Washington Irving’s Iconic New York Stories: Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
Despite the fact that he spent many of his productive years abroad, Washington Irving (1783-1859) was a quintessential New Yorker. The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker also enshrined the Hudson River village of Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) and the Catskill Mountains in the collective American memory. His fictional characters Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane are recognizable to most of us today through various adaptations of their stories (some having very little relationship to the originals, as with the current Fox series Sleepy Hollow, a surprise hit just renewed for a second season). What witches are to Massachusetts, the Headless Horseman is to New York State; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is New York’s ultimate Halloween story. In fact, after the village of North Tarrytown lost its General Motors assembly plant in 1996, it actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to increase tourism, and the new TV series has furthered that goal.
Irving’s most famous stories are not just part of New York State history because he was from New York – born in New York City, died in his cottage Sunnyside (now a National Historic Landmark) in Tarrytown—but because they also reflect the history of the period in which he lived and wrote. Rip Van Winkle highlights the difference between New York as a pre-Revolutionary provincial backwater and a growing state; after his twenty-year sleep, Rip awakes to find that the “very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility . . .” Though Irving is exaggerating colonial New York’s lethargy for literary effect, the period following the Revolution—the Early Republican period—was precisely the time when New York began to surpass other states in population, commerce, and industrial development. The changes Rip notices are the very changes that had happened in Irving’s own lifetime (he was in his mid-thirties when these stories were written). Similarly, Irving’s nostalgia for the “old” New York is evident in this paragraph from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
. . . it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.