirical original was meant for a somewhat sophisticated readership with a sense of humor.  The story lends itself to horror treatments, however, if they’re done well.  It may have been an early viewing of the Disney tale that set me moving in this direction.  I like to think I’ve kept my head over it, however.