The Van Tassel Family, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Washington Irving
Ichabod Crane Once More.
Reassertion of the Claims of Kinderhook-Martin Van Buren's Testimony.
Letter to the Editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES from
Harrold Van Santvoord,
Author of "Half Holidays," a Volume of Essays, &c.
-Mar 19, 1898-
It is so easy to disprove an alleged statement of fact and affirm the contrary that history is being constantly revised as new light, shed through the lens of the imagination, is made to penetrate the mists of the past! Not many years ago a learned college professor at a social meeting of the Yale Alumni Association sought to disprove many of the accepted facts of history and destroy the most cherished traditions of the race. Archimedes never said, "Give me a lever long enough and I will move the world," nor did he cry out, "Eureka" in the bath; it was Mazarin, not Louis XIV., who said, "L'etat c'est moi"; Scaevola did not thrust his hand into the flames; neither did Galileo say, "And it moves for all that," since "it is proved from authentic documents that he did not dare to"; while the story of George Washington and his little hatchet is a flam. We, nevertheless, hate to give up the legend of the Horatii and the Curiatii because Levy himself did not know to what race they belonged; and, although we may allow that Dogenes could not have lived in a tub, since tubs are of Gallic, not Grecian, origin, the day may come when many of us will be persuaded to give up Diogenes also, or concede that he wore petticoats and was a woman, since the philosopher, after lighting big lanterns, roamed about in search of a man.
It is improbable that any one ever wrote in a reminiscent vein concerning a prominent character of the past who was not attacked by some subtle or shallow critic who sought from a sense of fuller information regarding the subject of the memoir to correct him as to statements of fact. Mrs. Sherwood's convincing article in a late number of The Times's Saturday Review ought to set all doubts at rest as to minor points in her story relating to the lineage as well as to the character and extraordinary career of Lady Vassail-Holland, which have been disputed in detail by critical readers of The Satruday Review. Any fair-minded critic, however, will concede from the cumulative evidence Mrs. Sherwood submits in reinforcing her views that she is far better equipped than her assailants as to the matters of detail which give color to her narrative; and yet it is improbable that all are convinced. It is equally true that a writer of memoirs, relying iin part on oral tradition, may be led astray in elaborating the theme of his story, in the absence of living witnesses. Were records are imperfect, however, or are wanting in detail, oral tradition is always a strong factor in history as it is written. As an informing spirit of biographical memoirs, it is often an important connecting link between the present and the past. "Historical evidence, like judicial evidence," says Sir George Cornwell Lewis, "is founded on the testimony of credible witnesses." Where such evidence is handed down to us, the witnesses being no longer contemporary with the events, it is easily disputed, because it is no longer susceptible of proof. It should be weighed and sifted, however, with due regard to scenes and circumstances, the character of the witnesses, and the quality of the informing medium, as well as to the source whence it is derived.
I am led to these reflections by two caustic reviews in a slashing Captain Shandon style of my letter published in the The Times's Saturday Review of Feb. 26 on "Irving and Ichabod Crane." One of these, from the pen of Mr. Edgar Mayhew Bacon of Tarrytown, appeared in last week's Saturday Review, and the other in The Troy Times in its weekly New York letter from its rural correspondent, who signs himself, "The Hermit in New York," but who is a respectable clergyman living in Fonda, where he has access to newspaper files, and who rarely, if ever, visits New York. Mr. Bacon is so consciously amused, if not inwardly convulsed, in his efforts to appear funny at the expense of the author of "Half-Holidays," that out of mere complacency, recognizing the dawning consciousness of his powers, and for the sake of encouraging a rare wit, which some day may prove useful to him in fertilizing the columns of a comic paper, I am willing to pose in the role he has assigned me, and would not deprive him of a single rib-tickle or titillation of the diaphragm. Passing over his comical suggestion that "Mr. Van Santvoord has made up his mind that Irving's 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow' would look well at Kinderhook," and that, possibly, "he is merely attempting to foster a boom" here-with a mild disclaimer as regards the boom theory, inasmuch as our "sleeping beauty of a village," as a distinguished visitor once termed it, has no use for a boom-I will proceed at once to grapple with certain specific charges Mr. Bacon prefers, and prove them distinctly false.
