2017 reissue of The Sketch Book called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series of excerpts we will run monthly from a new introduction written for a timeless classic. The following comes from Sleepy Hollow resident Krista Madsen’s introduction in the 2017 reissue of The Sketch Book called The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories from Race Point Publishing. The book is available at the Hudson Valley Writers Center.
by Krista Madsen –
By the late 1840s, Washington Irving’s idyllic Sunnyside estate overlooking the widest “Tappan Zee” expanse of the Hudson at the border of Tarrytown and Irvington is disturbed by work. Crews are extending the shore with landfill to make way for the steam engine train line that will eventually connect Manhattan to Albany, barrel through Irving’s view, rumble his walls, and sound its “infernal alarum,” as the author puts it. On the other end of his acreage, a new aqueduct tunnel transports drinking water from the Croton Dam to the staggeringly expanding city 25 miles south.
Irving, in his mid-60s, writes to his sister in England of the “strange world” their downtown birthplace had become, exponentially growing in his lifetime into “really now one of the most racketing cities in the world.”
Irving had opted instead to craft a retreat – his only adulthood residence in America – in the dreamy region that had tugged at him as a teen, when he explored here with his Tarrytown friend James K. Paulding. The rundown two-room Dutch farmhouse he purchased in 1835 quickly became a money pit as he realized his vision of converting “the little nookery” into a romantic amalgam of influences from its Dutch roots to his European travels.
Upon Irving’s latest return from another ambassadorship in Spain, he realizes his house requires more room for his relatives and the staff tending to them and the working farm. Renovations cap off an extension with a whimsical cupola. Despite his status as a lifelong bachelor (in his 20s, Irving had lost his teenage fiancée to tuberculosis), his life seems quite crowded. Irving is the youngest of eight surviving siblings who all “have a boatload of children,” says Historic Hudson Valley historian Michael Lord, citing brother Ebenezer, for one, with 13 of his own offspring. In Sunnyside’s parlor, there’s a fortepiano for the five nieces who live there at one point and a flute for “Uncle Wash.” It’s a wonder the man gets anything done.
Notable as the first American author to make a living authoring, Irving’s wealth is never so great that he can stop doing just that. In 1846, Publisher G.P. Putnam contracts with him to reissue his complete works in 15 volumes over a period of two years. This will include The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., originally self-published stories and essays written from abroad that made him a household name when they started appearing as a serial 30 years prior.
Laboring on the Putnam revised Sketch Book at his beloved Sunnyside, adding an introduction, some footnotes and a few old but unseen additional pieces to the original, Irving often commutes to the city – easier now by that infernal train, to be sure – to meet with his publisher or attend to the estate of John Jacob Astor for which he is named executor. His letters note his exhaustion as he produces new works and edits old ones for the 15 volumes. “Altogether, I have had more toil of head and figging of the pen for the last 18 months than in any other period of my life, and have been once or twice fearful my health might become deranged, but it has held out marvelously; and now I hope to be able to ease off in my toils, and to pass my time at home as usual,” he wrote.
Irving’s ideal scenario of passing time as usual involves writing until noon, napping on the curtained daybed behind his desk among the books, enjoying his nieces and nephews, and rolling his favorite chair out to the side porch to bask in the view of the Palisades. It’s worth noting that the completion of the Erie Canal also makes for a busier, louder river, but this letter relays only tranquility: “From the piazza I have several charming views of the Tappan Zee and the hills beyond, all set, as it were, in verdant frames; and I am never tired of sitting there in my old Voltaire chair, of a long summer morning, with a book in my hand, sometimes reading, sometimes musing, and sometimes dozing, and mixing all up in a pleasant dream.”
Krista Madsen is Managing Director of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and an active member of the Sleepy Hollow Lit Fest Steering Committee.