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  • "Gone Distracted":"Sleepy Hollow," Gothic Masculinity, and the Panic of 1819
  • David Anthony (bio)

[L]egerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth, [making it impossible] to reason Bedlam to rights.

-Thomas Jefferson, 1819

So that when we see a wise people, embracing phantoms for realities, and running mad, as it were, in schemes of refinement, taste, pleasures, wealth and power, by the sole aid of this civil hocus pocus; when we contemplate paper gold, and paper land, paper armies and revenues; a paper government and a paper legislature; we are apt to regard the Fairy Tales, the Travels of Gulliver, and the Arabian Nights Entertainment, as grave relations, and historical facts. In truth, we live in a mere enchanted island, and an individual may almost doubt, from the strong propensity there is now towards paper, whether he himself is made of any better materials . . . We have heard of the Golden, Silver, and Iron ages of the poets; the present, to mark its frivolity, may be called the Paper Age.

-Niles Weekly Register, 1819

Like vast numbers of his contemporaries, the Washington Irving of The Sketch Book era (1817-1819) was haunted by the twin specters of credit and debt. "Various circumstances have concurred to render me very nervous and subject to fits of depression," he wrote to his close friend Henry Brevoort in 1819 about the "humiliating alternative" of bankruptcy after the family business which he and his brothers ran collapsed under the weight of overextended credit. "My mode of life has unfortunately been such as to render me unfit for almost any useful purpose. I have not the kind of knowledge or the habits that are necessary for business" (Letters I: 549-550; 516). Sounding a similar note of unease in an earlier letter, Irving writes, "I would not again experience the anxious days and sleepless nights which have been my lot since I have taken hold of business [End Page 111] to possess the wealth of Croesus" (Letters I: 432). It was a theme he returned to repeatedly in the years leading up to the financial stability that would come with the publication of The Sketch Book. Irving famously contends that his literary career-and The Sketch Book in particular-acted as compensation for such anxiety and humiliation, allowing him his only chance of "acquiring real reputation" (Letters I: 550). But The Sketch Book also acts as a crucial barometer for understanding the increasingly "nervous" and "anxious" form of masculinity emerging in the period leading up to and following the devastating financial Panic of 1819, the first widespread financial crisis in American history and a watershed moment in the nation's growing awareness of its own complex and often uneasy relationship to commerce. Critics and biographers have demonstrated that Irving was himself Federalist in orientation during this period, and he is clearly seeking throughout The Sketch Book to provide a kind of lament for a lost era of what Linda Kerber refers to as "statesmanship of the highest order," one embodied in George Washington and one said by Federalists to have vanished with Jefferson's election in 1800 (Federalists vii). Even more specifically, however, we might read The Sketch Book as reflecting a nostalgic longing for a period predating the modern period of commerce and credit, one which found an anxious Irving financially embarrassed and decidedly out of place.

This is particularly true of the most anxiety-laden text within The Sketch Book, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Organized around the overtly gendered humiliation suffered at story's end by the mercurial Ichabod Crane, "Sleepy Hollow" depicts a new form of masculinity as it was taking shape in the 1819 period, one which I want to argue Irving and many others saw as the direct manifestation of the perceived trauma brought about by the shift from a standard of monetary valuation based on gold or silver specie-a "gold standard"-to an economy resting on the unstable and often illusory foundations of credit, speculation, and paper money. J. G. A. Pocock suggests that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England saw new modes of personality emerge as new relations to property and...


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