Frist, Mr. Bacon alleges that Washington Irving only once visited Kinderhook, "which disposes of the theory that he recalled youthful pranks in a letter Mr. Van Santvoord refers to, but does not quote, in connection with the matter." I beg to remind Mr. Bacon that I did quote the letter, in part, from the original in my possession; and then went on to say that the author of the "Sketch Book" also refers in this (same) letter to a "mischievous prank of his youth," &c. Now, for the sake of enlightening the befogged mind of my critic, I will further quote Irving's exact words, and from his own handwriting, thus refuting Mr. Bacon's statement that he (Irving) and "after he had reached man's estate" spent only two months of his life in Kinderhook-"the ones immediately succeeding the death of Miss Hoffman," which, he adds, "were deeply clouded." Irving thus wrote to Ichabod Crane (Jesse Merwin:)
"Do you remember our fishing expedition in company with Congressman Van Alen to the little lake a few miles from Kinderhook, and John Moore, the vagabond admiral of the lake, who sat crouched in a heap in the middle of his canoe in the centre of the lake, with fishing rods stretching out in every direction like the long legs of a spider; and do you remember our piratical pranks when we made up for our own bad luck in fishing by plundering his canoe of its fish when we found it adrift; and do you remember how John Moore came splashing along the marsh on the opposite border of the lake, roaring at us; and how we finished our frolic by driving off and leaving the Congressman to John Moore's mercy-tickling ourselves with the idea of his being scalped to death? Oh, well-a-day, friend Merwin, these were the days of our youth and folly, and I trust we have grown wiser and better since then; we have certainly grown older. I don't think we would rob John Moore's fishing canoe now. By the way, that same John Moore, and the anecdote you told of him, gave me the idea of a vagabond character, Dick Schuyler, in my 'Knickerbocker History of New York,' which I was then writing."
It is clear from the above that Irving had previously visited Judge Van Ness, not in his manhood, as Mr. Bacon asserts, but, in Irving's own words, in the "days of his youth and folly," and even, if by some curious reversal of the whirligig of time, which the omniscient powers of a critic like Mr. Bacon can alone effect, these melancholy days, when Irving was mourning the loss of his sweetheart, could be made synchronous with the idle hours of his "piratical prank" on the lake, and other frolics in which he and Merwin indulge, the author of the "Sketch Book" would be made to appear in such an awkward and ludicrous plight during his sorrow, that, on the theory of temporary insanity, his biography would have to be rewritten. Here is a strange dilemma, on either horn of which Mr. Bacon may hang himself, if he chooses, for the amusement of the public, unless, abandoning his theory, he prefers to take to the woods.
Furthermore, this chronicler of local history asserts-and, in making the sweeping charge, becomes for a moment irresistibly comic-that the present writer "claims the relation of the legend to Kinderhook on the ground that Kinderhook used to posses a church with a bell rope hanging down the middle aisle, and basket-shaped collection boxes, in which he has since picked apples." Can any serious reader with an atom of sense in his head, having read the article in question, trace any logical nexus in the writer's scheme between the preceding statements in his rambling essay and the legend of the meeting house, which he appended as a tag to the story? Reference to my letter, of course, will show that I never made such a claim, and this Baconian deduction is so Quixotically absurd that I prefer to let it stand as evidence against my accuser, with a mere allusion to his perversion of my words in his quotation from the text, which should read: "A purse-shaped pouch attached to a long staff used for collecting alms and utilized not many years ago by a rural friend of the writer in picking apples."
This is not at all pertinent to the questions in controversy. But it shows Mr. Bacon's inaccuracy in minor matters and weakens his force of statement. Perhaps, like Falstaff, he has made "such a sinner of his memory" that he credits his own dreams as demonstrable facts!
"Where Ichabod Crane went after he left the scene of his labors and misadventures in Sleepy Hollow," says Mr. Bacon, "we do not know. * * * 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 the name of Merwin set himself to overcome those eccentricities of manner which were his only title to immortality." Let me assure my readers that there is no foundation for these rumors whatever, and that I can show beyond any peradventure of doubt that Merwin never lived in Tarrytown. Since my letter appeared in The Times's Saturday Review I have taken the pains to look up the Merwin genealogy, and through the courtesy of a son of Ichabod Crane, still living here and highly esteemed for his uprightness of character, have had access to a printed record tracing back the faily of English or Welsh extraction on American soil to 1645, when the original emigrant became owner of a large tract of land lying mostly in the town of Milford, Conn. "One of the interesting characteristics of the Merwin family"-I am now quoting from "Biographical Sketches" in the History of Hillside, Columbia County, N. Y.-"it is their attachment to their old ancestral home, it having remained in the possession of the family two hundred and twenty-seven years." The published family record states the following:
"Jesse Mewin, son of Daniel Merwin, born in Milford, Conn., Aug. 25, 1784, and settled in Kinderhook, N. Y., where he died Nov. 8, 1852. He married Jane Van Dyck Oct. 8, 1808, and had ten children."
