Reading the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in Sleepy Hollow

This past Saturday I ventured forth from the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground to our neighbor, just to the north, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, for a pop-up book club evening held in the Washington Irving Memorial Chapel. Under the auspices of the Warner Library and the Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, various venues in the villages are hosting “Everybody’s Reading The Legend” book clubs in celebration of the Bicentennial of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Our host at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Jim Logan, set the stage for our discussion by sharing some history of the chapel, including the magnificent stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Legend as well as representations of the author himself, Washington Irving. You see, Irving was very interested in this cemetery. He loved this countryside and felt preserving these 90 acres adjacent to the Old Dutch Church for a new cemetery was a perfect use of the landscape. So perfect in fact that he gave the cemetery it’s name – Sleepy Hollow. As I entered the chapel in the sunset hour all was still bright and beautiful outside. Inside the Gothic chapel, time took on a different dimension –  quiet and unchanging –  a perfect place to talk about the Legend.

If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.

I joined a gathering of residents, bloggers, historical society members and even a couple who braved the journey up from the Bronx. Sara Mascia opened with a short history of Irving and the Legend and Karen Frazier was the moderator. Some of the group were new to the Legend while others of us are old friends of “Uncle Wash” who could hardly contain our excitement about sharing this story with others.

As the chief docent at the Old Dutch Church, I am very much aware that most of our visitors know Tim Burton’s film more than they know Irving’s story. So this project of trying to get everyone in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown to read the Legend is a wonderful way to celebrate one of many stories that put Irving and America on the international literary scene.

One of our group, a retired teacher, said she wished she could go back in time and teach this story again. Her re-reading gave her fresh insight and she complimented Irving on his mastery of the well-placed comma. We all admitted we had to look up some words that are now considered “archaic”, and indeed, some people let this prevent them from tackling Irving’s story. But don’t be discouraged. Looking up the words only increases one’s appreciation of his use of language. My own list included words like: “wight”, “cognomen”, “whilom” and “varlet”. I will not deprive you of the opportunity to research these yourself. Better yet, crack the back of the book and find them!

The historical elements of the story resonated with those of us present who spend a lot of our free time providing talks and tours to visitors. The Headless Horseman rises out of the ashes of the American Revolution and the wartime experiences of the local families that weathered the storm in this place called “Neutral Ground”. Our Hessian Horseman makes this a very American tale. The revolution was a dangerous time, and perhaps the echos of that danger helped to heighten the fear and dread of Ichabod Crane as he tried to make his way home that fateful night.

The bounty of the Dutch country kitchen is a character unto itself in the Legend. After all, Ichabod’s craving for a full stomach is the basis of his pursuit of Katrina Van Tassel:

…soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slap-jacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.

Indeed, the moderator asked the group whom did we like better – Ichabod or Brom Bones. My own opinion is that both of them feel entitled to Katrina for one reason or another. My hope is that Katrina is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes to make Brom “work for it”!

I read this story at least once a year to prepare for docent duties at the Old Dutch. When I read it again before this book club, two things stood out. The visual affects and what I think are autobiographical elements of the story. You see, Tim Burton got it all wrong. His Sleepy Hollow is a dead place. The closest comparison might be the Tarrytowns at the end of the revolution. Farmland had been torched, homesteads burnt to the ground, orchards left rotting, livestock hauled away by “cowboys” and “Skinners”. The verdant farms of pre-revolution Westchester were in ashes. But Irving’s Sleepy Hollow has come back into its fullness. He paints pictures that a visitor today may see when they visit this valley.

Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility.

Washington Irving’s use of pseudonyms is legendary. We are told that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, contained in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” was “found among the papers of the late Diedrick Knickerbocker”, who apparently heard it from another “story-teller”. As hard as Irving tries to remove himself from the story-telling, I do think he shares some of himself with us. I see Irving in Ichabod’s love of ghost-stories and fantasy. In his youth Irving enjoyed practical jokes, a quality he shares with Brom Bones. As a young man, he lost his first love to tuberculosis,  and by the time he was in a financial position to seek out romantic companionship again, he was unsuccessful.

I profess not to know how women’s hearts are wooed and won. To me they have always been matters of riddle and admiration.

But I think perhaps it is his love of Sleepy Hollow that comes out most clearly. The experiences of his youth that laid the ground work for the Legend, laid a pathway in his later years to bring him back to the place from whence it all began. For me, it is not the psalmody of Ichabod Crane I hear when I walk the burying grounds of the Old Dutch Church – it is the quiet voice of Irving that fills the night. As we left the chapel that evening, twilight was fading into a night sky and visitors were gathering for their latern tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I hope they experienced the “drowsy, dreamy” bewitchment they came for.


Many local non-profit organizations have come together to provide programming for the Bicentennial celebration of the publication of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Check out these organizations before your next trip to Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown:

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, The Warner LibraryThe Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and the TarrytownsHistoric Hudson ValleyThe Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns (includes the Old Dutch Church). Please visit the Bicentennial Site for more information about event programming.

Sign up to attend one of the “Everyone’s Reading The Legend” book club.

Sara Mascia is the Executive Director of The Historical Society.

Karen Frazer serves on the Board of Trustees of the Historical Society.

Jim Logan is the Superintendent of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

My favorite version of the Legend: The Historically Annotated Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Henry John Steiner – Sleepy Hollow Village Historican


by Deb Kuupuaonaona McCue

Daughter of a hula dancer and WWII vet. Born and raised on the East Coast and brought up by my Hawaiian grandmother. Mother of 2 married daughters and wife of a guy who still keeps me laughing after 37 years of marriage. Tutu to a lovely grandson! Docent at the Old Dutch Church and member of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns.