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Summer 2023 articles

Humanity, Nature, and the Supernatural in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Sabri Mnassar


This paper examines the ways through which Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” might be considered as an example of environmental literature which focuses extensively on nature and the human relationship to it. It argues that Irving promotes an ecocentric worldview which treats human beings as members rather than masters of the natural environment. It suggests that this worldview is articulated in various ways in the tale such as the emphasis on the intrinsic value of nature, the celebration of biodiversity, and the condemnation of the anthropocentric outlook on the natural world. In its study of Irving’s representation of the natural environment, the essay claims that nature is portrayed as a character that is not only omnipresent but also more powerful than human beings and their attempts to dominate and subdue it. It asserts that the supernatural in the tale is only nature’s reaction to human greed and egotism. Due to the presence of many important environmental values and ethics, the paper argues that the story reflects Irving’s ecological awareness and underlines his significant contribution to the development of environmental literature.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is told by a fictional narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, whom Irving’ (...)

1The question of how humanity should relate to nature is a fundamental issue in Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”1 which has been continuously mentioned by scholars and critics within the last century. Alfred Bendixen, for instance, has argued that Irving’s tale focuses on conflicting views of nature which reflect the cultural, economic and political conditions that characterized the period during which it was written. “The desire to appreciate the spectacular beauty of forests, rivers, and mountains,” Bendixen has suggested, “is in conflict with a powerful commercial urge to cut down the woods, dam the rivers, and mine the mountains. At stake in the tale is the future identity of a nation that might be composed of either farmers or financial speculators” (33). More specifically, Irving’s story reflects the negative effects of capitalism which has resulted in an increasing disharmony between humans and nature. As a representative of the Hudson River Valley tradition, Irving disliked capitalism for its excessive concern with the constant accumulation of wealth and its frustrating marginalization of nature. His dissatisfaction and disappointment with the impacts of materialism on the natural environment have also been mentioned by Thomas Inge who has claimed that although “Irving nominally supported the New York Federalists and their principles of class interests, economic stability, and centrality of governmental power, he disliked the capitalistic pursuit of money and materialism and its influence on the character and quality of life and culture” (101). For Irving, in fact, money and power are not more important than gracious living and the appreciation of nature. His narrative underlines his admiration of the beauty of the natural world and his belief that human beings should not treat it as a mere commodity. Arguing along similar lines, Robert McGregor has further emphasized this idea by claiming that “Irving was himself consciously out of step with the values of material progress so prevalent in the United States, in Manhattan particularly” and that in “Irving’s Catskills, wilderness nurtured something more than money” (97-98).

2The environmental concerns which are expressed in “Sleepy Hollow” have generally been interpreted as a nostalgic desire to retreat into a period that predates the rise of industrialization and capitalism. In fact, many scholars of Irving have argued that the tale might be read as a look backwards at a bygone age when nature was still untouched and uncorrupted by humans. One of these scholars is David Nye who has suggested that the “reader of Washington Irving’s ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is invited to escape into a pre-industrial pastoral landscape created by the Dutch. Sleepy Hollow is an idyllic America of self-sufficient farmers, described by Irving as having disappeared before the onslaught of Yankee culture” (66). Nye has also suggested that Irving moved away from the present to the past because he idealized pastoral life and because he believed that mechanization was a disharmonious synthesis of humanity and nature. By moving backwards in time, Irving warned people against the loss of a simpler, quieter, and better world. Furthermore, other critics have claimed that Irving’s love of the past is so great that he allows it to triumph in the story. Joseph Rosenblum, for example, has observed that “Sleepy Hollow” is a tale of paradise regained in which “the past asserts itself in the guise of the legend of the headless horseman to drive out this interloper. Crane allegedly settles in New York City, a fitting place for one of his commercial bent” (212). According to Rosenblum, the defeat of Ichabod Crane represents the author’s dislike of the present and his nostalgia for the past. However, Irving also acknowledges historical change in the tale and he admits the impossibility of returning to former times. For instance, he recognizes that Sleepy Hollow is a temporary village and that it cannot long resist the forces of progress and civilization. In his discussion of the story, Rosenblum has mentioned this idea by claiming that its epigraph, drawn from James Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence, reveals the ephemeral nature of the village: the “land ‘was’; like any other dream, it could not endure” (212).

  • 2 As Colin Irvine has observed in Encyclopaedia of the Environment in American Literature, “Washingto (...)

3The considerable body of scholarship that has addressed the issue of humanity’s relationship to nature in Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” has undoubtedly discussed many important points and ideas, particularly the author’s genuine love of nature and his disappointment at the deepening divide between human beings and the natural environment. However, this scholarship has generally tended to overlook the different ways through which the tale might be considered as an environmental text. As a matter of fact, Irving’s story has not been classified into a specific category of environmental literature or nature writing.2 It has most often been regarded as a work that includes typically American pastoral settings and picturesque landscapes rather than as an example of literary ecology. This can partly be explained by the fact that Irving wrote the tale before the existence of the genre of environmental literature and before the time when people were interested in environmental issues. Moreover, the scholars and critics who have examined the environmental worthiness of American literature tended to focus on modern rather than early nature writing and on nonfiction rather than fiction texts and essays. As Michael P. Branch has argued in Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden, the “lack of attention paid to early American nature writing may seem a logical consequence of the fact that the current blossoming of environmental literature and ecocriticism has been inspired by a particularly modern, ecological sensibility” (xvii). Branch has also claimed that most critical studies of American environmental literature have examined the works which were written after the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, especially those which responded to the current environmental problems. Therefore, they not only focused on few and well-known contemporary environmental writers but also ignored many other earlier forms of nature writing such as “the report, sermon, tract, letter, providential history, spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, slave narrative, or personal diary” (Branch xvii). Likewise, the works of many pre-nineteenth-century nature writers, such as Gilbert White and William Bartram, were substantially disregarded. Yet, early American texts still deserve to be greatly considered because many of them “anticipate modern environmental sensitivity by showing genuine concern for the aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual value of the natural world” (Branch xxiii). The study of “pre-Walden” texts is also crucial in order to, historically, broaden the horizon of environmental literature and, consequently, diversify its canon by rewriting its genealogies.

