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ONCE A LEGEND, ALWAYS A LEGEND:
DISNEY'S SLEEPY HOLLOW AND POST-WWII AMERICA




Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819-1820) begins as a posthumous secret hidden within the collection of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. It reads, “Found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker,” notifying the reader of a long-lost legend. Here an intimacy is formed between Irving and the reader, one that continues to exist almost 200 years later, though Sleepy Hollow is separated from the original anthology. Americans still read and know the text and feel a sense of familiarity with the tale. It is, of course, America’s legend. Irving makes it easy on us by pointing it out in the title. Why wait for a story to become a legend when one can simply authorize it to be so? Hubris aside, Irving’s short story strikes a chord with multiple generations of American readers and viewers due to the fluidity of meaning and multiple cultural contexts associated with it.

As a folkloric element, a legend can morph and change to serve its cultural environment. Irving designated “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as such in 1819 and due to its revitalization through culture-producer, Walt Disney, the “Legend” takes a new form as a cartoon film. However, a singular message of Americanness remains. Though the function changes, later generations of young people discover the American tale through this popular adaptation released in 1949 as a part of a double feature titled Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and was paired with Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. Disney’s take on Irving’s tale stays close to the original narrative, illustrating visuals and characters by the American author’s description. In fact, there is little alteration from the nineteenth-century story, aside from the softening that occurred due to its cartoon aesthetics. Three important aspects of the film apply to its public reception: first, the date of release occurs when Americans were moving toward a return to conservative domestic life after World War II; second, Irving’s tale is paired with a story highlighting pastoral England by British children’s author Kenneth Graham, which displays a connection between the two nations fostered by the war; finally, Disney’s portrayal of the American pastoral landscape displays a shift in environmental values and an alteration in cultural perception of man’s relationship with nature.

 

In Search of a Legend

Like other folk genres, the origin of a “legend” can be elusive. A legend transforms and adapts to meet the needs of the generation who requests its instructions and value. As a result of this fluidity, it requires investigatory skills to discover the starting point of a narrative and trace it through history. A second problem is that there are numerous definitions of a “legend” that depend on its historical origins. In her book, Legend and Belief: Dialetics of a Folklore Genre, folklorist Linda Dégh meticulously considers all of the elements towards what constitutes a legend and determines that there are too many variations to form a succinct definition, while posing further questions to be answered. She summons the reader: "Even if we tried to cite only the most common criteria, chosen at random, they would be disturbingly numerous. Are the sources of a legend a personal experience or folk tradition? How does the teller relate it – in first or third person? Does it concern familial, local, or a more general topic? How far has the story spread? Does it stay within a limited circle or does it tend to migrate? Is it national or international, rural or urban? What kind of belief does it express?" (emphasis mine).

It is too much to exhaustively analyze “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with all of the questions Dégh presents; so here the primary question of interest is “what kind of belief does it express?” As folklorist Richard Dorson writes, “Folklore is recognized as an expression of its times,” and it is an exploration “of the living, not the dying culture.” What matters is “its adaptability and suitability to the needs of a particular period.” If a legend is a fluid narrative “handed down” through generations and believed to have historical roots that alter and change to meet the needs of the living, then the evolution of Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” in popular media is an illustration of this occurrence. Its origins are tricky, though, not because of the ambiguity, but because we know exactly when it was created and this knowledge causes problems for the folklorist who expects a legend to be of an equivocal nature. While it may not have been a legend at the time of Irving’s writing in 1819, it develops legendary status in the contemporary American mind through popular films like Walt Disney’s.

Irving’s narrative is enjoyable to read. His writing is elegant, descriptive, and exciting. The tale can be terrifying when told on Halloween night. Certainly, the legend settles comfortably in a lineage of traditional storytelling, but this fact is not the singular reason for its continued veneration in American popular culture. After the “Disneyfication” of “Legend,” the tale acquired a place in the collective memory of twentieth-century children.


The Disneyfication of Washington Irving

Previous scholars such as Laurie A. Meamber define the term “Disneyfication” as “an approach to literature and history that simplifies and cleanses an object of unpleasantness,” and while typically referencing Walt Disney productions, it can indicate other “cleansed unpleasantness.” Here the term is directly applicable to a Disney product. The studio remained within the boundaries of Irving’s very detailed narration of characters and the American landscape, but simplified the images for visual appeal. The illustrated Ichabod Crane of 1949 is a line-by-line recreation of Irving’s depiction, narrated by Bing Crosby: "[Ichabod Crane] was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew."