"Ichabod Crane," says Irving in the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "was a native of Connecticut, a State which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters." Descendants of Ichabod asseverate that after migrating from Milford, Conn., he lived continuously in Kinderhook, where he taught school, as humorously described by Irving, and had no acquaintance with Tarrytown. Up to within a few years ago, his son David, next to the youngest of the children, had preserved a great many interesting letters written by Washington Irving to his early and attached friend, and covering the long period of their intimacy, which were unfortunately destroyed by a careless servant during the annual Spring housecleaning period. And yet my humorous critic in Tarrytown, and the Fonda clergyman, who is almost prenaturally solemn in the grave emphasis he places on his alleged fact, would have all the world and his wife believe that the close and enduring relations existing between Irving and Ichabod Crane for a period of over forty years were the result of a chance meeting at Judge Van Ness's, "the only time Irving visited Kinderhook (!)" and when he was plunged in grief from the catastrophe of his early love!
I saw yesterday an original letter Jesse Merwin carried to New York in 1846, whither he had gone "for the purpose of collecting money for the Methodist Episcopal Church (in Kinderhook) and lecturing on temperance," bearing this indorsement in the handwriting of Martin Van Buren:
"This is to certify that I have known Jesse Merwin, Esq., of Kinderhook for about a third of a century, and believe him to be a man of honor and integrity; and that he is the same person celebrated in the writings of Washington Irving under the character of Ichabod Crane in his famous 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "M. Van Buren."
But the additional proof is not needed to establish the close identity of
Irving's friend Merwin with the character of Ichabod Crane, which Pierre M.
Irving concedes in his biography. It is a curious coincidence that in my Irving
letter, written over thirty years after the publication of the "Sketch
Book," wherein the author reminds Merwin of "the punishment of some
little tough, broad-bottomed Dutch boy," which he promised to keep back
for Irving's amusement, a phrase should have occurred almost identical with
one used by the author in the legend, viz., the punishment "of some little
tough, wrong-headed Dutch urchin!" The old long schoolhouse which stood
near Lindenwald, exactly as described by Irving in his romance, was for many
years a familiar landmark endeared by its associations with Irving, who often
visited it "after school was dismissed," and with the pedagogue Ichabod
Crane. Ever since the present writer was a boy he has heard from the older residents
of the village, whose reputation for veracity is unimpeachable, of Irving's
sojourns here, of his tutorship in the Van Ness family, and of the strange influence
that surrounded him when the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was outlined
in his mind. The writer may be in error in assuming that all of the Sleepy Hollow
romance was written at Lindenwald, (I believe the manuscript of the story was
forwarded to New York by Irving from Europe,) although he is supported in this
view by George Alfred Townsend in his sketch of Lindenwald, published some years
ago. However, by the strongest circumstantial evidence, as well as by the positive
testimony of credible witnesses, the genesis of the story and all that gives
it vital charm, can easily traced back to Irving's early associations in Kinderhook.
An aged lady of tenacious powers of memory and who was well acquainted with
all the facts of the case gave me a few years before her death a minute description
of the personal charms of Katrina Van Tassel, whom she had known quite well
in her youth, and a lively account of the exploits of the redoubtable Brom Bones-one
Abram Van Alstyne, as Irving himself confessed. In closing this letter, which
is far too long, I will merely repeat that the scenes of the romance, the pond,
bridge, and schoolhouse (Ichabod without his long schoolhouse would be like
a turtle without its shell) have so strange a similitude to actual and familiar
scenes near Lindenwald as to justify the conclusion, as tradition reports and
as is amply verified by descendants of the originals who figured in the legend,
that it was Irving's first intention to locate the story in Kinderhook.
Harold Van Santvoord.
Kinderhook, N. Y., March 14, 1898