What The Legend Means to Me

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by Lynn Moffat – 

North Tarrytown was grappling with profound change when Ken and I, the three kids, the two cats and the dog arrived from Brooklyn in August 1996. The GM assembly plant was closing. We attended our first meeting in the village that September to hear from GM management. (“Nothing is owed to North Tarrytown – we answer only to our stockholders.”  Whoa!  Suddenly we were living Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. We left Fort Greene and the battle over the proposed Atlantic Yards for this? It’s going to be more complicated up in Westchester than I thought.)

There was the second (or was it a third?) referendum coming up to change the name of the village from North Tarrytown to Sleepy Hollow. It was contentious. Some wanted to move forward by looking to a literary past; some were dedicated to North Tarrytown forever. The referendum passed.

I felt obliged to read “The Legend” for the first time after that vote. Where I went to high school, in Southern California, early American literature was Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In college, and a smarty pants school at that, no one read Washington Irving. American literature began with Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. I knew the broad outline of “The Legend,” but then, doesn’t everyone?

Irving’s use of language, his attention to detail of place, and his acute observations regarding rural Dutch life — I was blown away. The “small brook … with just murmur enough to lull one to repose,” that’s the Pocantico River and it was just beyond our Victorian house in Webber Park. Exploring this new locale, I stumbled on the sexton of the Old Dutch Church, Bill Lent, as he emerged from slumber in the shrubbery at the church’s front stoop. The “peculiar character” of Sleepy Hollow’s “inhabitants” as a modern day Rip van Winkle was standing right in front of me.

And to “Rip van Winkle,” from the same collection of Irving short stories, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent slowly rocking on the front porch, enjoying my first thunderstorm as it rumbled up the Hudson River Valley. I swear I could hear the “odd-looking personages playing at ninepins” up in the fairy Catskill Mountains.  (Meanwhile the kids, fresh from Brooklyn, were marveling at lightning and thunder without car alarms.)

I read more and more of Irving’s works and then on to the biographies of Irving. It became clear that this writer, once the most popular of Americans, who helped to forge a young democracy — its laws, its values, its sense of history, its art and culture — had been forgotten. How does that happen?

Where would my beloved New York City be without Irving’s A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker? (Gotham!  The New York Knicks!)  Would the aesthetics of the Hudson Valley have blossomed into the American Romantic movement without Irving?  Would we have learned of Muslims and Moorish culture without Tales of the Alhambra?  Or of pirates and buried treasure without the stories of Captain Kidd?  Would we have a New York Public Library?  Or a bucolic Central Park? Santa Claus and the Christmas holiday season?

“The Legend,” for me, was the key to thinking anew of the village and of our country, its sense of self mixed up with myths and history. As we rediscover Irving, we will keep our ears open for other voices from his time. We know they are there.

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