This description exists word-for-word in both the original short story and the film. Disney employs this narrative method in segments throughout as a sign to the viewer that they have no intention of veering from the original language or plot. The setting also remains close to text, as Disney relies on Irving’s words for guidance on illustrated scenery. Of the Van Tassel farm, Irving writes: "His stronghold was situated on the banks of the Hudson, in one of those green, sheltered, fertile nooks in which the Dutch farmers are so fond of nestling. A great elm-tree spread its broad branches over it; at the foot of which bubbled up a spring of the softest and sweetest water, in a little well, formed of a barrel; and then stole sparking away through the grass, to a neighboring brook, that bubbled along among alders and dwarf willows. Hard by the farm-house was a vast barn, that might have served for a church; every window and crevice of which seemed bursting forth with the treasures of the farm." From here, Irving proceeds to elaborate on the quality of the flora and fauna, proudly proclaiming the bounty of the New York landscape. The Disney illustrators simplify the imagery, but successfully display the lush landscape of abundance. Panoramic views of a cartooned upstate New York serve as a background to the Halloween film: golden fields of grain, quaint Dutch windmills, large oak trees, and a perfectly proportioned red gambrel roof barn. Irving intended for the cultivated American land to be a character within the short story, and in cartoon form it remains the same. Though twentieth-century narrative seems to flow line-by-line, Disney leaves out quite a bit of text in order to portray a very specific message.
             
Americanist Constance Rourke notes Irving’s ability to create “a comic mythology as though comic myth-making were a native habit, formed early; and [Irving’s] writings show the habitual playing off of one regional type against another." But rather than satirize contemporary characters, Irving reaches to the past for comedy. The setting is post-Revolutionary War America in an isolated village established by Dutch settlers. Irving does not criticize contemporary Americans, but pokes fun at non-English characters of the past. The writer is establishing a new form of American literature, yet by placing the narrative in pre-revolutionary history he is fooling the audience into thinking the past is laden with the values of the present. According to cultural historian Daniel G. Hoffman, the “clash of the regional characters,” and the clash of urban and rural, had “emerged as the dominate types” in literature during the first half of the nineteenth century, but the author managed to conceal it in a historical narrative and through caricatures of Dutch villagers. Though humorous, they come out on top, which both Rourke and Hoffman take note of in their analyses. In fact, Hoffman asserts that Irving’s “Legend” is the first instance of the “Yankee vs. the backwoodsman,” and that “When the Yankee meets the frontiersman instead of English fops or New York dandies, his role is reversed and he now becomes the representative of culture facing the unfettered natural man of the frontier.” Focusing on the backwoodsman, Dorson writes, “First attracting attention as a clownish figure in local legends, some of these slattern characters ascended toward heroic or at least mock-heroic stature.” The Yankee is no longer the hero, and the “city slicker” Ichabod Crane is destroyed. By re-issuing the narrative with little change, the Walt Disney Studios build upon the values presented originally by Washington Irving. While the storyline stays the same, a slight alteration in character emphasis shifts twentieth century values of manhood and wealth to the forefront. Irving intended for Brom Bones to be the sympathetic, heroic character and Ichabod Crane to be the fool. Disney shifts the sympathy to Crane as Bones settles into the background.

 

American Prosperity

In the 1949 cartoon, like Irving’s tale, Ichabod Crane is the primary character, Katrina is the love interest, and there is still competition with Brom Bones. However, in the Disney adaptation, Katrina and Brom are more one-dimensional than originally portrayed. Irving presents Brom as the frontiersman antithesis to Crane’s urban intellect while Disney’s Brom serves comedic purposes and is a channel to relay the tale of the Headless Horseman. Disney’s Katrina is a superficial sketch without a line of dialogue. Granted, Crane does not speak through the film, either, but he is the film’s namesake. Crane is a more sympathetic character in Disney’s adaptation, and the audience empathizes with him through his struggles for love and success, in spite of – or even because of – his comedic fallacies. He is long-limbed, physically and socially awkward, and self-serving. But he sings well, is loved by the ladies of the community, and is endearing in his self-centeredness. All he wants is to be loved by Katrina – and he wants her family’s wealth. He dreams of marrying a beautiful woman, settling down into a comfortable home, and accumulating worldly comforts. After World War II, many Americans felt the same way.