2. Irving’s Nature-Centered Environmental Ethics and Philosophy

  • 3 The sound of the gun which breaks the stillness of nature might be considered as an example of a de (...)

4In his descriptions of the natural environment of Sleepy Hollow, Irving gives many reasons why nature has intrinsic value and inherent worth for which it should be valued and respected. One of these reasons consists in its breathtaking beauty, magnificence and stateliness. Irving recurrently suggests that human beings should cherish and appreciate the grandeur of nature regardless of whether it serves their desires and interests. In his pastoral opening of the tale, for instance, he articulates this idea by emphasizing the glory and majesty of the natural environment in this little valley which is portrayed as a world in and by itself. All the natural elements are here depicted as an exquisite panorama which is so fascinating and charming that no human eye can fail to perceive its splendor. The atmosphere of perfect stillness and solitude also underlines the greatness and uncontested reign of nature in the region. These inherent qualities and attributes of the natural environment are clearly presented as sufficient reasons why nature should be admired and adored for its own sake. Irving communicates his unqualified fondness and passion for nature by claiming that Sleepy Hollow is an ideal place where he can retreat and where he “might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life” (272). His emphasis on the intrinsic value of nature is further noticeable through his belief that humanity should not disturb its integrity, stability and balance. This view is expressed in the description of his first experience in squirrel hunting during which he was greatly surprised and shocked by the clamor of his gun “as it broke the sabbath stillness around, and was prolonged and reverberated by the angry echoes” (272). This act is largely considered as an aggression against nature and as a violation of its majestic repose3. It is described as a regretful incident which should never have occurred. By mentioning this circumstance in the midst of his rich and detailed landscape portrayals, Irving claims that human beings are accountable and responsible for the health and welfare of the nonhuman natural environment.

5Irving’s belief that humanity is responsible for the wellbeing of nature is also evident through his praise of the people of Sleepy Hollow for the protection and preservation of the natural environment in the valley. To a large extent, these people are portrayed as eco-friendly humans who live in harmony with the land and in peaceful coexistence with it. Irving certainly lauds their efforts to maintain the proper functioning of ecosystems and celebrates their remarkable success in resisting technological progress, industrial development, and any other outside influences which might cause harm or damage to the ecosphere. This is most obvious in his representation of Sleepy Hollow as a static and changeless community whose main peculiarity is its ability to defend itself against threats to its culture and autonomy. In this community, he states, “population, manners, and customs, remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved” (274). Its stability is so great that it seems to be an isolated and hidden place in which time moves at a different speed or direction. As Siân Silyn Roberts has suggested, Irving introduces a paradigm in which “time moves at different speeds in different parts of the country” and in which Sleepy Hollow appears as “an anachronism that nonetheless persists and flourishes by tenaciously resisting the larger organism” (86). Through this paradigm, Irving largely challenges the simultaneity of temporal experience which Benedict Anderson called “imagined community” (qtd. in Roberts 86). He also challenges Charles Brockden Brown’s model of community and its “heterogeneous network of affiliation” (86). For these reasons, Roberts has considered the rigorously defensive manner in which Sleepy Hollow resists and averts any serious threats to its local culture as the most striking feature of the tale. What makes this feature perhaps even more striking and significant is that it also highlights the remarkably wise and prudent management of nature in the valley.

  • 4 At the time Irving wrote the tale, the importance of farming had decreased significantly and it was (...)

6By endowing Sleepy Hollow with such an extraordinary power of resistance, Irving defends its subsistence-based agrarian way of life against social change and development. He suggests that this lifestyle maintains the health and welfare of the natural environment due to the fact that it promotes many positive values and principles such as order, security, fertility and permanence. These principles are frequently emphasized in his descriptions of the native inhabitants of the valley whose possession and use of the land are characterized by easy contentment and prosperity. Baltus Van Tassel, for instance, is portrayed as a thriving and liberal-minded farmer who is satisfied with his wealth but not proud of it. As Irving tells us, he “piqued himself upon the hearty abundance, rather than the style in which he lived” (279). Despite the bountifulness of his farm, he does not kill more animals than he needs and he does not consider natural resources as objects of property that exist for the sole benefit of humankind. Throughout his description of this individual, Irving definitely expresses his disappointment at America’s shift away from an agrarian to an industrial economy4. As Allen Guttmann has argued, “Sleepy Hollow” might be read as “a movement from Federalism to a variety of Burkean Conservatism instinctively rather than rationally held” and as a commitment to “an ordered and hierarchical agrarian society” (394-97). In contrast to those who have considered Irving as a Federalist, Guttmann has claimed that he was a Burkean conservative who believed that aristocratic society should be based on continuity and landed property rather than on revolution and capitalistic enterprise. In a similar manner, Donald Ringe has also interpreted the tale as a defense of the traditional agrarian way of life through which Irving affirms a “stable society that places its emphasis on order, tradition, and the family values that accompany social stability” (403). Indeed, Irving creates many images of peace and security in his descriptions of Sleepy Hollow and the farm of Baltus Van Tassel which is portrayed as a “secure and protected haven” where the great abundance of animals “contributes to the image of a peaceful, self-contained society” (Ringe 405).

