Troubling Our Heads about Ichabod

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Classic American Literature, and the Sexual Politics of Homosocial Brotherhood
  • David Greven


Antebellum American men were scopophilic spectacles, projected onto vast social screens, where they were perpetually scrutinized by innumerable punitive eyes. The intensity of these combined reformist glares reached their zenith during the reign of Jackson. Emerging in 1820, Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” presages certain thematic elements of Jacksonian manhood and the simultaneous resistance to and complicity with it and other gendered ideologies on the part of certain antebellum authors.1


Gender Ideology Male Rivalry American Literature Male Friendship Film Adaptation 
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  1. 1.
    Though Andrew Jackson synthesizes some of the major trends and tensions endemic to national fantasies of gender in the period in which he exerted cultural dominance—roughly between the time of the 1814 Battle of New Orleans (which brought Britain-battling Jackson’s military acumen to national prominence) to the anticipatory years right before the Civil War—it is important to view the national imperative of Jacksonian manhood as only one of several intersecting, yet also discrete forces that determined and shaped manhood in what has been called the “postheroic age,” the years in which the early promise and cohesiveness of the new republic waned and new forms of civic, gendered, and sexual identity proliferated. For a discussion of postheroic America and authorship, see Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1988), 1–31. This is certainly one of the finest studies of Irving available.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The bachelor has been established as a powerfully interesting figure in recent critical work. In an excellent study, Katherine V. Snyder writes, “I like to think of the bachelor as the figure who stands in the doorway, looking in from the outside and also looking out from within” (17). Examining first-person bachelor narrators, Snyder argues that “bachelor trouble was gender trouble. While they were often seen as violating gender norms, bachelors were sometimes contradictorily thought to incarnate the desires and identifications of hegemonic bourgeois manhood” (3–4). Bachelors have a “wide variety and sheer intensity” of “erotic and identifactory energies” (5). See AA Snyder, Bachelors, Manhood, and the Novel, 1850–1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999). It is precisely the bachelor’s association with directed erotic energies—even if they remain unconsummated and multivalent—which distinguishes him from the inviolate male of my formulation, a figure who represents the deferment and perhaps (though not necessarily) the absence of desiring energies. In antebellum America, writes Bryce Traister, “the bachelor was included in the category of normal masculinity, so long as bachelorhood was a temporary stage rather than a permanent destination” (113); in many regards, Ichabod Crane “embodies the bachelor as masculine failure. … The literary bachelor thus provided a link between the language of masculine failure and the domain of marriage and heterosexuality, whose successful consummation were as important to the performance of masculinity as the achievement of economic success” (117). See Bryce Traister, “Irving, Masculinity, and Authorship,” American Literature, Volume 74, Number 1, March 2002. No less than the inviolate male, the antebellum bachelor was, as Vincent J. Bertolini puts it, a fluid identity. This very fluidity was intransigent, given the various programs on the part of the sexual reformers of the 1830s onward (among others) toward turning antebellum men into “self-interpellating subjects of sexual ideology … oriented towards a socially stabilizing sexuality” that precluded the “the transgressive triple threat of masturbation, whoremongering, and that nameless horror—homosexual sex.” See Vincent J. Bertolini, “Fireside Chastity: The Erotics of Sentimental Bachelorhood in the 1850s,” in Chapman and Hendler’s Sentimental Men, 19–42. Michael Warner has also written recently on Irving and the bachelor; see his article “Irving’s Posterity,” English Literary History, 67.3 (2000), 773–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    Feminist thinkers like Lora Romero, Robyn Wiegman, and others have provided salutary correctives to the fetishization of homoaffectionalism. See AA Romero, Home Fronts: Domesticity and Its Critics in the Antebellum United States (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997);Google Scholar
  4. AA Wiegman, “Melville’s Geography of Gender,” Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Myra Jehlen (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994), 187–99. Recently, Nelson discussed the relationship between the construction of male friendship among white men and nationalism in National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. If Fiedler is the critical father of fraternalist fantasies, he has certainly received a thoroughgoing critique in recent years. The male-centered concerns of Love and Death leave women readers in the position of self-abnegation; in the words of Judith Fetterley, women readers of Fiedler are “co-opted into participation in an experience from which she is explicitly excluded; she is asked to identify with a selfhood that defines itself in opposition to her; she is required to identify against herself,” cited inGoogle Scholar
