Washington Irving: The Forgotten Gothic Writer

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Washington Irving is a writer who is very seldom read these days although his most famous work, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow certainly is well known, first through Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, secondly through Tim Burton’s excellent interpretation in Sleepy Hollow, and thirdly through a television series the same name which aired from 2013-2017. In each, the main protagonists are the same though the storylines differ. The basic story is that Ichabod Crane the schoolmaster tries to woo Katrina Van Tassel the heiress who is also being courted by Brom Bones, the local heartthrob. Ichabod meets the Headless Horseman who, according to legend, is the ghost of a Hessian solder slain in battle during the American Revolution. After the said encounter, involving a chase through a dark autumn night, Ichabod disappears never to be seen in Sleep Hollow again. 

Like other Gothic tales we’ve examined, Irving not only claims this story is based on actual history, he demonstrates a fondness for idyllic scenery.  He describes very vividly the farmland along the Hudson in New York state upstream from what would later become the sprawling metropolis of the same name. In many ways, his descriptions resemble Ann Radcliffe’s descriptions of the French countryside only with figures and plants which would have been native to the early days of the United States—even down corn field and pumpkin patches. 

Irving’s style is lighter than most Gothic writers. He has a healthy dose of comedy in his writing, mixing it liberally with the traditional ghosts, ghouls, witches, and supernatural elements. The fact Ichabod’s chief rival, Brom Bones, is a prankster and practical joker not only plays into the events of the story but provides a bit of light-hearted relief and a touch of irony. The fact Brom Bones is known for playing practical jokes, lends credence to the suggestion at the end of the story that he knows more about Ichabod’s encounter with the horseman than he lets on.

What I personally find interesting in the original tale is the presence of a certain book in Ichabod’s possession: Cottom Mather’s History of Witchcraft. For those of who you are already in the know, this will be something of a shock. For the rest of you, this is a real book which exists, and is particularly infamous because it was used quite liberally at the Salem Witch Trials to seek out, find, and “execute” witches. Remember the section on the Devil in yesterday’s post? This book, and the thought processes behind it are largely responsible for the furor over witchcraft in Salem and elsewhere. Here, it’s Ichabod Crane’s favorite book and is the primary fuel to his wild imaginings. Irving’s description of it is rather tongue-in-cheek—he knows very well its history and what was used for and is making fun of it here. Ichabod, after all, is about to get played and played very appropriately according to his own follies. 

Ichabod takes Mather’s words about witchcraft at face value without any serious examination as to its veracity.  Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho who chastens herself for giving in to superstition and irrational fear, Ichabod seems to go out of his way to provoke it—reading Cotton Mather outside until it begins to get dark, visiting the families in the district and not heading home until his imagination is most apt to play tricks on him, etc. But then, Irving is deliberately trying to be comedic here while Radcliffe was not attempting any such thing. 

Unlike other Gothic tales, however, there is a level of irony here: Ichabod the schoolmaster is, for all his learning, the most superstitious and least sensible character in the entire tale. He, a man of no fortune and no handsomeness to make up for it, not only sets his sights on the richest and most popular maid in the town, but he goes into direct competition with the most popular of the young men who does have good looks and is of some means and ability. Moreover, Ichabod seems to ignore the fact Katrina Van Tassel is not the shy maid he supposes she is—she’s a “coquette” or flirt and likes to toy with the affections of her admirers. Moreover, the encounter Ichabod has with the Headless Horseman is after Katrina has already dismissed him from her affections which means if, as is suggested, the encounter was Brom’s attempt to scare off his rival, the gesture was entirely unnecessary. 

Ichabod, it can be argued, is the victim of his own foibles. His wild imagination doesn’t get him very far towards being the man of means he wishes to be. In fact, he ends up embarrassed and “ghosts” on his local obligations in Sleepy Hollow because he was not only turned down, but because he genuinely believed a ghost was after him. The fact that his rival for Katrina’s affections was the person who told the story of the Headless Horseman at the party never seems to enter his head. Like Cotton Mather’s ridiculous claims about witches, Ichabod accepts what he is told without question or examination. 

In another twist of irony, Ichabod goes on to study law and becomes a judge—though whether he ever became less gullible is not revealed.  

When we think of Gothic literature be it horror, thriller, mystery, or any of the other manifestations in the genre, we tend not to think of comedy, lightheartedness, or irony. Irving proves that gothic can be both spooky and humorous—much like franchises like The Addams Family, or The Munsters. The thrills are still there, the novelty is still there, but overall, Irving’s writings are nearly exactly like what Walt Disney portrays them to be—ghost stories which aren’t meant to be horrific, but just entertaining—enough to titillate the imagination but not excite terror. Like Radcliffe, his contemporary, Irving proves sensible explanations for every single supernatural occurrence real or imagined. 

So, if you don’t think Gothic is to your taste, then go find and read some Washington Irving—you will not be disappointed!  

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