7Irving’s landscape portrayals largely reflect his belief in the importance of biodiversity. In fact, he frequently expresses his satisfaction and pleasure at the variety and richness of life forms in Sleepy Hollow. In the scene which describes Ichabod’s journey to the castle of the Heer Van Tassel, for example, the tale teller seems to be highly pleased with the diversity of animal species in the valley. At first, he mentions the streaming files of wild ducks which begin to make their appearance high in the air, the bark of the squirrel that can be heard from the groves of beech and hickory nuts, and the whistle of the quail that rises occasionally from the adjacent field. Then, he pays peculiar attention to the variety and profusion of the birds in the region. The diversity of these birds, which mostly highlights the author’s delight, is described as follows:

The small birds were taking their farewell banquets. In the fullness of their revelry, they fluttered, chirping and frolicking, from bush to bush, and tree to tree, capricious from the very profusion and variety around them. There was the honest cock robin, the favourite game of stripling sportsmen, with its loud querulous note; and the twittering blackbirds flying in sable clouds; and the golden winged woodpecker, with his crimson crest, his broad black gorget, and splendid plumage; and the cedar bird, with its red tipt wings and yellow tipt tail, and its little monteiro cap of feathers; and the blue jay, that noisy coxcomb, in his gay light blue coat and white under clothes, screaming and chattering, nodding, and bobbing, and bowing, and pretending to be on good terms with every songster of the grove. (285)

8Irving’s detailed description of these bird species surely reveals his pleasure at their variety and richness. In his opinion, they should be protected from hunting and sporting. Their habitats should also be preserved because they are essential to their survival. Throughout the scene, the tale teller suggests that biodiversity is not only important but also crucial to maintain the vitality of all ecosystems of planet Earth. Its importance, however, is not considered to be exclusively related to the interests of human beings. Irving also gives moral reasons why it should be safeguarded. Indeed, he claims that the birds have intrinsic value and that they should be respected for their own sake. For instance, he views the woodpecker, the cedar bird and the blue jay as beautiful creatures whose existence is something valuable in itself. Likewise, the other birds that are taking their farewell banquets are also deemed to be worthy of moral consideration. Their fluttering, chirping and frolicking from bush to bush and from tree to tree are portrayed as delightful activities which underline the magnificence and grandeur of the natural environment. Clearly, Irving believes that these bird species are part of the treasures of nature which should never be destroyed by humanity.

9Irving’s appreciation of the diversity of life forms in Sleepy Hollow is also evident in his description of the various animal species in the Van Tassel farm which might be considered as a symbol of fertility and productiveness. Despite the fact that this scene has most often been interpreted as Irving’s defense of an agrarian way of life, it might also be regarded as an expression of his belief in the importance of biodiversity. Indeed, Irving seems to be so pleased with the variety and profusion of animal species in the farm that he describes them in minute detail. For example, he claims that numerous swallows and martins can be seen as they skim twittering about the eaves. Several rows of pigeons, moreover, “some with one eye turned up, as if watching the weather, some with their heads under their wings, or buried in their bosoms, and others, swelling, and cooing, and bowing about their dames” (279) are enjoying the sunshine on the roof of the vast barn near the Van Tassel tenement. In addition to these, various animal species are described in the following manner:

Sleek unwieldy porkers were grunting in the repose and abundance of their pens, from whence sallied forth, now and then, troops of sucking pigs, as if to snuff the air. A stately squadron of snowy geese were riding in an adjoining pond, convoying whole fleets of ducks; regiments of turkeys were gobbling through the farm yard, and guinea fowls fretting about it like ill tempered housewives, with their peevish discontented cry. Before the barn door strutted the gallant cock, that pattern of a husband, a warrior, and a fine gentleman, clapping his burnished wings, and crowing in the pride and gladness of his heart—sometimes tearing up the earth with his feet, and then generously calling his ever hungry family of wives and children to enjoy the rich morsel he had discovered. (279)

  • 5 The French philosopher René Descartes maintained that animals are automata or moving machines which (...)

10Irving’s representation of the different animal species in the Van Tassel farm reflects his belief that all life forms have intrinsic value and moral standing. He articulates this belief in many different ways such as the use of personification in the description of the fowls and cock. By using this device, he suggests that human beings do not have more worth than nonhuman living organisms. These organisms are also portrayed as sentient beings that are capable of having a conscious experience and of experiencing both pleasure and pain like humans. In fact, the various species in the farm seem to be not only healthy but also happy and pleased with the comfort and security of the place. The porkers are obviously rejoicing in the plenitude of their pens while the geese and ducks are enjoying their ride in the pond. Irving implies that the wellbeing and flourishing of these animals is something good and valuable in itself. Moreover, these animals are described as teleological centers of life whose actions and activities are purposeful and goal-oriented. For instance, the crowing of the cock is interpreted as an invitation to his family to share the food that he has discovered. The goals that all nonhuman living organisms strive to achieve, Irving claims, are the protection and maintenance of their existence. These objectives are considered as other reasons why all life forms are entitled to respect and moral consideration. Thus, Irving’s representation of the various species highlights his disagreement with the Cartesian5 belief that animals are mere machines which function according to mechanical rules that can be scientifically understood (Descartes 46).

  • 6 In environmental ethics, ecocentrism consists in the view that the interests of the ecosphere are a (...)

11In “Sleepy Hollow,” Irving assigns intrinsic value not only to living organisms but also to inanimate elements and entities such as waters, rocks and mountains. This is evident in numerous scenes in the tale such as the one which describes the properties of the Tappaan Zee and the different nonliving objects surrounding it which are also considered as part of the ecosystem and as worthy of moral consideration. Irving’s belief that the nonliving entities around the river do possess inherent worth is noticeable mainly through his claim that they form “some of the goodliest scenes of the mighty Hudson” (286). He mentions various natural elements, such as the sun, the sky and the clouds, all of which underline the magnificence and grandiosity of nature. For instance, he states that the “sun gradually wheeled his broad disk down into the west. The wide bosom of the Tappaan Zee lay motionless and glassy, excepting that here and there a gentle undulation waved and prolonged the blue shadow of the distant mountain: a few amber clouds floated in the sky, without a breath of air to move them” (286). In his portrayal of the landscape, Irving also seems to attribute intrinsic value to many other inanimate entities such as the woody crests of the precipices and rocky sides of the river which deserve to be admired and appreciated for their own sake. He suggests that the “horizon was of a fine golden tint, changing gradually into a pure apple green, and from that into the deep blue of the mid-heavens. A slanting ray lingered on the woody crests of the precipices that overhung some parts of the river, giving greater depth to the dark grey and purple of their rocky sides” (286). As is the case with the previous elements, the value of these natural objects does not depend on their utility or usefulness to humankind. They should be treated with respect simply because of their existence. By extending moral consideration to the whole natural environment, therefore, Irving largely promotes an ecocentric6 worldview which is concerned with the health and welfare of entire ecosystems rather than of individual living organisms.

