by James Lincoln Warren
’Tis the season when an American writer’s fancy turns to ghoulies, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. The peculiarly American fright fest called Halloween is just around the corner. (No comments about el Día de los Muertos, please, which is also of North American origin, but has a completely different character.) It is probably not a coincidence that the first American writer of short stories, Charles Brockden Brown, wrote stories of Gothic horror. (I’ll have more to say about him in a future column, because I really want to write about somebody else this week.)
The first really good American short story writer penned what is perhaps the most famous short story in American literature, which is also associated with Halloween even though the story makes no reference to October 31 — the presence of a pumpkin and a ghostly rider are enough. I refer, of course, to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving. I rather suspect, however, that like Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels, it is a story better known through reputation than through reading.
What makes this obvious, at least to me, is the way that “adaptations” of the story for the screen inevitably violate its spirit. The value of “Sleepy Hollow” is in its charm and wit.
[Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane] never inflicted a chastisement without following it by the assurance, so consolatory to the smarting urchin, that “he would remember it and thank him for it the longest day he had to live.”
When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard. Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda …
I have seen Katrina Van Tassel portrayed as a quintessentially beautiful American girl next door, as a dreamer dissatisfied with the limitations of her provincial life, and as a seductive witch. I have never seen her portrayed the way Irving wrote about her, viz., as a neighborhood flirt.
She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen; plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and modern fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold, which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam; the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.
Of course, it is the contest for Katrina’s fickle affections that drives the action.
I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration. Some seem to have but one vulnerable point, or door of access; while others have a thousand avenues, and may be captured in a thousand different ways. It is a great triumph of skill to gain the former, but a still greater proof of generalship to maintain possession of the latter, for man must battle for his fortress at every door and window. He who wins a thousand common hearts is therefore entitled to some renown; but he who keeps undisputed sway over the heart of a coquette is indeed a hero.
There is something almost literally quixotic about Ichabod Crane in his scarecrow appearance and naive credulity. He even has his own Rocinante.
But it is meet I should, in the true spirit of romantic story, give some account of the looks and equipments of my hero and his steed. The animal he bestrode was a broken-down plow-horse, that had outlived almost everything but its viciousness. He was gaunt and shagged, with a ewe neck, and a head like a hammer; his rusty mane and tail were tangled and knotted with burs; one eye had lost its pupil, and was glaring and spectral, but the other had the gleam of a genuine devil in it. Still he must have had fire and mettle in his day, if we may judge from the name he bore of Gunpowder. He had, in fact, been a favorite steed of his master’s, the choleric Van Ripper, who was a furious rider, and had infused, very probably, some of his own spirit into the animal; for, old and broken-down as he looked, there was more of the lurking devil in him than in any young filly in the country.
If you can read this without smiling, you have no heart.
The story climaxes with Ichabod fleeing the Headless Horseman. In Irving, this is obviously an elaborate practical joke, the cherry on top of the humor that permeates the story. So why is it that adaptations, almost without exception, make the Horseman a genuine ghost? Don’t they understand that by turning “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into a genuine ghost story, they are missing the entire point?
This is what happens when persons of little imagination think they can improve on the works of persons of subtle imagination. They are incapable of writing their own story, so they pervert somebody else’s. It is Literature 2.0, the bells-and-whistles upgrade, literature for people who don’t like to read and need to be told what to think. It is the literature of Disney Pooh, slasher movies, and public ads for erectile dysfunction treatments.
Sometimes I despair, I really do. But then I remember that Washington Irving is still there. I just wish that most people noticed.