How would the American character have been portrayed if our earliest writers had not made the attempt to define it for us? Last time we left off with Washington Irving warming to his story set in the small market town of Greensburgh. Or, more specifically, in a quiet spot two miles outside of town. A spot known as Sleepy Hollow. In this bewitched place there was one apparition that seemed to prevail over all others - that of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball. Historians believed that the body had been buried in a nearby churchyard and that every so often he rides out in search of his lost head. Before daybreak this 'Headless Horseman' was always in a hurry to get back to his proper place.
Now it is said that some thirty years earlier a tall, lank man with narrow shoulders and long arms and legs - a man named Ichabod Crane - 'tarried' in the area. "To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him fro the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield," Irving writes. Such details continue to build believability in his tale.
Why is it that Irving gives his main character, his 'hero', such strange features and odd manners? This school teacher from Connecticut is an 'outsider' and anyone who has been an outsider in a small town will recognize just what this man is up against. That old Headless Horseman is more accepted, despite the fact that he is ephemeral - a spirit - than this very human stranger. By sharing his stories of ghosts, Crane is hoping to win acceptance in this place where nightmares and superstitions are as real as, or more real than, real life.
Ichabod Crane was a strict taskmaster in the classroom who always kept in mind the golden maxim to spare the rod is to spoil the child, but after school he would hang out with the older boys and even escort the smaller ones home if they had pretty sisters or mothers who were good cooks. This character might be summed up in modern terms like this: he was a gangly, freeloading, self-absorbed, sissy. Not the attributes that would naturally endear him to his solid, hardworking, tough neighbors. He was the quintessential outsider.
This hero makes his first real mistake when he begins courting the beautiful Katrina Van Tussel, whose father also just happens to be a prosperous farm owner. She, of course, is also being courted by some of the local boys - strapping, hardy lads. Chief among them is a strong country fellow named Brom Van Brunt, whose nickname reflects his prowess - Bram Bones. He is the true hero. Here is the insider, the hard rider, the wild and spirited fist fighter. It is he, Bram, (the narrator leads his readers to believe), who 'becomes' the Headless Horseman in order to run this weak, effeminate, intellectual city slicker back to where he came from. It is this child of the American wilderness who prevails in the end and all join in the laughter as old Ichabod Crane skedaddles back to civilization.
It is here, too, in this tension between civilization and wilderness, between the insider and the outsider, between the intellect and the physical, that is found the American character and the gravitas of Washington Irving's storytelling.
Next week we'll take a look at Rip Van Winkle in the concluding post of The American Character. Hope you'll join me.
Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.