3. The Condemnation of the Anthropocentric Outlook on Nature

12While vouching for the inherent value of nature, Irving expresses his strong disagreement with the anthropocentric view of human beings as the center of the universe around whom everything revolves. He also articulates his dissatisfaction with the notion that nature was created by God only for the purpose of satisfying human needs and demands. He claims that these are delusional beliefs which stem from humanity’s selfishness and egotism. In his opinion, anthropocentrism is not only unethical but also hazardous because of its negative effects on the human-nature relationship and its catastrophic environmental outcomes. As he continually suggests in the tale, this attitude has significantly alienated Homo sapiens from the natural world by legitimizing its domination and exploitation for their own benefits. It has also deeply altered humans’ conception of their relationship to the environment. In his description of the sweeping changes caused by “the great torrent of migration and improvement” (274), for example, Irving insinuates that people who adopt this view tend to think and behave as if they are separate from nature and as though they can transcend it through the power of their minds. They are inclined to consider it as an object which should be changed and transformed into something else that better suits their wants and desires. Moreover, anthropocentrism has made these individuals believe that they can easily control nature and manipulate its processes by scientific and technological means. Consequently, this human-centered perspective has not only encouraged people to disregard nature but also made them oblivious to the fact that their roots and origins are in the earth. It has even made them unaware of the existence of the natural environment and of its vital importance for their survival. In the tale, Irving articulates these ideas mostly through his description of the character of Ichabod Crane who clearly believes that humanity is much superior to nature. Actually, the latter considers the nonhuman natural world as an insignificant and worthless thing which must be conquered and subdued.

13Irving’s inclusion of Ichabod in the midst of the idyllic and pastoral landscapes of Sleepy Hollow can largely be explained by his desire to denounce anthropocentrism and to warn his readers against its disastrous impacts on the natural environment. Because of his belief in the supremacy of humans over all other forms of life on earth, this character is obviously considered as a serious threat to the peace, stability and natural tranquility of Sleepy Hollow. He is also looked upon as a menace to the values, customs and traditions of the inhabitants of this glen as he keeps endangering their autonomy and self-sufficiency. In fact, this interloper is a representative of those regions where time moves rapidly and where nature has been considerably altered and defaced by the hazardous and destructive actions of humanity. More particularly, he is a representative of the culture of consumption and its negative implications for the nonhuman natural world. As Nye has observed, Irving’s Yankee “understands the world much as Jean Baudrillard suggests our contemporaries do: ‘Everything… is immediately produced as sign and exchange value.’ Ichabod Crane is a precursor of the culture of consumption. Just as important, Irving’s ironic distance from this character and his preference for the settled Dutch farmers is a recurrent attitude” (67). To Ichabod, nature does not have any worthwhile values or interests which make it worthy of moral standing and consideration. In his opinion, natural resources should be not only consumed and devoured but also commodified and exploited. Irving’s opposition to this view is articulated in several ways in the tale. One of these ways, according to Nye, consists in the use of irony and sarcasm. Indeed, Irving introduces Ichabod as a comic butt through which he satirizes every aspect of his appearance and personality such as his physical disproportions and his voracious appetite. Because of his thin body and spindly frame, the tale teller humorously tells us, “one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine” (274). Yet, he is a “huge feeder, and though lank, had the dilating powers of an Anaconda” (275). Irving transforms him into a laughable figure whose ability to consume enormous quantities of food despite his lankiness is highly absurd. He ridiculously appears like a serpent that can swallow prey much larger than itself.

  • 7 Irving might have been influenced by the British economist Thomas Malthus who argued that overpopul (...)

14By satirizing Ichabod and mocking his wolfish appetite, Irving expresses his disapproval of the anthropocentric view that natural resources are limitless and that humans can never endanger the superabundant plenitude of nature. In contrast to this belief, he suggests that natural resources are not inexhaustible and that the unsustainable use of them would inevitably lead to scarcity and shortage. At the time when the human population will become much faster than subsistence, he implies, people will suffer greatly from a lack of sufficient food and from other possible serious problems such as poverty, war and high death rates.7 At that time, humanity will be severely punished for its extravagance and prodigality. Irving repeatedly warns people against these disasters in his descriptions of Ichabod’s hungry imagination and visual consumption of the natural landscapes of Sleepy Hollow. The latter’s false conception of the true reality of nature in his hallucinations and daydreams largely reveals the accuracy of Irving’s warning. In his imagination, he conceives of nature as a rich and savory banquet rather than as landscape and scenery. As Ann Vileisis has described his gustatory fantasies, the landscape appears to him “not as the gardens, orchards, farm fields, and pastures but as a vast table set with mounds of mashed potatoes, pens of pork chops, and paddocks of pies. In his hungry imagination, the bountiful morphed into a feast” (16). In his reveries, he pictures America as a land of plenty which can never run short of trees, forests and game. According to Vileisis, Irving’s metamorphosis of the natural environment into opulent feast is not purely imaginative because it also fundamentally “reflected preindustrial Americans’ sensibility about land” and their belief that it is a source of food which “could yield a cornucopian spread” (16) when improved and well tended. However, it also reflects early nineteenth-century Americans’ increasing disconnection from nature and their view that it is a source of money and the accumulation of profit. In fact, it clearly highlights the negative effects of materialism on the American imagination.