In her celebrated book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, historian Elaine Tyler May argues that it is too simplistic to think that post-war Americans were only “eager to put the disruptions and hardships of war behind them and enjoy the abundance of home,” which led to the increased marriage and birth rates and economic prosperity. Rather, she argues, the reasons are more complex, rooted in race, gender, and class issues, and encouraged by political policies. It is not my intention to refute her argument because it is a valid and a necessary element to our understanding of Cold War America. However, underlying ideals in Disney’s “Legend” confirm the interest of both men and women to return to the comfortable domestic lives after the war. The relevance of this rush towards a domestic ideal, and the sexual tension that accompanied it, is not simply found in the Ichabod-Katrina-Brom love triangle. Its emphasis is found in the transition – and change – between Irving’s short story and Disney’s adaptation. Through a gender analysis of the nineteenth-century text, historians Laura Plummer and Michael Nelson contend, “the ‘feminine’ in Ichabod is his unmanly, superstitious, trembling, and gullible side – he himself seems, in this tale, begrudgingly to acquiesce to the female sphere of Sleepy Hollow.” Nineteenth-century Ichabod Crane is unlikable to Irving’s contemporary audience due to the juxtaposition of the clueless Yankee to the manly frontiersman Brom Bones. In contrast, Disney’s version of the story places Crane as the likeable – albeit awkward – hero. He is attractive to the twentieth-century American audience for two reasons: first, he embodies the desires of post-war consumerism and prosperity, and second, Americans no longer contend with the wilderness, so there is less importance in the strong backwoodsman. The attainment of worldly goods and the accomplishment of a comfortable married life are the markers of success.
           
Historian Michael Kammen writes that the post-WWII era had “distinctive manifestations” of nostalgia and heritage: “a growing concern with collective memory on the part of some individuals in response to apparent social amnesia on the part of many; a fitful desire that waxed and waned to recover vernacular culture along with a gradually growing interest in the history of ordinary folk and everyday life.” According to Kammen, Walt Disney was distinctly a part of this movement with the opening of Disneyland in California in 1955, influenced by Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Michigan, and through the historic districts in the theme park Disney “makes the past orderly, sanitized, seemingly innocent, and, of course, fabulously unreal." A false legend, fabricated for the generation of the 1820s by Irving to uphold the symbol of the robust country, is perfectly suitable for continued fabrication of American heritage by Disney Studios. Americans seized anything that allowed them to reaffirm the success of the American spirit. Irving created “Legend” to assert post-War of 1812 values of American stability and permanency by drawing on the strength and caricatures of rural people; Disney illustrated “Legend” post-WWII, and it confirmed American stability and the permanency of democracy. A part of this narrative was the country’s connection to Great Britain as a sister-nation.

 

Anglophilia

Though seemingly a trivial detail, it is significant that Disney paired “Legend” with “Wind in the Willows” by British children’s author Kenneth Graham. Throughout the war, the United States’ close alignment with Great Britain was part of the success of the conflict. The Lend-Lease program between the U.S. and British governments was the first step into war for many Americans and provided a way of participation without sending manpower. Though many were in disagreement with this kind of war involvement before Pearl Harbor, continued support throughout the war signified a connection between the two nations that many Americans linked with historical tradition. Post-WWII viewers would be intimately familiar with the relationship and regard it as a natural one, they would even esteem “Wind in the Willows” as a part of their own national heritage.
           
However, before 1940, many Americans were not of British lineage, and there was a push toward a more democratic – a more “American” – view of heritage. Kammen argues that after World War I, Americans believed that Great Britain had pushed them into an unnecessary war, causing a great loss of life and exasperating economic struggles. This frustration was a catalyst for changes in the educational system and the "upshot," for Kammen, "was a surge of Anglophobia, nationwide attempts to purge schoolbooks of any positive content regarding Great Britain…Patriotic societies distributed [pamphlets] and belabored school boards to scrutinize potential texts.” Of course, these kinds of sentiments against Great Britain were part of an ebb and flow throughout the years, like a child that wishes to grow out from under the shadow of an older sibling. The back and forth between cherished relationship and independent disinterest swings again toward cultural (and political) bonds at the onset of World War II.
           