  5. Jonathan Culler’s 1982 On Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994), 51–52.Google Scholar
  6. See also AA Fetterley’s The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1978). Queer readers and critics have also had to suffer from the limitations of Fiedler’s findings. As Robert K. Martin writes, “a strong sense of judgment from a heterosexual point of view” characterizes Fiedler’s work: As he wrote in the preface to the first edition, his subject is “the failure of the American fictionist to deal with adult heterosexual love and his consequent obsession with death, incest, and innocent homosexuality.”… Fiedler’s phrase “adult heterosexual love” is a telling one, since it indeed suggests that all heterosexual love is adult (and, by implication, that all homosexual love is childish, or more pertinently, adolescent). Fiedler’s valorization of heterosexual love as constitutive of adult development casts homosexuality as a stunted and inadequate substitute for man–woman relations. For Martin, “Fiedler’s greatest weakness lies in his failure to see, or explore, the political implications of sexuality.” Martin takes issue with Fiedler’s pathologization of homosexuality as “childish,” as arrested development. He finds that Fiedler’s “strong sense of judgment from a heterosexual point of view” causes him to view male friendship and/or homosexuality as inadequate substitutes for “adult heterosexual love.”Google Scholar
  7. See AA Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina UP, 1986), 7–10. Unfortunately, the wonderfully sensitive reader Martin himself occasionally falls into the trap of idealizing male friendship in this study.Google Scholar
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    See Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 24–25.Google Scholar
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    Caleb Crain, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and the New Nation (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001), 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Quotations from this story are noted parenthetically in the text. Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” The Sketch Book (New York: Penguin, 1981), 329–60.Google Scholar
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    René Girard and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick privilege the triangle as the graphic schema for erotic competition between men—two men warring over the same woman. See AA Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 1965), 1–52, for his elaboration of “triangulated desire”; for Sedgwick’s version, which builds on and yet reformulates Girard’s theory into a model for understanding male–male relations in a homophobic culture, see her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), particularly 1–27. The schema of triangulated desire posits that both men have desires, occluded or otherwise, whereas, in my view, an inviolate male may offer no desire—or no clearly definable desire—to the rivalry. In addition, the inviolate male may be eluding both men and women—desiring to escape the system of desire and rivalry itself. My aim here is not so much to dispute the schema of triangulation, especially as Sedgwick so brilliantly retooled it, as it is to enlarge and/or problematize it.Google Scholar
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    Anne Billson, The Thing (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 75. Billson brilliantly analyzes John Carpenter’s great 1982 horror film, a remake of Howard Hawks’s 1951 The Thing from Another World.Google Scholar
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    William L. Hedges, Washington Irving: An American Study, 1802–1832 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965), 143.Google Scholar
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    In The Iliad, Patroclus is older than broody warrior Achilles, which Agammenon’s herald, Phoenix, reveals in Book Nine when he begs Achilles to rejoin the Trojan War. In a fine study of classical education in England and manliness, Carolyn D. Williams tracks the homoerotic tradition of Achilles–Patroclus and its permutations over time: “Homer’s silence” has historically been interpreted as “an invitation for the initiated to read between the lines.” Aeschylus based his tragedy The Myrmidons on the assumption of a homosexual bond between the two warriors; Plato in the Symposium argues that Achilles must have been the passive partner, given his beauty and youth. Over time, however, “Achilles tends to be viewed as the active partner; Patroclus, portrayed in The Iliad as considerate and tender-hearted … becomes a boy.” While Pope “refuses to mention theories about Achilles’ homoeroticism,” Shakespeare had: in his Troilus and Cressida, “Achilles and Patroclus are effeminate, though not unequivocally sodomitical.” One character in the play, Thersites, rebukes Patroclus as Achilles’ “masculine whore” (V. I, 20), a judgment that the play does not treat as “wholly reliable.” If I am correct to view Brom as a violent Patroclus wishing to ravish—in unclearly defined ways—the quarry Ichabod-as-Achilles, then Irving reverts to the Platonic reading of the story. See AA Williams, Pope, Homer, and Manliness: Some Aspects of Eighteenth-Century Classical Learning (New York: Routledge, 1993), 99–109. If anyone doubts the still-potent controversial nature of the Achilles–Patroclus relationship, one has only to watch Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Troy, which renders Patroclus Achilles’ youthful, naïve, battle-hungry “cousin,” presumably to cut off any threatening homoeroticism at the pass. Intriguingly, this square and unimaginative pastiche of The Iliad nevertheless, amply homoeroticizes its chief male subjects, the blond surfer warrior Achilles of Brad Pitt, the hirsutely tan Hector of Eric Bana, the teen-magazine prepubescent Paris of Orlando Bloom, to say nothing of the high-fashion black-armored homosocial horde of the Myrmidon elite force.