  • 8 As Tim Killick has argued, “Crane sees everything only in terms of its cash value and culinary pote (...)

15As Lloyd Daigrepont has argued, Ichabod “represents the modern debasement of imagination by materialism, a pious utilitarianism, and the idea of progress, particularly as these were supported in early nineteenth-century America” (72). By placing his imagination exclusively in the realm of the mundane, this character distorted reality and replaced it with a mere fancy. He also deluded himself by imagining the Van Tassel farm as an item of consumption and as “his future utopia of the appetites” (Daigrepont 73). Moreover, Ichabod’s debased imagination reflects his willingness to destroy and subdue nature as a way of achieving progress and moving upward on the social ladder. In Daigrepont’s words, “Ichabod has used his imagination in the service of destruction and consumption instead of creativity. This degradation of imaginative power betrays an alienation from Nature that is expressed in Ichabod’s fearful imaginings on his return from the Van Tassel farm” (73). In fact, Ichabod represents a version of the American dream which is based on avarice and greed rather than on initiative and hard work. His desire to achieve progress and development at the expense of nature is emphasized throughout his courtship of Katrina whom he loves in purely financial terms. As Irving clearly tells the reader, Ichabod is interested in the rich fields and meadow lands that she will inherit rather than in herself. He wants to transform her inheritance into cash and then transform the money into large tracts of uncultivated land that he can subsequently sell at a profit.8 His imagination is so degraded by materialism that he even dreams of becoming the richest person in Sleepy Hollow after selling everything that pertains to nature. He fantasizes that he and Katrina are married and that they are “mounted on the top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where!” (280). Throughout his description of these materialistic dreams, Irving’s sarcastic tone is obvious.

16Ichabod’s debased imagination reveals not only his disinterest in marriage but also his opportunistic and unscrupulous ambitions. It also indicates the enormous changes that will take place in Sleepy Hollow if he wins Katrina’s love and gains control of her inheritance. As Duncan Faherty has observed, if “Crane takes possession of the Van Tassel home he will carve it up into saleable parcels… If he becomes ‘the lord of all’ the Van Tassel property, the disease of social mobility, coursing through Crane’s veins, will infect the town and drastically alter its history” (91). In case he becomes the owner of the whole estate, he will transform not only the community gathering but also all the land into subdivisions in order to maximize his profits. This will undoubtedly lead to numerous environmental problems which are greater and more dangerous than they seem to be. If Ichabod succeeds in his plans, it appears, the natural environment in Sleepy Hollow will become similar to the one which is described in Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Nature will lose its magnificence and become a desolate, sterile and foreboding place. Its balance and stability will also be greatly damaged by excessive human interference and thoughtless behavior. Even worse, perhaps, it will become like a desert and cease to exist. These sweeping changes will take place not only in Sleepy Hollow but also in the American West where Ichabod dreams of dynasty and where he intends to destroy nature in the same manner. There, too, the degradation of the environment will be huge. Irving believes that the pedagogue will not hesitate to sell every natural element to increase his wealth. Thereafter, he will certainly feel proud of himself for having chopped down the trees, cleared the land, and destroyed the wilderness. In the tale, Irving seems to be so frightened by these catastrophes that he is unwilling to mention them and prefers instead to focus on the traditional lifestyle of the Dutch inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow.

  • 9 Joel Porte has remarked that Irving chose the pedagogue’s name with great care, for Ichabod “has st (...)

17Irving’s uneasiness and alarm by the far-reaching threats facing the natural environment have been underlined by Gerald Kennedy who has claimed that Ichabod’s “dream of dynasty in the American West, based on buying and selling tracts of wilderness, represented to Irving a frightening alternative to the slow work of settlement and cultivation exemplified by the Van Tassel farm” (56). In his analysis of the story’s resolution, Kennedy has interpreted Brom’s victory over Ichabod as representing the overthrow of the New England mind and the reconstruction of American origins. Through this victory, Irving largely challenges the exceptionalist vision of Puritan New England. In Kennedy’s opinion, then, Irving “seems eager, in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ to discredit the Puritan myth of descent by positing a post-Revolutionary alternative account, a creative anachronism, implicitly affirming the nation’s multiple, diverse origins” (57). In his portrayal of Ichabod’s defeat, however, Irving is also eager to discredit the anthropocentric “myth” of humanity’s supremacy over nature and to reject the view that people can achieve progress through the consumption and commodification of its resources. He repeatedly suggests that these are shameful and dishonorable actions which will forever tarnish the character and reputation of those who commit them. In fact, Irving chose a suitable name for Ichabod which means “inglorious” or “without honor” in Hebrew and which perfectly matches his immorality and wickedness. By choosing this name,9 Irving expresses his belief that the anthropocentric outlook on nature is doomed to failure and that humans should replace it with a more ethical and appropriate one in order to counter the continuing degradation of the earth’s ecosystems. His choice of the biblical name of Abraham for Brom is also significant as it foreshadows the latter’s victory over Ichabod and his emergence as the leader of the community. It also foreshadows the triumph of nature over human avarice and selfishness.

4. The Supernatural as Nature’s Reaction to Human Greed and Egotism

18In Irving’s tale, nature might be considered as a character rather than as a mere background or framing device. It is not only omnipresent but also more powerful than human beings and their attempts to dominate and subdue it. Its force is suggested to be ubiquitous and irresistible. Ichabod is obviously unable to hold out against its potency and strength as he finally abandons his plan of commodifying it and permanently leaves Sleepy Hollow. Since his arrival to this valley, in fact, nature seems to be exceedingly angry with him because of his disrespectful attitude towards it. It also seems to be vigorously fighting back against his hazardous activities and mindless behavior. In its battle against this interloper, the supernatural appears to be nature’s most formidable means of putting an end to his obsession with wealth and material abundance. More specifically, nature seeks to drive him away from Sleepy Hollow by arousing his fear of the supernatural and making him believe that the valley is full of weird and uncanny events. It is mainly for this purpose that it continuously looks like a terrifying and gruesome place to him. As the reader of the tale can see, the spectacular beauty and splendor of the natural environment vanish soon after Ichabod makes his first appearance. Nature is also transformed from a quiet and peaceful place into a restless and hostile region which is full of danger and evil. During Ichabod’s nightly walks about the valley, for example, nature appears to him as a haunted place which is infested with ghosts and goblins chasing him. He is so frightened that “every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination” (277). The beetles, whip-poor-wills, tree toads, screech owls and fireflies all seem as unearthly objects that startle him and scare him out of his wits. Even the small and harmless birds, Irving claims, cause him great uneasiness and alarm. It seems that nature has turned all its different elements into frightful apparitions and omens in order to oblige him to leave the valley.

