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Icabod isn't a "nice guy"

Fair warning: this blog has a lot to do with reading and text and almost nothing to do with yarn.


Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of my favorite American short stories. I used to teach it to my Intro to Lit students because it captures the spirit of a young America still steeped in regionalism and post-Revolutionary legends. Every year I watch the Disney cartoon from 1949 and read the story before Halloween.


And, while I enjoy some of the retellings and re-envisionings of Irving's creep-tastic tale, it irks me every single year when people misread Irving's tale and cast the erstwhile schoolmaster as a hapless but lovable victim.


See, in Irving's original tale and even in the 1949 Disney cartoon (and the 1999 Hallmark version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Ichabod Crane is a horrible human being, and Irving's narrator, Dietrich Knickerbocker, doesn't appear to have all that much sympathy for him. So the notion that we ought to feel sorry for Ichabod that "that coquette Katrina" marries Brom Bones or that he was supposedly chased out of town or otherwise done away with by the Headless Horseman is entirely a contemporary invention borne from misreading.


From the start of Irving's short story, Ichabod is an outsider, and not a particularly benign one at that. Irving's narrator tells us that Ichabod is a "Yankee" and is from Connecticut, that he doesn't fit in with the people of Tarrytown at all. Granted, since the Civil War most of the northern states have been labeled "Yankee" states, but in the period right after the Revolution, Yankee specifically meant people from New England, and the newly-established state of New York was decidedly not part of New England. Further, Ichabod is described as being somewhat educated, as compared to the more pragmatic, rural farmers of Dutch-descent who lived in upstate New York, and not educated in a particularly positive way, either. Rather, he clings fiercely to the works of Cotton Mather, and anyone who knows anything about Puritanical New England or the Salem Panic of 1692 knows that Mather was a fire-and-brimstone minister who encouraged the judges at the Salem Witch Trials to use "spectral evidence." Furthermore, Knickerbocker mocks Ichabod for this repeatedly throughout "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," particularly as he points out that the old Dutch wives delighted in sharing fantastical and spooky tales as a past time. Whenever Knickerbocker uses seemingly flattering adjectives to describe Ichabod, he immediately undercuts any positive association with a recount of how foolish Ichabod truly is. For example, he refers to him as "gallant" and a "knight-errant," but then repeats that Hans van Ripper, the farmer with whom Ichabod is boarding, is choleric and allowed him to borrow a "broken-down plow-horse, that had outlived almost everything but its viciousness." That Ichabod "was a suitable figure for a such a steed" ought to give us pause and remind readers that Knickerbocker's references to Ichabod as the "hero" are largely in jest.


Beyond this, Ichabod is repeatedly shown to have been greedy and self-serving. He is said to have been "judicious" when doling out punishments to his students unless they had mothers or sisters who were skilled in the culinary arts. He is continuously described through his greedy gluttony by Irving--a point that both the Disney cartoon and the 1999 Hallmark film underscore, as well, as both point out his unyielding and shameless appetite.


When it comes to Katrina van Tassel, Irving's schoolmaster is depicted as even more heinous as he only ever thinks of her in terms of food and her inheritance. When I taught the short story, students (well, the ones who actually did the reading) would often comment on how uncomfortable they felt at Ichabod's thoughts about Katrina as he likened every part of her body to some form of food--when readers are introduced to her, they're told she was "plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches." While it's true that Knickerbocker refers to Katrina as "a coquette" (not a particularly flattering term, btw), he takes pains to point out that Ichabod sees Katrina as merely the means to securing her father's estate, particularly when he points out, "it is not to be wondered at that so tempting a morsel soon found favor in his eyes, more especially after he had visited her in her paternal mansion." And yet his rival, Brom van Brunt, although only possessing "a degree of rough chivalry" and seeing Katrina as "the object of his uncouth gallantries" whose "amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear," is treated much more gently by Knickerbocker and by Katrina than later retellings of the tale would suggest.


By the time the tale comes to its end, Hans van Ripper has burned all of Ichabod's books, and specifically his Cotton Mather collection, and has determined to no longer send his sons to school. What's more is the fact that the good people are relatively indifferent to the mystery of Ichabod's disappearance, which should also tell us something about his character: "As he was a bachelor, and in nobody's debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him; the school was removed to a different quarter of the hollow, and another pedagogue reigned in his stead."


Which is why I am entirely befuddled as to how in the world the tale of Ichabod has been turned around into a story celebrating the underdog.


I'm curious as to how "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" has been passed down to us as some fanciful tale where Brom Bones is nothing more than a bully, Ichabod is some sort of bumbling but ultimately kind and sympathetic hero, and Katrina is more often than not portrayed as having been truly in love with Ichabod (yes, Tim Burton and the creators of that Fox tv show, I'm looking at you and at a number of contemporary writers who have published various "retellings" of the tale). Irving's Ichabod is not an especially "nice" person. He's greedy and self-serving. He doesn't actually love Katrina; he loves the fact that marrying her would give him Baltus van Tassel's fortune when old Baltus dies--a fortune Ichabod plans to sell off so he can leave Sleepy Hollow and the banks of the Tappan Zee for Kentucky or Tennessee, piling Katrina and their future children into his heavily-laden wagon as though they, too, are merely possessions. When Knickerbocker explains that he doesn't know what happened between Ichabod and Katrina when Ichabod presumably proposes, that Ichabod slinks off as though he was caught "raiding the henhouse" only for Katrina to eventually marry Brom Bones, readers aren't terribly surprised. The 1999 Hallmark movie underscores how ill-suited Ichabod and Katrina are by imagining their encounter as Katrina calls Ichabod out for seeing her as nothing more than a means to her father's fortune.


For me, then, I return to a question that the students in one of my last Intro to Lit classes pondered: is the Headless Horseman really the villain of the tale, or was he protecting the drowsy town of Sleepy Hollow? He seems fairly benign before the encounter with Ichabod, racing Brom Bones for a bowl of punch, only to disappear when they reached the church bridge, or when he and old Brouwer rode together throughout the village until, once again, upon reaching the church bridge, the Horseman was turned away. Could it be that the Horseman was actually trying to protect the town from the likes of Ichabod Crane, who tries to match the people's ghostly tales with talk of Cotton Mather only to have the party at the van Tassels break up shortly after?

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