One of the most famous features of WWII is the “special relationship” between the United States and England, symbolized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Historians argue that it is this relationship that allowed for the strength of the Allies. Yet, it was not without tension. In the early years, regular Americans were still not ready for a transition to a close relationship with the British again, and as historians David Dimbleby and David Reynolds point out, articles like that published in Life magazine in 1942 expressed American sentiments about not wanting to fight “to hold the British Empire together.” Through the war, as American and British soldiers fought alongside each other, as American soldiers met British women and families overseas, and as the media portrayed the strength of the British character through the war, American sympathies grew. After the war ended, and subsequently American political/economic support waned, a shock to the “special relationship” occurred. America was no longer in need of a partnership with the powerful Great Britain, but could function as a world leader without help. Following WWII, disputes escalated with the Soviet Union and thus the United States and Great Britain formed the partnership again in 1947. Dimbleby and Reynolds write, “The ‘special relationship’ seemed to work, after all. As the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Lewis Douglas, cabled Washington in August 1948, ‘Anglo-American unity today is more firmly established than ever before in peacetime.’”
           
What about regular Americans? If the meaning of a legend is to work, the American people must be involved. The significance of a political alliance between the United States and Britain means nothing to the “special relationship” between Irving’s “Legend” and Graham’s “Wind in the Willows” if not for the general public’s interest. Culturally through the war, anglophilia started to rise. Distinguished essayist and former editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, writes (under the pseudonym “Aristides”), "For an American Boy growing up in the middlewest, World War II was fought at the movies. I fought it at the side of such gallant – and elegant – officers as Major Ronald Colman, Colonel Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Captain Noël Coward, Commander Cary Grant and Lieu (actually Lef)tenant Errol Flynn. Even in American movies, the English officers always came off as the most suave, most intelligent, most heroic of fighters."

Though politicians make the “big decisions” of the war, the people make the judgment. Epstein brilliantly expresses how a 1940s child thought about world outside of United States boundaries. The English were heroic, “gallant,” and “elegant.” He could “see” them move through the movies and in his young mind, which how he was a part of the war. Through a different cultural outlet, Epstein connected with another element of British culture: literature. He writes, “In the public schools of Chicago, such literature as was studied, apart from the thin gruel of a bit of Longfellow and Washington Irving, was English literature. Christmas, as I understood it, was practically invented by Charles Dickens.” As patriotic societies attempted to rid the American school system of English influence, children like Epstein would grow to be producers of culture in their own right and delighted themselves in the works of the great British authors. Dickens taught them social struggles and heroism, Shakespeare taught them history, and Irving spoke Americanness. The two cultures melded together. “In America, our conceptions of honor, courage, romance and decency were all imported from England,” explains Epstein. This connection was reaffirmed through the Disney release of “Legend” alongside “Wind in the Willows” in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949.

 

The American Pastoral Landscape:  An Identity Crisis

When Irving wrote rich descriptions of the American landscape and the people who worked it, he grasped for a mythology of the land that connected to the personality of the United States and lore embedded in history. In 1820, the American people were in the process of rejecting intellectualism for practical, homegrown intuition found in the symbol of Andrew Jackson. Ultimately, Richard Dorson writes, “Folk heroes even more than culture heroes [statesmen] emphasized the manners of democracy…[They were] shaggy heroes of a democratic folk, mocking the genteel dandies of the drawing room.” In the nineteenth century, by scorning tradition and formal learning, Americans rejected Old World Europe and embraced nature and natural wisdom rooted in the landscape. As John William Ward notes, they were forming the American personality. It was an effortless transition for Americans to reach for language that directly connected the success of a nation to the environment, since unlike the Old World’s established monuments and sacred sites, the New World’s cathedrals were mountains, the monuments were trees, and the mythological beings were the animals that roamed through it. An example of this language is Irving’s description of the abundant land in “Legend” – as a character it is more successful in seducing Crane than the coquette Katrina van Tassel.