19Several passages in “Sleepy Hollow” show that the tale assigns agency to nature in its battle against Ichabod. After the long winter evenings that the latter spends with the old Dutch wives, for instance, nature continuously makes him horrified by its unusual appearance. Irving claims that his pleasure in listening to their marvelous tales of the supernatural is dearly purchased by the terrors of his subsequent walks homeward. The extraordinary sights and sounds by which this character is surrounded in the valley are described in the following manner:

What fearful shapes and shadows beset his path, amidst the dim and ghastly glare of a snowy night!—With what wistful look did he eye every trembling ray of light streaming across the waste fields from some distant window!—How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which like a sheeted spectre beset his very path!—How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!—and how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings. (278)

20The trembling rays of light glaring across the fields, the extraordinary blasts howling among the trees and all the other enigmatic shapes and shadows which beset the pedagogue’s path are purely natural effects which are magnified in the latter’s imagination. Through these terrific changes and alterations, nature apparently seeks to frighten Ichabod and to drive him away from the valley. As if eager to show him the disastrous consequences of his cupidity and egomania, it has transformed Sleepy Hollow into a strange place in which everything looks weird. It seems to tell him that this is how the earth would look like after the consumption and commercialization of its landscapes. It also seems to warn him against the error of letting his foolish vanity and pride blind him to his dependence on the environment for his survival. This appears to be Ichabod’s last chance to get rid of his sheer egoism and to reintegrate himself into the earth’s community of life. However, he fails to understand nature’s messages and warnings mainly because of his credulity and susceptibility to tales of the supernatural. By reading Cotton Mather’s dreadful stories of witchcraft and the fantastic, his “appetite for the marvelous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow” (277). Consequently, he can also swallow nature’s frightful appearances without much effort. To him, these appearances are entirely incomprehensible and inexplicable. He simply believes in them without trying to understand their meanings and implications. Nature has undoubtedly taken great advantage of this weakness in its ongoing struggle against this character.

21Nature’s attempt to drive away Ichabod through its dreadful appearances is equally obvious in the scene that describes the bizarre occurrences which take place by Major André’s tree. Here also, the natural elements seem to be transformed into frightful apparitions and omens. In fact, the pedagogue witnesses many queer events which make him overwhelmed with terror and which make the place appear to be entirely enchanted. These seemingly horrible events are portrayed as follows:

As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle; he thought his whistle was answered: it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling; but on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him. (292)

  • 10 Irving also provides natural explanations for other seemingly supernatural events that take place i (...)

22As Irving clearly tells the reader, there are no answered whistles, mysterious objects or freaky groans and lamentations. There is only nature seeking to frighten Ichabod by intensifying the interactions between its different elements and by producing conceivably magical outcomes. The interplay between the rushing wind and the dry branches, for instance, makes a strange noise which resembles a hissing sound. The contact between the lightning and the tree gives rise to an unusual form that appears like a terrifying specter. Similarly, the striking of the boughs against each other produces unwonted sounds which seem like tearful moans and wails. The interactions between these various entities justify the claim that the supernatural10 represents nature’s wrath and fury at being violated by egocentric and careless activities. They also give reason for the assertion that Ichabod is defeated by the whole natural environment rather than exclusively by Brom. The latter is only implementing a part of nature’s defensive strategy when he hurls a pumpkin at Ichabod’s cranium. Although he plays an important role in the triumph of nature, he is not the only one who arouses the pedagogue’s fear of the supernatural. This is also emphasized in Irving’s representation of the Yankee as a tiny figure who seems to be dwarfed by the immense and outraged natural landscape that surrounds him. All components of the environment appear to swallow him up and to make him hardly noticeable from a distance. Therefore, the supernatural highlights the strength and power of nature throughout the tale.

23Although nature might be accused of using excessive and deadly force in its battle against Ichabod, it is only an act of self-defense through which it aims at protecting itself from any potential harm or damage to its balance, integrity and welfare. As Bendixen has argued, the supernatural in Irving’s tale is nature’s retaliation against an unnatural act. “On the most superficial level,” he has suggested, “Brom Bones defeats Crane by appealing to his superstitious nature and creating a headless horseman.” On the most important level, however, “Bones transforms a harmless item from nature—a pumpkin—into a weapon to arouse a fear of the supernatural in the man who wants to commit an unnatural act, a man whose lust for wealth is explicitly defined as a lecherous and gluttonous assault on the natural” (33). In his comment on these characters, Bendixen implies that Ichabod is the one to be blamed because he attacked first and initiated the conflict. Brom’s transformation of the pumpkin from a harmless natural item into a dangerous weapon represents nature’s determination to take preventive measures in order to avert the dangers of the pedagogue’s unnatural acts. Consequently, nature should be considered as peaceful and serene rather than as aggressive and belligerent. Ichabod is largely responsible for all the chaos and turmoil that takes place in Sleepy Hollow. According to Bendixen, the defeat of this character symbolizes the “moral failures of those who separate head from heart, mind from body as Crane does and as many of the protagonists in tales by Poe and Hawthorne do” (33). This division between the head and the body is a key characteristic of the American Gothic that Irving introduces throughout the tale in his description of Ichabod’s loss of reason and rationality. By using this feature, Irving greatly influenced these gothic writers whose work was also concerned with the divided or fragmented self. For this reason, Bendixen has claimed that Irving led the way in establishing the Gothic possibilities of the American tale (34).

