Nearly two centuries after its publication, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is as popular as ever.
Fox TV has a hit on its hands this season with its retelling of the 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by American author Washington Irving (1783-1859). The new drama series—one of many with supernatural themes—premiered Sept. 16, 2013, to 10 million viewers with 3.5 rating/9 share, making it the network’s highest rated fall drama premiere in the past eight seasons. Several weeks after the first episode aired, Fox renewed “Sleepy Hollow” for a second season.
Written while the itinerant Irving was living abroad in England, the popular tale was one of 34 essays and short stories—including “Rip Van Winkle”—comprising “The Sketch Book,” which Irving wrote under the pseudonym of “Geoffrey Crayon.”
One might argue that the post-Revolutionary- War tale of Connecticut schoolmaster Ichabod Crane and the dreaded Headless Horseman in the Dutch enclave in New York State known as Sleepy Hollow has never been far from the American imagination.
According to American University professor Lewis Grossman, the Headless Horseman has remained one of America’s favorite ghosts, in a roster that includes Casper, Freddie Kruger and Charles Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas. Grossman based his conclusion on his research in Google’s Ngram Viewer, a phrase-usage graphing tool that charts the yearly count of selected words and phrases. Grossman also used the tool to monitor the author’s popularity.
“The American-born Washington Irving was, at one time, more popular in England than Charles Dickens,” said Grossman, who spoke at the Library as part of American University’s “Books That Shaped America” lecture series. The series was inspired by the Library’s selection and exhibition of influential American works, including Irving’s ghost tale.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was one of the first works of fiction by an American author to become popular outside of the United States. Regarded as the first American to earn a living by his pen, Irving argued for stronger laws to protect writers from copyright infringement. In the January 1840 issue of the New York literary magazine “Knickerbocker,” Irving endorsed legislation pending in the U.S. Congress that would offer stronger protection for American copyrights abroad. The copyright legislation was not enacted.
Long in the public domain, Irving’s tale has been immortalized on stage and film, most notably by Walt Disney in 1949 (with tunes sung by Bing Crosby) and 50 years later by director Tim Burton in his 1999 film starring Johnny Depp.
Located on the historic Hudson River, the real-life Sleepy Hollow remains a popular tourist destination, especially during Halloween. The town boasts Irving’s home (“Sunnyside”) and his gravesite in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Village administrator Anthony Giaccio recently reported a spike in visits to the town and its tourism website, which he attributes to the Fox show. Although the show is filmed in Wilmington, N.C., Giaccio hopes its popularity will do for Sleepy Hollow what the hit television series “The Office” did for Scranton, Pa.
This article, written by editor Audrey Fischer, is featured in the March-April 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.