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“The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow”: An Eternal Conflict of Tradition and Modernity

Washington Irving is fairly considered as one of the masters of storytelling. According to Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky,, author of  “The Value of Storytelling: ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow’ in the Context of ‘The Sketch Book’”, Irving’s “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” has been heard, read, and staged by generations of children and adults 393). At the heart of the story is a romantic opposition between a boringly traditional, self-centered schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and a strong, straightforward and young Brom van Brunt (Brom Bones) in their fight for the heart of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel. This romantic opposition has far-reaching social, cultural and political implications. Having been written in a period of social transition from the old to new traditions, the story reflects a conflict between the glorious but obscure past and simple but practical and pragmatic present. The romantic opposition between Ichabod Crane and Brom van Brunt is that of the old shrewd intellectualism and modern rationality and physical strength. In Washington Irving’s “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow”, Ichabod Crane is the representative of the old stability and shrewdness, whereas Brom van Brunt carries the spirit of modernity and change; unfortunately, Crane’s boring traditionality and self-centered intellectualism leave him no chance to outperform his modern American rival and confirm the triumph of novelty and creativity over the glorious but disconnected past.

Ichabod Crane and Brom van Brunt (further Brom Bones) live in Tarrytown, some twenty miles away from New York, but have different appearances and occupy different social niches. Irving describes Ichabod Crane as “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled in a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together” (9). In other words, Crane can hardly be called handsome. His small, flat at the top head, large green eyes and huge ears, as well as a long snipe nose perched upon his spindle neck, leave little room for physical attractiveness (Irving 9). Crane’s reliance on discipline and discrimination against unsuccessful pupils complete the picture of shrewdness, intellectualism, and self-centeredness. Crane is highly conscientious and lives his life according to the “spare the rod and spoil the child” golden maxim (Irving 10). He is popular among the female populace, but only as a gentlemanlike participant of evening gossiping with the town’s old ladies, and his half-itinerant life is overfilled with the beliefs in and talks about witches and ghosts (Irving 12). Unlike Crane, Brom Bones is popular because of his physical strength and attractiveness, his ability to create and keep friends, as well as relative simplicity and straightforwardness. Irvin writes that Brom Bones is a combination of fun and arrogance, and he owes his nickname to the great powers of his limb and his Herculean frame (19). In cold weather, Brom Bones’ fur cap decorated with a fox’s tail adds to his bright appearance (Irving 19). His admiration of horse racing and waggish good humor turn him into Crane’s direct and most formidable rival, as they both fight to win the heart of wonderful 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel.

Both men have the goal of conquering the heart of young Katrina and becoming the sole owner of her real estate heritage, but they use different approaches to win Katrina’s favor. Crane is not simply a school-master but also a singing-master; his frequent visits to Van Tassel’s house give him confidence that he will eventually win the fight for Katrina (Irving 20). While Balt Van Tassel is smoking his evening pipe, Crane “would carry on his suit with the daughter by the side of the spring under the great elm, or sauntering along in the twilight, that hour so favorable to the lover’s eloquence” (Irving 20). The moment Brom hears of Ichabod’s advances with Katrina, he stops showing any interest in the young lady (Irving 22). Brom decides to satisfy his male ambitions by attacking Ichabod directly: he stops up the chimney to smoke out his singing school and breaks into his school during the night, turning it into a mess (Irving 22). Brom’s creativity and inventiveness are difficult to overestimate, and he takes every opportunity to turn his rival into ridicule in the eyes of Katrina (Irving 22).

The romantic opposition between Ichabod and Brom is actually that of the old and new culture, and Crane’s commitment to boring traditionality leaves him no chance to outperform his competitor. The collision of Crane and Brom Bones is a collision of the old supernatural traditions and modern creativity and rationalism. Crane’s beliefs in witches, ghosts are as uncertain and obscure as the past on which he relies. The legend of the headless horseman builds on historical facts but is equally ambiguous and confusing. This legend is the symbol of Crane’s ambiguity and confusion in the face of modernity. By contrast, Brom Bones exemplifies the triumph of creativity and inventiveness in the contemporary American culture. Bones’ visible simplicity of mind is a myth, as he is open to novelty and capable of evaluating the “romantic” climate in Tarrytown. While Crane tries to satisfy his appetite for the marvelous (Irving 12), Brom builds complex strategies to beat his rival with his own hands. What Ichabod considers to be one of his strongest sides eventually turns against him. In this way, Irving celebrates the triumph of creative modernity over the outdated intellectualism and arrogant traditionality that throw Ichabod Crane deep into the romantic and spiritual abyss.  

At the heart of Irving Washington’s story “The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow” is the romantic opposition between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones; this opposition has far-reaching social and political implications. Ichabod Crane is the representative of the old stability and shrewdness, whereas Brom van Brunt carries the spirit of modernity and change. Unfortunately, Crane’s boring traditionality and self-centered intellectualism leave him no chance to outperform his modern American rival and confirm the triumph of novelty and creativity over the glorious but disconnected past. Crane’s beliefs in witches and ghosts are as uncertain as the past on which he relies. Meanwhile, Brom continues to exemplify the triumph of inventiveness and creativity of the new American culture. By letting Brom outperform his rival, Irving actually celebrates the victory of the simple but pragmatic modernity over the outdated intellectualism and arrogant traditionality of the past. 

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