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Sleepy Hollow: Fearful Pleasures and the Nightmare of History
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Sleepy Hollow:
Fearful Pleasures and the Nightmare of History
Robert Hughes
Ohio State University
Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes is Assistant Professor in the English Department at Ohio State University where he teaches literary theory and 19th-century American literature. He has co-edited After Lacan, completed a book, Writing Out of Death, and is currently writing about Emerson's theories of language and poetry.


1. The critical literature on history and trauma is now vast. In its conceptualization of the strange historicity of trauma, however, the present essay is specifically indebted to two foundational texts, Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920; SE 18: 3-64) and Moses and Monotheism (1938; SE 23: 3-137) and to the important critical work represented by Caruth's Unclaimed Experience. Also useful were Erikson's article on community trauma and Lifton's remarks on trauma by proxy (Caruth, "Interview"). Fresco's fascinating article on the intergenerational transmission of trauma in families of Holocaust survivors was especially useful in thinking about how trauma may come to be shared among a community and not remain simply the possession of an individual.

2. Indeed, in 1824, "The Adventure of the German Student" (from Crayon's Tales of Traveller) would feature another headless (and now plainly supernatural) ghost situated provocatively between love and history. See Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall 418-24.

3. See "To the Public" in A History of New York, 377-81. See also the preface to the Dolph Heyliger stories in Bracebridge Hall, 300-3 and the early remarks in "The Money Diggers" section of Tales of a Traveller, 647-55.

4. This 1839 reminiscence from The Knickerbocker Magazine was published as simply "Sleepy Hollow," and is not to be confused with the 1820 tale, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

5. "Cowboys" were bands of highwaymen and freebooters who roamed the Neutral Ground between the British-controlled New York City and the American-held West Point. They claimed loyalist sympathies and confiscated the property of patriots who fell into their hands. Highwaymen with patriot sympathies were called "Skinners." See Cray's very informative article on cowboys and skinners and on especially John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, the three men who stopped the disguised Major André on the road near Sleepy Hollow, evidently with the idea of robbing him.

6. Major John André was the staff officer in charge of intelligence for the British Commander-in-Chief, General Clinton. André had opened negotiations with the disgruntled American Major General, Benedict Arnold, and in September 1780 was behind American lines, completing negotiations for Arnold's treason, when his sloop was forced back down the Hudson, stranding him behind the lines. André attempted to reach British lines by land, but was caught by an irregular patrol near Tarrytown, out of uniform, under a false name, and carrying papers relevant to Arnold's treason. Arnold received the news and quickly escaped to New York City. André's gallantry during his trial and appeal (to be reclassified, despite his disguise and his conveyance of classified documents, from spy to prisoner of war) earned him broad sympathy (1081). Nevertheless, he was found guilty and was hanged as a spy, some miles down river from Sleepy Hollow and on the opposite shore, at Tappan. Had the unfortunate major but remained in British uniform, he would have survived and instead been interned as a prisoner of war.

7. Pease's very brief discussion of the tale (15-17) misattributes characteristics to several figures. Thus, he claims that André himself held divided loyalties, whereas in fact André was very faithfully serving the British crown while arranging for Arnold's treason. He misidentifies Major André's tree as the tree where André was hanged, whereas André was merely caught near the named tree in Sleepy Hollow. Pease and I are certainly in agreement, however, with his essential point—namely, that the tale is a way for the locals to come to terms with the difficult history of divided loyalties.

8. Says Irving in Bracebridge Hall (1822), "It seems, in fact, to be a part of our nature, like instinct in animals, acting independently of our reason" (103...