Podcast No. 0039: Into the woods with the Headless Horseman

This month on Dispodopolis, we discuss the 1949 Disney classic animated feature "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad." In honor of Halloween, we are just covering the Washington Irving portion of the feature tonight. We tip our hat to one of the first American writers of one of the early American classics, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Tonight, we discuss the story of Washington Irving and a few reasons people believe he wrote this classic legend. We also talk about the production of the movie that stays relatively very close to the original story.

First, we start with a short bioptic about Washington Irving. Irving was born in 1783 and was named after George Washington. Naming your child after a founder or someone who lent a hand in developing our nation was very common during this era. When you come from a family of eleven kids, you tend to lean on the time's contemporaries for help. At the age of six, Irving did attend the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 in New York. In 1798, his family moved him to Tarrytown to escape the effects of the yellow fever outbreak. He fondly remembers his times in this region and returns to writing about this area along the Hudson River repeatedly. You can find many nods to the region within the town's literary descriptions, from the old Dutch church to Major Ander's Tree. He also references the Dutch family names of the area.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis

He went on to study law and passed the bar in 1806. Law wasn't his true calling, and he indulged himself in the arts by starting to publish his written works instead. In 1809, Washington Irving wrote the satirical work "History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrick Knickerbocker." This work went on to be a failure but changed the vernacular of the times and created a new terminology, knickerbocker. This term was used going forward to describe someone from New York. Knickerbockers are the pants that button right below the knee and were frequently worn by the Danish living in New York. You can still see baseball players wearing these pants today. It is the reason the basketball team is called the New York "Knicks."

Around this same time, Washington Irving was engaged to marry Matilda Hoffmann, the daughter of a prominent local family. She died of consumption on April 26, 1809, at the age of 17. Irving never became engaged or married anyone after the tragedy. He lived a life as a bachelor, traveling the world.

A few years later, in 1815, he moved to England to help his brothers and their failing business. Unfortunately, his brother's company failed, but he had become immersed in the region's folklore and turned the fantastical stories into a new American Gothic style that influenced our culture. In 1820, Irving wrote a collection of 34 short stories titled "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." One of those short stories was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Irving's book is not the first time a headless horseman has been represented in print. There are traces of this story back to the Middle Ages, and you can see how it has filtered down to the Brothers Grimm. The closest connection it has to literature before it becomes famous in American literature is Sir Walter Scott's 1796 The Chase, a translation of the German poem The Wild Huntsman by Gottfried Bürger and likely based on Norse mythology. Irving took these imaginative stories embracing the unknown. He made it his own "an actual Hessian soldier who was decapitated by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, around Halloween 1776."

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a contemporary of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" and Polidiri's "The Vampyre." Along with Irving's, these works would create supernatural beings that still fill our imagination with terror and influence movie producers for generations, including Walt Disney. These books are considered part of the gothic genre.

During the 1700s, The gothic genre was thought to have been influenced by the governments' upheavals in England and Germany. It is about the heightened application of wonder and terror and creating the suspension of disbelief. There is also a need to create an aesthetic environment that is an emotional one: a graveyard or a decrepit cemetery and a dark forest. You create the sublime, and terror perpetrates that. As depicted in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman is a supernatural entity, representing a past that never dies but always haunts the living. One is being chased by their fears or retribution for a crime they have committed.

Gothic is a phrase that references the German medieval era, where a lot of these stories initially took place. The gothic theme transcends Germany and is brought to upstate New York. It embodies the dark and romantic feelings of the early 1800s. Gothic was another term that Irving embraced and brought across the ocean to America that influenced the next generation of writers. Twenty years later, after "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" there would be a revival called the Victorian gothic. Leading this revival was Edgar Allen Poe. Poe embodied the soul of this movement. The death of love and the guilt of living. The gothic genre would see one more rebirth in Bram Stroker with his 1897 novel Dracula.

Washington Irving went on to write other traveling histories from 1822-1824. In 1826, Irving accepted an invitation from the US Minister to become the ambassador to Spain. He began to dive into Spain's national history by writing a book on Christopher Columbus, the Conquest of Granada, and the tales of Alhambra. His lively satirical take on narrative and storytelling make his works noteworthy.

Returning to England, Irving took up the position of secretary of the US legation and remained there until 1832. After this stint, he once again returned home and immediately headed to the Western front. He wanted to learn about the territories and the lives that people were digging out for themselves. Irving captured these stories in the written word focusing on the prairie life, John Jacob Astor's fur company, and Captain Bonneville.

Hudson River Valley
Sunnyside Estate of Washington Irving

Settling in the Hudson Valley, he purchased a two-room Dutch stone house. He significantly expanded the small homestead with Tudor-style chimneys, Dutch stepped gables, Gothic windows, and Spanish towers. All his international travels inspired and were drawn together in his forever home. But before he could rest, he was called back to Spain for his second term as ambassador in 1842.

Returning to New York in 1846, he officially retires to his estate, Sunnyside, and spends the rest of his life entertaining writers, artists, and politicians. He continues his writing up to his passing with historical and biographical works, including a five-volume of books that focuses on the life of George Washington. He passes on November 28, 1959, on his estate. He is known to this day as the original author of American literature and is informally considered the "Founding Father of Literature." He lives on in the story of Ichabod Crane.

The story of Ichabod is the second part of this feature film, following the Mr. Toad story or "The Wind in the Willows" short story by Kenneth Graham. Like many Disney productions, this production was distributed by RKO Radio Pictures and was the eleventh animated feature film released. It was following close to the direction that the studios were taking at the time by creating short story animated pieces and slicing them together in a cohesive manner. Coming out of the war, Disney Studio's top priority was saving money.