Washington Irving's Sketch Book is framed by two tales so resonant that it's forgivable if the sketches in between don't quite have the same power. Near the beginning is “Rip Van Winkle,” the immortal tale of a man who falls asleep as a British subject, sleeps through the entire American Revolution, and wakes up unaware that he is now a citizen of the United States. Near the end of The Sketch Book, one finds “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” an equally ageless tale of the feckless schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, who dreams of winning the love of the winsome Katrina Van Tassel but is undone by his fears of a legendary headless horseman. The everyday and the (possibly) supernatural mix well in both stories, as when Irving implies strongly toward the end of “Sleepy Hollow” that Brom van Brunt, Crane’s rival for Katrina’s love, may have crafted a sort of headless-horseman hoax in order to drive Crane out of town.
In between “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” however, are a long series of sketches that don't hold up as well now as they may have in 1819. Writing from behind the persona of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” Irving indulges in a great many not-terribly-profound meditations on life, love, and mortality. His traditionalism, his conservatism, and particularly his Anglophilia come through strongly in many of the sketches. Perhaps that is why, in the midst of all those “I love England because England is older than America” sketches, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” stand out so starkly; it is impressive how seamlessly, in those two tales, Irving combines European folktale archetypes with a vividly realized American setting. These two stories alone show Irving to be a gifted author who worked hard at his craft; it’s no accident that he was the first American author who was able to make a living solely through his writing. Accordingly, he stands at the beginnings of a great literary tradition.
Washington Irving is virtually a living presence in New York’s Hudson Valley, where the community of North Tarrytown, N.Y., actually changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in order to emphasize the Washington Irving connection. Another example of Irving’s ongoing influence: Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. The film may have caused controversy in its time because of its violence (lots of beheadings), and because the plot of the film had very little to do with Washington Irving’s story; but the making of the film, like the changing of the name of North Tarrytown to Sleepy Hollow, shows how truly Washington Irving and his best-known fictional creations are still with us.