Micr-O’-Bits: The Legend of Diedrich Knickerbocker

October 26, 2023
By Kate Wylie

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” begins: Found among the papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker, followed by an excerpt from James Thomson’s “Castle of Indolence.”

  • A pleasing land of drowsy head it was,`
  • Of dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;`
  • And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,`
  • Forever flushing round a summer sky.`

Perched atop a stack of hay bales, the shrouded memory of Ichabod Crane gallops through my memory. A strange fog surrounds him and the black horse on which he rides. In the distance, scarecrows turn away with fear.

If you want to visit Sleepy Hollow—a real town, indeed—follow the route dictated by the story: head north of Tarrytown, following the eastern shore of the Hudson River, trusting the main road.

Or, in GPS-speak: once you hit the Edward Hopper House Museum, take the Governor Cuomo Bridge, then you’re just two exits away.

The town remains one of cobblestone, aged wood, and windchimes. Its lighthouse, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was decommissioned in the 1970s, but cosmetically restored earlier this year. Humble breezes bring in subtle smells of river and the distant city.

Sleepy Hollow’s population is a cozy ten thousand; the town’s cemetery attends to nearly five times that.

Washington Irving’s resting place is marked by two small American flags and a modest wrought-iron gate, a short distance from the blood-red sign adorned with moon and stars: Headless Horseman tethers his horse nightly among graves in this churchyard according to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” author Washington Irving.

As you wander back into town, you’ll pass an impressive metal sculpture depicting two figures on horseback—one rider hunting another, jack-o’-lantern head secured in the pursuer’s right palm, cackling with merciless intent.

Irving published under three known pseudonyms in his life: Jonathan Oldstyle, Geoffrey Crayon, and Diedrich Knickerbocker. Literary historians are largely unsure whether there are others, acknowledging that while we’ve probably collected all the relevant information from Irving’s life, the possibility remains that time and hearsay forced some knowledge through our ever-shifting cracks.

“Sleepy Hollow” was first published in Irving’s fourth installment of the 1820 collection The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman, written primarily in London but ultimately published in America. The Sketchbook contains thirty-three stories—five stories of Americana, twenty-eight of life across the Atlantic.

Irving’s publisher, C.S. Van Winkle, established one of the first New York publishing houses, seeking works of medical inquiry. Irving followed standard publishing procedure for the time: C.S. Van Winkle would release a pamphlet of four or five stories to gauge readership, and if the pamphlet was well-received, Irving would have the option to publish another.

Of the Sketchbook’s five American stories, four are considered folktales: “Christmas Day,” “The Spectre Bridegroom,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle.” These appear in different sections of the Sketchbook, suggesting that Irving wrote them over a significant span of time.

Sprinkled throughout are found notes written by Diedrich Knickerbocker, seemingly edited and arranged by Geoffrey Crayon. Irving even goes so far as to write a postscript to “Sleepy Hollow” in the style of Diedrich Knickerbocker, therein doubling-down on, whilst simultaneously dismissing, the story’s spooky premise:

  • The cautious old gentleman knit his brows tenfold closer after this explanation, being sorely puzzled by the ratiocination of the syllogism; while methought the one in pepper and salt eyed him with something of a triumphant leer. At length he observed, that all this was very well, but still he thought the story a little extravagant — there were one or two points on which he had his doubts.
  • “Faith, sir,” replied the story-teller, “as to that matter, I don’t believe one half of it myself.”
  • D.K.

As the Sketchbook pamphlets continued to grow in demand, the public began privately asking: which is it? Is Diedrich Knickerbocker actually Geoffrey Crayon? Or is Geoffrey Crayon actually Diedrich Knickerbocker?

But these men were merely scarecrows haunting America’s early literary landscape. They were all, in the end, inventions of Washington Irving’s fabulous mind.

Once it became widely known that both Diedrich Knickerbocker and Geoffrey Crayon were fictitious, many readers noted the increasing likeness between—even the inextricability of—Irving and his false orators.

Irving spent his life stuffing not just one, but two or three scarecrow storytellers to wedge between himself and readers. He wasn’t just making up pseudonyms—he was storytelling entire people into existence; inventing poets who read scrupulously, lived resourcefully, and felt the acute melancholy of early American life. He apparated speakers where and when he knew his own perspective would fall short.

I used to believe that all stories belonged to their teller, but it’s become clear after coming through the other side of this rabbit hole: a truly timeless story is destined to be considered some semblance of self-written specter after a certain amount of circulation. Though Ichabod Crane will forever claim Washington Irving as his maker, he also rides through the wilderness authorless, his ink-like permanence darkening the forest all around him.

Kate Wylie (she/they) is a poet from St. Louis, Missouri and 2023 Pacific University M.F.A. graduate. Wylie reads fiction for The New Southern Fugitives and serves the community as Assistant Professor at Webster University and Literary Obituaries Editor at Northwest Review.