The Van Tassel Family, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Washington Irving
Irving's Ichabod Crane Again.
Kinderhook's Claim Stoutly Denied and That of Sleepy Hollow Asserted
Letter to the Editor of The New York Times by
Edgar Mayhew Bacon,
Author of "Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow," &c.
-Mar 12, 1898-
The author of "Half Holidays," in a clever and entertaining letter published in the Time's Saturday Review of Feb. 26, reminds one of the late Mr. Kingsland and his milestone. Half way up the hill from the old Sleepy Hollow Church a venerable milestone pushed its red sandstone shoulder out of the encroaching sod by the roadside. It was a pertinacious landmark, that took no account of the fact that a straightened road had abbreviated its mile. One day Mr. Kingsland observed to himself that the old milestone would look well by his entrance gate, at the foot of the hill; so he rooted it up and put it there. The fact that it did not belong there, that its significance was lost by transplanting, that the gate opened upon the new section of the road, that people were inclined to think him a vandal, did not trouble Mr. Kingsland in the least.
Now, Mr. Van Santvoord had made up his mind that Irving's "Legend of
Sleepy Hollow" would look well at Kinderhook. Whether this is an attempt
to foster a boom for Kinderhook or merely the amusement of an idle hour, are
not questions which can be discussed without additional data; but it is proposed
to stay the pickaxe and crowbar of Mr. Van Santvoord long enough to give him
an opportunity to establish a better right to the property than he has yet shown.
He claims, broadly, that Washington Irving spent some time at Kinderhook; that he was there as a youth; that he wrote part of "Knickerbocker" and part of the "Sketch Book" there; that he was tutor to the nieces of Judge Van Ness, and an intimate of Jesse Merwin, the school teacher. Let us see.
Authorities seem to agree that Mr. Irving never visited Kinderhook until after he had reached man's estate; that he was there once, as the guest of Judge Van Ness, during his early manhood; that the duration of that visit was about sixty days, and that the "Sketch Book" was written ten or twelve years later, in London.
He himself relates that in the year 1800, when seventeen years of age, he made his first trip up the Hudson. The definite account of that trip makes no mention of Kinderhook. In 1802 and 1803 he made two more voyages in the same direction, but did not include Kinderhook in his itinerary. In 1803 he embarked for Bordeaux, in France. This seems to dispose of the theory that he recalled "youthful pranks" in his letter to Merwin-a letter which Mr. Van Santvoord refers to, (but does not quote,) in connection with this matter.
According to his letters and his biographers, Mr. Irving spent two months of his early manhood in Kinderhook. On how slight a foundation this whole mighty fabric has been built! Those two months were the ones immediately succeeding the death of Miss Matilda Hoffman, and were deeply clouded. Mr. Van Santvoord says:
"Amid the pastoral scenes along the bank of Kinderhook Creek Irving and the whimsical pedagogue (Jesse Merwin) whiled away many an hour, fishing the stream that flowed through the verdant meadows, shooting partridges and squirrels in the woods and gathering nuts and apples in the Fall, and, when the pumpkins were ripe, making raids on the farmers' cornfields; and then, during the long Winter evenings, cracking jokes and spinning yarns with Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones in the quaint old Dutch kitchen of a neighboring farmhouse, before a roaring log fire."
Let us contrast this a quotation from Pierre Irving's "Life and Letters of Washington Irving," as follows:
"The two months succeeding the death of Matilda were spent in the retirement of the country, at the house of his friend, Judge William P. Van Ness, at Kinderhook."
In those two months we are to believe Mr. Irving "fished the stream that flowed through the verdant meadows," from which any angler will infer that it was Spring or early Summer; he "gathered nuts and apples in the Fall," and he lingered through the Winter, swapping yarns with the pedagogue. That appears to be a good deal of activity to crowd into two months, even in a busy place like Kinderhook. The author of "Half Holidays" has provided a poetic quotation, which we gladly repeat:
"Time, that on all things lays a lenient hand,
Yet tames not this."