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    The overall vigor of the tale-telling would seem to ally itself with the lusty, vigorous Brom than the emaciated, spindly Ichabod. Irving appears to have found Brom irresistible even in the inchoate form of his brother-in-law’s narrative. The story’s outline was provided by Irving’s brother-in-law Van Wart, “who had been dwelling upon some recollections of his early years at Tarrytown, and had touched upon a waggish fiction of one Brom Bones, who professed to fear nothing, and boasted of his having once met the devil on a return from a nocturnal frolic and run a race with him for a bowl of milk punch. The imagination of the author suddenly kindled over the recital, and in a few hours he had scribbled off the framework of his renowned story, and was reading it to his sister and her husband”. See Pierre M. Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, Volume I (New York: Putnam, 1862, 448–49). The particulars within this semiotic banquet—wagging, racing the devil at night, milk punch—are irresistible in terms of a homoerotic reading of the story; an ominousness also attaches itself to “nocturnal frolics,” if one reads Brom’s actions as bashing. I find it interesting too that solitary Irving reads the story back to the heterosexual couple who conceived it for him.Google Scholar
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    James V. Catano, Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2001), 9.Google Scholar
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    See Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Robert Con Davis and Robert Scheifler (New York: Longman, 1989, 1976), 488–90.Google Scholar
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    See Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, Volume I (New York: Oxford UP, 1935), 429–30, n. 91. There are distinct plot-valences between The Sketch Book’s suggestively titled “The Spectre Bridegroom” and “Sleepy Hollow.” Irving’s 1824 Tales of a Traveller contains stories that reimagine “Sleepy Hollow” themes, especially “The Bold Dragoon,” which charts the failures of another interloper; “The Adventure of the German Student,” in which a young bibliophile—shades of Hawthorne’s Fanshawe—literally meets the woman of his dreams only to discover that she is dead; and “The Story of the Young Robber,” which involves murdered bridegrooms and ferocious male groups.Google Scholar
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    Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850; reprint, New York: Norton, 1988), 143.Google Scholar
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    Mark E. Kahn, A Republic of Men: The American Founders, Gendered Language, and Patriarchal Politics (New York: New York UP, 1998), 1.Google Scholar
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    Marriage, Rauch writes, is “unmatched” at “taming men”; this quality is especially valuable to a society: Civilizing young males is one of any society’s biggest problems. Whenever unattached males gather in packs, you see no end of trouble: wildings in Central Park, gangs in Los Angeles, soccer hooligans in Britain, skinheads in Germany, fraternity hazings in universities, grope-lines in the military and, in a different but ultimately no less tragic way, the bathhouses and wanton sex of gay San Francisco and New York in the 1970s. Marriage—the domesticating charms of Woman—bears no small relation either to institutionalized male friendship or to the terrors, real or imagined, of fraternity and male-bonding, either of heterosexual or queer men. The elision between fraternal ties and tragedy Rauch makes provides an interesting counterpoint to this study. Marriage and Woman as social and cultural categories provide another. See Jonathan Rauch, “For Better or Worse,” Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader, ed. Andrew Sullivan (New York: Vintage, 1997), 169–81.Google Scholar
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    Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Melville: A Biography (Amherst, MA: Massachusetts UP, 1996), 620.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    A genuine tension continues to exist in treatments of nineteenth-century American homosociality between an acknowledgment of the possibility of homoerotic desire and the scrupulous differentiation between homosocial and homoerotic desire. “Most important were the cult of romantic friendship, the phrenological notion of adhesiveness, and the idea of passional social bonding,” writes David S. Reynolds of nineteenth-century male relations in his study Walt Whitman’s America. Yet, Reynolds also writes that Whitman’s “homoerotic themes have never been adequately placed in their nineteenth-century context”— i.e., never contextualized as products of nineteenth-century American Romantic male friendship. See AA Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Vintage, 1995), 391. Betsy Erkkila, in an appealingly direct essay, writes that academics, among others in “positions of social and cultural power … are heavily invested in keeping Whitman’s sexuality, and specifically his sexual love of men, out of any discussion of his role as the poet of democracy, and the American poet.”Google Scholar
