Off the Shelf

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales

By Marcus Pan

Washington Irving is considered by many to be America's first world-renowned author. I had this collection of his work on my bookshelf, untouched, for years now. It was the recent remake into modern film of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," featuring Christina Ricci [swoon], that ushered me into finally taking this book down and reading through it.

At first start, the reading went slow for me. Prior to this I've read piles of pulp fiction and paperback fantasy / sci-fi. So to move from the modern vernacular to one that was penned in the 1820s was quite a stretch for me. But by a quarter or so through the book I was moving along smoothly. Irving, as did many authors of his time, had this knack for creating sentences that were long enough to have you forget the outset by the end. Take this one, which starts "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:"

"In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market-town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.

In today's novels and serials, that's a paragraph my friends. So you can imagine my surprise at moving from something like Stephen King's "Bag Of Bones" to Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book. Irving was one of those remembered masters of prose who not only live beyond their years through their body of work, but also find themselves indulged in modern culture. For how many Sleep Holly Inns or Rip Winkle Rest Stops have you seen?

I'm going to steer away from The Legends of Sleepy Hollow - hell, you've probably seen the movie by now (I haven't). Another of his famous works is Rip Van Winkle - I'm sure you've heard of 'em. Silly old gent who laid himself down in the woods one morning and didn't wake for nigh on twenty years. When Rip makes his way back to his town everything is different - his friends are dead and gone, the place has changed drastically and he feels like a walking anachronism. You can imagine, during the time of Washington, how quickly things were changing. Industry was beginning, tools were being invented - just a strange time to be alive. Whereas today we have the constant inventing of new technologies in electronics, during his time just about everything was a new technology. So Rip was nothing more than an echo of people back then - how they felt out of place and out of time as so many things were changing around them.

Irving was also a master at the original ghost story. When I was younger we had a lot of campfire stories that would begin with insane asylum escapes and murderous romps through woods - as at that time Jason Vorhees, Camp Crystal Lake, Mike Myers and all of their realized pals in the copycat scene. But back in Irving's day, ghost stories were the stories of haunted mansions and cursed rooms. He's a master at this art, mixing in just enough suspense, paranormal and reality to make you come out the other end not quite sure as whether this was a ghost or just another typical part of life. In the latter half of this book, following good old "Rip Van Winkle," starts a Canterbury Tale like collection of work called "Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman." Around a dinner table following fox hunting, a group of gents gather for dinner and stories. And in much the same style as Chaucer, each man has a story to tell and adds it to the list, telling it as the previous is finished. They are always "my uncle" or "my aunt" - never me or you. Some are blatantly ghost stories, others are a bit more subtle. None of them were overly scary. They had a more dramatic tone to them.

So that's that. It took me a bit o' time to get used to such a radical writing style shift and the overall length as it was. And one thing you must realize - pulp fiction of today is built to create immediate entertainment. Whether it be fear, desire, humor, whatever. You read Washington Irving for the think-points - as I call them. So you can ponder on Rip's anachronistic new life and what it must feel like. So you can think about whether that was a ghost or someone hidden behind the framed picture. So you can wonder along with him over the identity of the "Stout Gentleman" in the hotel room. That's why you read Washington Irving. So don't expect immediate satisfaction. Instead, let it settle. And then bring it up later and chew on it.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales" by Washington Irving
Published by The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Copyright © 1987 The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
ISBN 0-89577-255-8
Illustrations by Arthur Rackham
Afterword by Haskell Springer