My dissertation, Shrines and Sacred Architecture in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, for my doctorate from The Graduate Center of CUNY was all about the importance of place. Originally I wanted the subject to be Lord Byron and Scotland but there wasn’t enough source material. The advisor didn’t quite get the new idea until he remembered the day trips he took when doing research for a biography of Thomas Carlyle. Like Irving he had an unforgettable visit to Walter Scott’s Abbottsford. This attraction to sacred spots for recollection, not always in tranquillity (as Byron’s enemy Wordsworth put it) also lead me here to Tarrytown. The magic is in the place.
Irving’s story is so grounded in American soil that the nature of the characters may change, but not the location. That is not to say that most TV and movie adaptions are filmed here. We allow for filming of various movies, including one starring Sarah Jessica Parker these days, but the current Sleepy Hollow TV show uses South Carolina for most of its shots.
Irving, like all writers, had precedents. One of them was Robert Burn’s Tam O’ Shanter. Tam does not take wife Kate sees as”a blethering, drunken bleeum, that frae November to October, ae market day thou wae never sober . . . that at the Lord’s house even on Sunday . . . thou drank wi’ kirkton Jean till Monday.” She predicts he will wind up “drowned in Doon.” Now there’s a location for you. The River Doon runs near a haunted kirk. Yes, there is a bridge, one you have probably heard of, Brig O’ Doon? It’s still standing. What a magnificent site to see. It’s not a lighthearted place as the musical would lead us to believe. Here snow falls, winds howl, rain blows in rattling showers as the Scottish weather does it thing by changing every fifteen minutes. Thunder bellows, children understand that at that midnight hour when Tam finally shoves off on not Gundpowder, but Meg, an old gray mare, that “the Deil has business at hand.”
Like Ichabod Crane, Tam sings to calm himself down. Burns doesn’t mention hymns for it would be hard to imagine Tam listening up in kirk. Tam faces a scene right out of our Sleepy Hollow hayride: bloody tomahawks, ;murderer’s irons, a patricide’s knife, the garter that strangled a baby, priests’ hearts and lawyers’ tongues. Holding on to his blue bonnet, spurs Meg on to win the safety of the keystone of the brig to Kirk Alloway but one of the witches takes hold of the mare’s tale which she loses at they cross the stream.
Thus tale which ends with dramatic chase has a moral: That drinking John Barleycorn may cost you dear.
Photos: With my Scottish mom at Burns’ cottage, Brig O’Doon and visitors at graves of Robert and father William Burns and
People must know that Sleepy Hollow is a real place because late summer and fall bring hordes of tourists. Perhaps the deeper places maintain more of their otherworldliness. Was it the atmosphere of the place that inspired Irving or did he himself throw a spell over the region. Raven Rock had its ghostly Lady in White. There also Mother Hulda, a German woman who took up a musket against the Red coats although she was known as a local, herbal healer. She is said to haunt the Old Dutch Burying Ground where she rests or unrests, in an unmarked grave. But, truly Irving’s Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow put the region on the map.
A few years back my son and I were visiting the Old Dutch Burying Ground after making off with a pumpkin prop in the woods as a prank. Then, the fence between the wooded area, called Douglas Park and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, had been cut open. This easy passage between the worlds of the living and the dead troubles my main character Richard because he would like to keep his deceased fiancée at a safe distance with no chance of grief breaking though to his orderly life. Anyway, my son was wearing his Sleepy Hollow High School sweat shirt. A man striding up the path stopped and gaped. You people are really from here? There’s a Sleepy Hollow high school? he queried in plain disbelief. (He is pictured here at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I sure wish I had a picture of him in the high school hoody.)
There is. There is also a Sleepy Hollow Car Service, a Sleepy Hollow Bar, Sleepy Hollow Bicycle and Sport Center though at least one company was forced to changed its name from North Tarrytown ________ when the town voted to change its name a decade ago. I doubt the man would have done a double take over North Tarrytown High School so there is definitely something in the name. If the spirit was here for Irving to find, he sure did a good deal of stirring it up. The traditions goes on.
I always do a double take at the end of Hollywood productions of Shakespeare’s plays when I see this in the credits: additional dialogue by ______, ______, and ______. Now, when Melville gave his Ahab soliloquies to spout out on the deck of The Pequod, he was up to the task. Ahab’s Wife had a diminished captain who coughed up some pale additional dialogue which is not to say that the original characters in the novel weren’t quite fine and interesting in their own way.
In hitching onto Washington Irving’s work I don’t have the same challenge. Irving never set out to write the great American novel. He was modest, humble and self-deprecating enough to settle for being a likable storyteller whose heaviest work was biographies which no one reads anymore. So many people have messed about with his characters, including the recent Sleepy Hollow TV show, that his legendary characters seem up for grabs.
And yet . . . Ichabod, Brom, Katrina, Van Tassel and Van Ripper, nestled in their cozy cove along the Hudson, have radiated out into the world with such allure, they call out for respect. So I find myself circling around them, then launching characters who do the same until they go off on tangents of their own. Since most of the novel takes place in our time with the journal entries from the late 1700s taking up only about 1/3 of the book, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow acts here as an inspiration, a launch pad and shining example of what can be made of a magical setting. Living in Tarrytown I can vouch for the fact that Irving virtually permeates the entire region. Next time out: Sleepy Hollow itself.