  25. See AA Erkkila, “Whitman and the Homosexual Republic,” Walt Whitman: The Centennial Chapters, ed. Ed Folsom (Iowa City, IA: Iowa UP, 1994), 154. Though this is too difficult and expansive an area of debate to do any justice to in this chapter, I should point out that, while I recognize the difficulty of clearly identifying same-sex desire and sexual practices in nineteenth-century American literature as such, in my view fraternalist biases also put treatments of nineteenth-century American homosociality in a paralytic position in which queer sexuality is de-emphasized in order to bolster more generally palatable, i.e., nonthreateningly-queer, accounts of same-sex intimacy. In nineteenth-century America, Quinn observes, affectional same-sex ardor “rarely involved homoerotic” desire or interest. But he also adds that, “contrary to currently popular assumptions, there was also an early American subculture of people who interacted socially because they shared an erotic interest in persons of their same gender.” See Quinn, Same Sex Dynamics, 69.Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    It should also be pointed out that not all social models that privilege homosocial brotherhood are as predicated on the evacuation of homoeroticism as Robertson-Lorant’s. Paul D. Hardman ends his study of homoaffectionalism with a notably impassioned paean to the liberating potentialities of bonds between men in which homosexuality is incorporated as a vital component of the homosocial. Writes Hardman, “[W]e have hypothesized that the ability of male homo sapiens to tolerate and empathize with other males gives rise to homoaffectionalism, and that that ability is the essential element which enables the species to develop a civilization. It is the tendency towards male bonding and homoaffectionalism which permits individuals to cooperate and work together for a common purpose, for the general good. … Homoaffectionalism allows for homoerotic expression, and rationalizes homosexuality as a physiological and cultural norm. This conclusion suggests that the interference with homoaffectionalism by organized religions and the laws they inspired has hampered the development of the human race and has retarded civilization.” This concise expression of a fervent and pervasive cultural wish—that men would be allowed to “bond” freely and without constraint— openly champions the potential power of homosociality to sanction the presence of a homosexual ardor that can be recognized as a legitimate feature of homosociality. I find Hardman’s work authentically passionate and courageous. I do, however, remain critically suspicious of the impulses that drive the passionate hymns to utopian homosocial spaces—impulses that almost implacably insist on exclusivity even as they strive toward utopian unity. In a related vein, I am also disturbed by the ways in which fraternity—the hidden code of the homosocial— often obscures or obfuscates or pointedly precludes homosexual identity, love, desire, and/or practices. See Paul D. Hardman, Homoaffectionalism: Male Bonding from Gilgamesh to the Present (San Francisco, CA: GLB, 1993), 231.Google Scholar
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    Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990), 2–3.Google Scholar
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    In Freudian–Lacanian psychoanalysis, the male subject must enter the Symbolic patriarchal realm of language and reason and transcend the messy, unintelligible pre-Symbolic realm of the maternal. There is a powerful discussion of the misogynistic implications of this psychoanalytic narrative in Barbara Creed’s chapter “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin, TX: Texas UP, 1996), 35–65.Google Scholar
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    Eric Rofes, Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1998), 28.Google Scholar
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    Robin Hardy, The Crisis of Desire: AIDS and the Fate of Gay Brotherhood, ed. David Groff (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Page reference numbers are noted parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
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    Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995), 2.Google Scholar
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    A thoroughgoing feminist critique of such individualistic figures can be found in Joyce W. Warren, The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth Century American Fiction (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1984).Google Scholar

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© David Greven 2005

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