Mr. Van Santvoord states that part of the "Sketch Book" was written at Kinderhook, but Mr. Irving's letters and his biographers agree that it was written in London, ten or twelve years after the two months' visit to Judge Van Ness, just referred to. Until the new claim is substantiated by some evidence, we have a right to suspect that some one in Kinderhook has been misled. That neither the above-mentioned letters nor the biographers have disclosed the fact that the author of the "Sketch Book" was the private tutor of Judge Van Ness's nieces does not disprove the statement that he did serve in that capacity-it only makes us cautious about accepting it till we have better evidence. It is possible that the Judge's guest may at some time have helped one of the Judge's nieces over a hard place in a lesson-nothing could be more natural-and that a tradition to that effect has been magnified into undue proportions. We know, indeed, that the young author was courteous and helpful, but as he was engaged in revising and polishing "Knickerbocker" during those eventful sixty days, it is probable that interruptions of that nature were not frequent.
The author of "Half Holidays" claims the relation of the legend to Kinderhook on the ground that Kinderhook used to possess a church with a bell-rope coming down in the middle aisle and basket-shaped collection boxes, in which he has since picked apples, and is also rich in the possession of a stream and bridge exactly like those which Irving describes. As any gentle reader can see, this is confirmation strong as holy writ.
That the geography of the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" belongs to Tarrytown, and only to Tarrytown, no one who is familiar with the locality and the story can for a moment doubt-no one, that is, who is unencumbered with a Kinderhook boom. The farmhouse where the dance took place, the old church, Wiley's Swamp, Andre's Tree, the bridge, the Pocantico, and Sleepy Hollow are all accurately named and particularly described. The house stood until 1896; the church is standing:
"Pocantico still rolls its stream,
Beneath the bridge of Irving's dream,"
And Wiley's Swamp and Andre's Tree are not myths. From one end to the other the tale runs smoothly in its grooves, because, and only because, the stage setting fits it perfectly; fits as nothing else possibly could. No doubt there was once a church at Kinderhook. Mr. Van Santvoord has our sympathy that it no longer exists. But what has the charming description given of the church that used to be got to do with the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"? Of course, there is a stream-we do not doubt that it has real water in it, and a real bridge, unless people are content to stay on one side of it; but these things are common to a thousand hamlets. What has that to do with the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"?
If the characters from the courtship really lived near Lindenwald it might be possible to divide honors on the legend. But let us see. Katrina Van Tassel-by the way, forty years ago you could not throw a stone in Tarrytown without hitting a Van Tassel, and they are still rather numerous. Katrina Van Tassel is a good type of a country belle. She might exist almost anywhere. She filled her role, was pretty, an heiress, a flirt, and married the better man. Either Tarrytown or Kinderhook could find, no one, but a score, of prototypes, and so could Nyack or Danbury or Wilkesbarre, or any other place. The Katrina Van Tassel of the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" had only one great advantage-she fell in with two interesting and rather unique characters and gave them something to do.
Brom Bones lived in Sleepy Hollow till he died there, and he did not die till after the legend which made him immortal was published and he had heard about it. He did not covet immortality of that sort, and (though somewhat decrepit from age when the news reached him) bestirred himself to hunt up the author to the intent that he might thrash him. The real name of Brom Bones was Abraham (or Abram) Van Tassel. Where Ichabod Crane went after he left the scene of his labors and misadventures in Sleepy Hollow we do not know. To quote Mr. Irving again:
"An old farmer * * * brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood; that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time," &c.
The Jesse Merwin version is not new, only a little distorted by Mr. Van
Santvoord's Kinderhook proclivities. The firm belief of the people of Tarrytown,
where the affair occurred, is to the effect that when the unfortunate pedagogue
escaped with his life from the pumpkin of his rival he took refuge in Kinderhook,
and under that name of Merwin set himself to overcome those eccentricities of
manner which were his only title to immortality.
EDGAR MAYHER BACON.
Tarrytown, N. Y., March 7, 1898
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