  • 11 As Albert J. von Frank has pointed out, “all of nature is supposed to have the power—even the purpo (...)

24Through his extensive focus on the relationship between humanity and nature, Irving also led the way in establishing the environmental possibilities of the American tale. Ichabod’s defeat symbolizes the failure not only of those who separate head from heart but also of those who dissociate the natural from the supernatural. In fact, Irving deconstructs the dualism between the natural and the supernatural by claiming that the supernatural is the logical and inevitable consequence of the assault on the natural. Accordingly, there would have been no supernatural events in Sleepy Hollow if Ichabod had not attempted to commodify and destroy nature. In this matter, it is interesting to notice how nature seems to have regained all its original beauty and magnificence after the disappearance of this interloper from the valley. It has also put an end to its restlessness and agitation by resuming its initial solitude and tranquility. All the natural elements seem to have been restored to their previous order and stability. Likewise, there are no more weird events and settings apart from the schoolhouse which seems to be haunted by the ghost of the pedagogue. By mentioning this incident, Irving implies that nature has the power11 not only to resist progress but also to take revenge over its despoilers. He claims that Ichabod is severely punished for his avarice and greed. Although the latter might be still alive, his spirit seems to be continuously tortured and tormented. In his description of these changes, Irving suggests that human beings should be humble and modest rather than arrogant and proud in their relationship with nature in order to avoid facing the supernatural. He articulates this idea by emphasizing Ichabod’s feebleness and helplessness whenever he is placed in opposition to the power and majesty of nature. Thus, nature might be considered as the real hero in Irving’s tale due to its remarkable success in countering human chauvinism and in averting attacks against itself.

5. Conclusion

25Irving’s philosophy about the proper relationship between humanity and nature in “Sleepy Hollow” reflects his ecological consciousness and awareness. In terms of its contribution to the genre of environmental literature, Irving’s tale falls into the category of ecocentrism due to the fact that it promotes a nature-centered system of values which focuses on the interests of all species and inanimate entities of the earth’s ecosystems. Although the story reflects Irving’s love of the past, it also underlines his concern for the future of the planet and for the fate of human and nonhuman life on it. For this purpose, he continuously warns people against the hazardous effects of anthropocentrism and the reckless disregard for nature. He suggests that this attitude would result in many dangerous problems and disasters such as the depletion of natural resources, extinction of various animal species, and the degradation of the earth’s ecosphere. These problems are recurrently emphasized in his portrayal of Ichabod as an avaricious man who represents a serious threat to the peace, stability and natural tranquility of Sleepy Hollow. The defeat of this character at the end of the tale largely reveals Irving’s disagreement with the anthropocentric belief that humans can achieve progress through the consumption and commodification of natural resources. It also indicates his preference for the settled Dutch farmers whose possession of the land is characterized by easy contentment and prosperity. In fact, he creates many images of order and security through which he defends their subsistence-based agrarian way of life against social change and development. For this reason, he has often been considered as a Burkean conservative who believes that society should be organized around stable hierarchies and landed property.

26The ecocentric worldview which is promoted in “Sleepy Hollow” undoubtedly stems from the ethical attitudes towards the natural environment that Irving introduces in the tale rather than from political conservatism. One of these attitudes consists in the belief that nature has intrinsic value and inherent worth for which it should be appreciated and respected. In his descriptions of the natural landscapes of Sleepy Hollow, for example, Irving suggests that human beings should cherish the magnificence and grandeur of nature regardless of whether it serves their needs and interests. Another moral attitude towards the environment consists in the view that humanity should protect and preserve biodiversity for its own sake. Indeed, throughout the tale, Irving expresses his pleasure at the variety and richness of life forms in the valley. He portrays them in minute detail and suggests that they are entitled to moral consideration. In his opinion, humans are members rather than masters of the earth’s community of life. Therefore, they should be humble and modest in their relationship with it. Irving also articulates the idea that nature is more powerful than human beings and their attempts to dominate and subdue it. This is most obvious through his use of the supernatural which underlines nature’s capacity to avert attacks against itself and to counter human egotism. Although “Sleepy Hollow” was written before the time when people were interested in environmental issues, then, it contains important environmental values and ethics through which Irving inspired the works of many other writers and novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper, John James Audubon, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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Bendixen, Alfred. “Romanticism and the American Gothic.” The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Cambridge UP, 2017, pp. 31-43.

Branch, Michael P., editor. Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden. U of Georgia P, 2004.

Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Daigrepont, Lloyd M. “Ichabod Crane: Inglorious Man of Letters.” Early American Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1984, pp. 68-81.

Descartes, René. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean, Oxford UP, 2006.

Faherty, Duncan. Remodeling the Nation: The Architecture of American Identity, 1776-1858. U of New Hampshire P, 2007.

Guttmann, Allen. “Washington Irving and the Conservative Imagination.” A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, edited by Andrew B. Myers, Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976, pp. 388-97.

Inge, M. Thomas. “Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, and Ichabod Crane.” Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture, edited by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck, U of Rochester P, 2007, pp. 99-106.

Irvine, Colin. “Washington Irving (1783-1859).” Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature, edited by Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones, McFarland & Company, 2013, pp. 167-68.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. Penguin Books, 1999.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe. Oxford UP, 2016.

Killick, Tim. British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale. Ashgate, 2008.

Malthus, Thomas R. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Dover Publications, 2007.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford UP, 1964.

McGregor, Robert Kuhn. The Story of a Forest: Growth, Destruction and Renewal in the Upper Delaware Valley. McFarland & Company, 2018.

Nye, David E. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. MIT P, 1998.

Porte, Joel. In Respect to Egotism: Studies in American Romantic Writing. Cambridge UP, 1991.