The land is a “character” in Irving’s tale and a manifestation of symbolic American abundance, prosperity, and promise; thus, the illustrated environment in Disney’s adaptation is a reflection of twentieth-century sensibilities about the purpose of the land. How one portrays the natural environment is a reflection of the worldview. The artists used Irving’s elaborate descriptions to form illustration, but the writers neglected to place emphasis on the unique aspects of the American landscape as Irving did originally. The primary worth of the land in the 1949 cartoon is its monetary value. While Crane daydreams about Katrina, his thoughts shift quickly to the wealth she would bring with her into marriage: a prosperous farm equals a source of abundant fortune. In the film, the golden wheat turns to gold coins and the green heads of lettuce become piles of dollar bills. The value of the land as portrayed by Disney is clear: it is not the unique flora and fauna, it is not the sense of independence and possibility – it is the potential for money-making on the farm that grabs Crane’s attention. While Irving describes the awkward character’s interest in affluence through the narrative, it is not as prominent of a detail as the abundance of the land. In fact, the personality of the landscape in the story stands alone, outside of economics. Only in the later version does it become a primary concern.

During and after WWII, the importance of a piece of land was found in its profit value. After the economic depression of the 1930s, entrenched in the country’s ability to produce agricultural products, the development of a greater number of pesticides, innovations in farm equipment, and the need for agricultural production created a boom in the farm industry. Farm production increased by over twenty percent between 1935 and 1950. In 1946, the federal government passed more legislation to provide funding for agricultural research than years past. According to Julian M. Alston and Philip G. Pardey, the Research and Marketing Act served to “maintain a balanced farming and industrial economy” and “introduced open-ended appropriations for research and linked spending in agricultural research and development to national welfare.” Whereas funding for research remained in the thousands of dollars in the 1920s, it increased slowly through the New Deal Era, and by 1950, $15 million was granted for “new uses” research; $6 million for cooperative research into farm product utilization; and in one year funding increased from $2.5 million to $20 million for marketing research of agricultural products. The United States government placed significant weight behind America’s farming industry, hoping to squeeze out every bit of economic value from the land. This escalation in funds sparked a rising trend in American farming production, assisted by advancements in farm equipment, scientific developments in pesticides, and marketing of products. The increase in population due to the Baby Boom after World War II also encouraged agricultural growth. Though a sign of a healthy economy after the war, the river of funds flowing into America’s agribusiness also provoked concerns over the health of the land.

In the 1940s, biologist and environmental activist Rachel Carson began voicing her concerns about the use of pesticides in farming, particularly DDT, while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before her post as editor in chief of the agency’s publications, she struggled to get other national magazines to publish her writings on the matter. “The pollution of the environment by the profligate use of toxic chemicals was the ultimate act of hubris, a product of ignorance and greed that she felt compelled to bear witness against,” writes Carson’s biographer Linda Lear. Cries of warning coincided with advancements in agribusiness and federal funding. It was too much too soon for many environmentalists, but prosperity was in the air. After the war ended, the United States economy was healthy compared to that of their European brothers and sisters. Advertising increased across all markets. Suburban homes were built in record numbers, consuming previously unused land. American men and women returned from war, weary and broken, wishing for comfortable prosperity. Strong sentiments like these found their way to popular entertainment like Disney’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in subtle ways, morphing Irving’s luscious landscape to dollars and cents.

 

Conclusion

In his consideration of the evolution of historical thought in America, Kammen writes, “At a time when discontinuity seemed so perplexing, a sense of permanence and timelessness carried enormous appeal.” Patriotism of the 1950s connected directly with national heritage, a sentiment that begins to rise in the 1930s, but really reaches a peak after the war, corresponding with a rise in accessibility of automobiles for many Americans and an affinity for vacationing and tourism. Americans knew more about the country’s history from a popular culture perspective by traveling to historic sites and reaching into their past for entertainment. As Walt Disney’s influence upon American culture intensified through film and tourist destinations, he selected narratives that were directly connected to the American spirit. Other scholars have noted the importance of more prominent films, like the blockbuster Cinderella (1950), yet due to its American roots the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” connects to very national themes. Irving invented a legend to meet the needs of Americans in 1820 through humor, conflict between urban and rural personifications, and the natural landscape of abundance. The Walt Disney Studios reinvented the legend to illustrate concerns and changes in postwar America. The 1949 adaptation of Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not only firmly settled into the American mind as a part of historical narrative, but as a legend it moves and changes to meet the needs of the time. Disney tailored the story – while keeping all necessary elements – to meet the needs of a postwar American society entering on a new period of their history.

 

February 2015

From guest contributor Sarah Ruth Wilson, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

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