Please welcome Washington Irving biographer, Brian Jay Jones. Brian’s is discussing the various endings to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I can’t think of a better way to end this month of Sleepy Hollow Celebration!
When Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” appeared in bookstalls in London and the United States in 1820, there was nothing anywhere quite like it. “It is a random thing,” Irving modestly said of it — but the thirty-six-year-old Irving had actually carefully blended together nuggets of the Dutch customs, stories, and characters with a bit of German folklore and a few dashes of American locations and attitudes to create something new and entirely different. Here was a ghost story taking place distinctly in America, and written by an American—but in a language so elegant that British readers were convinced Irving had to be a fellow Englishman.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was only one of more than thirty short stories and essays written by Washington Irving as part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which he self-published in seven installments in 1819 and 1820. When “Sleepy Hollow” appeared in March 1820 — tucked among two other stories as part of The Sketch Book’s sixth installment — it was an immediate sensation both in Britain and the United States. Its success propelled Irving from a mere man of letters into an international superstar.
The legend itself has become so integrated into our American DNA that most of us think we know what the story is about, even if we’ve never read it. It’s true that Irving’s tale is more about mood than plot— most of it is actually set-up for the climactic chase most of us remember from the Walt Disney cartoon, with its memorable image of the Headless Horseman hurling a flaming pumpkin at gawky schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. But what else do we remember?
Irving spends much of his tale, in fact, introducing his characters and setting up the rivalry between Crane and the brash, practical-joke loving Brom Bones as they vie for the hand of the winsome (and wealthy) Katrina Van Tassel. Irving eventually brings the three together at a dinner party — where Crane hears the Dutch elders telling tales of the Headless Horseman — then sends the skittish Crane riding home on horseback through the dark spooky woods of Sleepy Hollow. From there it’s off and away into the woods and Crane’s breakneck pursuit by the Headless Horseman.
The pursuit of Ichabod Crane by the Horseman — and that thrown pumpkin that tumbles the schoolteacher from his horse — is the moment we remember. But when I talk about Irving before audiences, I always ask if anyone can tell me how the story actually ends –- and faces almost always go blank. But that’s okay—because what most of us don’t remember is that Irving gives us not just one ending to his tale, but three – a clever conceit that allows you, as the reader, to decide which one you prefer.
The first ending provided by Irving is the creepier, Hammer horror film ending:
The next morning (writes Irving) . . . [i]n one part of the road leading to the church was found [Crane’s] saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.
The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered . . .
Don’t like that one? Here’s the second:
It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and … that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.
Did Ichabod Crane really survive his midnight ride through Sleepy Hollow, then? If so, was there really a Headless Horseman? And what became of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel? Irving answers our questions in the story’s true payoff:
Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival’s disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.
Despite the punchline, Irving can’t resist wrapping up his story with a creepy flourish, swirling his cloak about him as he ends his tale and disappears into the fog:
The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.
Choose your ending—but whichever you prefer, savor for a moment the fact that you’ve just read the first great American ghost story, told by our first great American author and international bestseller.
About the Author: Award-winning biographer Brian Jay Jones spent two decades as a writer, speechwriter, and public policy analyst, serving elected officials at three levels of government, including nearly ten years in the United States Senate. Despite this background, he writes nonfiction.
Brian’s first book, Washington Irving: An American Original, was hailed as the definitive biography of American literature’s first popular author and pop culture icon. The Associated Press praised the book as “authoritative,” the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda called it, “engaging, clearly written, and well researched,” while the New York Times summed it up simply as “charming.”
In 2010, Brian was awarded the St. Nicholas Society of New York’s Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence, joining David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Christopher Buckley, and William Zinsser on the list of medal recipients.
When he’s not writing, he loves listening to classic jazz and blues, admires the films of Charlie Chaplin, reads anything having to do with Batman or the Beatles, and generally succeeds in trying the patience of his wife.
He is presently at work on the first grown-up biography of Jim Henson.