Ringe, Donald A. “New York and New England: Irving’s Criticism of American Society.” A Century of Commentary on the Works of Washington Irving, edited by Andrew B. Myers, Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1976, pp. 398-411.

Roberts, Siân Silyn. Gothic Subjects: The Transformation of Individualism in American Fiction, 1790-1861. U of Pennsylvania P, 2014.

Rosenblum, Joseph. “Washington Irving (1783-1859).” Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-to-Z Guide, edited by Denise D. Knight, Greenwood Press, 2003, pp. 210-17.

Vileisis, Ann. Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. Island Press, 2008.

Von Frank, Albert J. “The Man That Corrupted Sleepy Hollow.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 15, no. 2, 1987, pp. 129-43.

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1 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is told by a fictional narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, whom Irving’s readers would recognize from his previous History of New York (1809). It is supposed to have been found posthumously among Knickerbocker’s papers, and it is followed by a postscript in which the latter states that he heard the whole story from a “shabby, gentlemanly old fellow” (296) at a corporation meeting in Manhattan. Irving’s ideas and beliefs are indirectly expressed through this multiple narrative mediation.

2 As Colin Irvine has observed in Encyclopaedia of the Environment in American Literature, “Washington Irving’s works of early 19th-century romantic fiction fail to fall neatly into any one class or category specific to environmental literature or nature writing. His widely read and still popular fiction… resists ecocritics’ efforts to ‘index’ the tales” (167). Because Irving’s short stories cannot be categorized as rambles, farm-life essays or as early versions of the genre that describes humanity’s role in nature, critics have focused mainly on the role of the natural world and on the interchangeability of nature and culture in his works. However, these eco-critical lenses have tended “to obscure rather than illuminate the significance of his work as it pertains to environmental literature” (Irvine 167).

3 The sound of the gun which breaks the stillness of nature might be considered as an example of a device which intrudes into, and disrupts, an idyllic pastoral scene. In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Leo Marx refers to this device as the pastoral “counterforce” which “brings a world which is more ‘real’ into juxtaposition with an idyllic vision” (25). According to Marx, the pastoral world in American literature is repeatedly threatened by a counterforce in the shape of a machine. He gives various examples such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay “Sleepy Hollow” in which the locomotive appears in the woods and shatters “the harmony of the green hollow” (Marx 27).

4 At the time Irving wrote the tale, the importance of farming had decreased significantly and it was no longer considered as a major economic activity. Numerous factories were built in American cities and people started to migrate from rural to urban areas in search of employment. New York City, which had already become the commercial capital of the United States, reflected the transfer of the country’s economic power from farmers to businessmen.

5 The French philosopher René Descartes maintained that animals are automata or moving machines which are irrational and much inferior to human beings. “For it is a very remarkable fact,” he argued, “that there are no men so dull-witted and stupid, not even madmen, that they are incapable of stringing together different words, and composing them into utterances, through which they let their thoughts be known” whereas “there is no other animal, no matter how perfect and well endowed by birth it may be, that can do anything similar” (47). Although some animals such as magpies and parrots can utter words, he claimed, they are unable to speak like humans and to show that they are thinking what they are saying. In his opinion, this “shows not only that animals have less reason than man, but that they have none at all” (47).

6 In environmental ethics, ecocentrism consists in the view that the interests of the ecosphere are above those of individual species. It is often used in antithesis to anthropocentrism which puts humans at the center of the universe and holds that only them are worthy of moral consideration. Ecocentrism, however, needs to be differentiated from biocentrism. In The Future of Environmental Criticism, Lawrence Buell clearly explains the difference between them by stating that “whereas biocentrism refers specifically to the world of organisms, ecocentrism points to the interlinkage of the organismal and the inanimate” (137).

7 Irving might have been influenced by the British economist Thomas Malthus who argued that overpopulation would inevitably lead to serious and numerous problems such as poverty, disease, starvation and war. In his 1789 Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus claims that the human population grows geometrically whereas food supply increases arithmetically. When population growth outstrips food production, he suggests, humans would be unable to feed themselves (78).

8 As Tim Killick has argued, “Crane sees everything only in terms of its cash value and culinary potential, and his fixation with immediate personal gratification represents early-nineteenth-century America’s increasing distance from its own history” (53).

9 Joel Porte has remarked that Irving chose the pedagogue’s name with great care, for Ichabod “has stepped out as a monitory figure from the fourth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, wherein Israel is defeated by the Philistines, who carry off the ark of God, so that when Ichabod is born to his dying mother, she intones, ‘the glory is departed from Israel,’ as she despairingly names the child” (51).

10 Irving also provides natural explanations for other seemingly supernatural events that take place in Sleepy Hollow. For instance, Gunpowder’s refusal to obey Ichabod is explained by its terror and fright upon seeing the huge and powerful frame of the ghost’s horse. Irving further accounts for the ghost and its dangerous missile in a similar manner by suggesting that the specter is only Brom in disguise and the weapon merely a pumpkin.

11 As Albert J. von Frank has pointed out, “all of nature is supposed to have the power—even the purpose—of doing harm to Ichabod Crane” (132). Von Frank has also underlined the antagonism and hostility between Irving’s Yankee and the natural environment by claiming that they both frighten each other in the story. According to him, “Ichabod is so radically disjoined from his environment that he and the natural world are fated enemies: nature frightens him, but, by the same token, he can and does frighten it. Put another way, the presence of death that he senses in nature, nature senses in him” (132).

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Electronic reference

Sabri Mnassar, Humanity, Nature, and the Supernatural in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”European journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sabri Mnassar

Sabri Mnassar is an assistant at the Higher Institute of Applied Studies in the Humanities of Mahdia, Tunisia. He studied at the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences of Sousse where he obtained his Master of Arts degree and his Ph.D. in English Language and Literature. His major research interests include Nature Writing, Ecocriticism, and the Gothic.

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