SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY, HAWTHORNE AND ME
By Arthur Cola
(Appearing at IBAM on Nov. 12-13 at the Irish Heritage Center, Chicago, The 44th Annual Conference of American Italian Historical Association from Oct. 20-22 in Tampa, FL and Festa Italiana in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 9)
I just can’t resist taking a bit of literary license as I share with you a story of my time in Boston at the Irish Heritage Center in Canton, MA. So here’s this former history teacher, me, remembering his days in education as I walked across Concord’s town center towards the Colonial Inn, which having been founded in 1716 has its own claim to fame. I found myself remembering those days of creating curriculum for the school I administered when I became Principal. Part of that experience was working with the teachers to create a cross curricular experience for our students. That means we may be teaching a history lesson such as how the Minutemen confronted the Red Coats at the North Bridge right outside Concord back on April 19, 1775. However, we also incorporated math lessons, such as measuring the distance from the Bridge to the town center where the Red Coats were headed. And perhaps we incorporated a writing lesson such as writing a eye witness account of that morning let’s say from that of the Rev. William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Ralph who authored the “Concord Hymn” in which one of the most famous lines in American historical poetry was penned. That is “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Of course that shot being fired was not witnessed by him but by his father. Rev. Emerson watched the battle from The Old Manse, which was his home directly next to the battle scene. And another thing I should add is that the shot, which Ralph Waldo Emerson made so famous, wasn’t really the first one fired in the Revolutionary War. Actually that had taken place at the Battle of Lexington which had just occurred down the road just prior to those same Red Coats retreating to Concord.
Then too, we may have added a science lesson as to what type of vegetation, animals and water fowl may have been present at the scene of the confrontation. Of course we added literature to the lesson, probably that of authors such as Emerson or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” which forever implanted that “one if by sea and two if by land” phrase into our national consciousness.
Now as I reflected on those days gone by with some nostalgia, I found myself standing on the corner next to Holy Family Catholic Church. Directly facing me was a small sign which read “authors’ ridge.” An arrow pointed the direction to follow. I came back to present time with a jolt as I turned to my cousin’s son, Mike, who was serving as my tour guide. He had been patiently standing by as I drifted off to those good old days in the classroom. I asked him what the sign meant. He in turn went on to explain that it referred to some of America’s most famous authors who are all buried on a high ridge in the cemetery located a couple of blocks from where we stood.
Grabbing his arm I tugged on him to follow me. There was no way before I was to appear as a guest author at the Irish Festival, that I wouldn’t offer a prayer to those luminous figures of literature and poetry. I thought that by just standing in front of their last resting spot I might just get a bit of their aura of talent and perhaps their blessing for a successful presentation at the Festival. I know it sounds a bit extreme, but then I just wrote a book called The Stone Cutter Genius in which the life and times of Michelangelo is a focus. I was now remembering my own portrayal of the funeral of the most famous of the Renaissance artists save perhaps for Da Vinci. In that funeral scene I had retold how the young members of the Academy of Art in Florence, Italy each touched the lifeless body of their mentor, hero, idol and “Father of all things in art” as he was called. By doing so they prayed that some of his talent would flow into their bodies. Now here I was five hundred years later virtually doing the same thing. Well maybe it’s the Italian heritage in me, I thought. But more than likely it was just my zeal to be close to those literary giants whose work I used in my classroom during those 35 years of teaching. But then again I do write historical fiction/fantasy tales. Maybe I’m beginning to believe in the magical elements of the otherwise quite historically accurate stories which I write.
Well whatever the true reason, within the time it takes for students to rush to the playground from their classroom, we had arrived at the gates of the cemetery, the likes of which I had never in all my experiences could have penned as vibrantly as what I was now observing.
I was like a school boy once more as I looked up and read the plaque on the gate. Engraved on the bronze like sign were the words “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” Good grief I thought. Can this be the inspirational site for Washington Irving’s story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My jaw dropped just a trifle as Mike saw the glow in my eyes.
He couldn’t answer my now spoken thought but he did confirm that Washington Irving was not buried on authors ridge along with many other accomplished writers. Later, I would research my idea and found out that the cemetery was dedicated after the publication of Irving’s story. Thus, I concluded it was Emerson and Hawthorne who must have honored their mentor, Washington Irving, when they had a little burial plot used for many decades transformed into a final resting place set among the ridges and hills, oaks and pines of this serene spot. It was they I surmised who must have chosen the name of “Sleepy Hallow Cemetery.”
Now we entered the hallowed area which rose on a series of hills and vales with authors’ ridge looking down upon the expanse of the cemetery which was deliberately designed to preserve the natural beauty and vegetation of the landscape. I stopped on the winding paths guiding us ever upward toward the rocky ledge. Guideposts long weathered almost void of lettering pointed the way. Now I am from Chicago and now live in Wisconsin. When I visit a cemetery it’s a flat land area with perhaps a few trees here and there. Sleepy Hollow could not be more different. Its series of hills and ridges, rock like cliffs, mature forested land in which sections of graves dating back over two hundred years spoke of the history of colonial and early American history was both serene and eerie at the same time. The huge Oaks, some of which surely stood when the Battle of Concord took place, dropped their acorns on our heads as our feet felt the crunch of the Pine cones scattered along the paths as we strode toward the first of the authors’ graves.
I was collecting some of those acorns when I came across the headstone of Ralph Waldo Emerson and family. I noticed that on the granite stone a series of small rocks had been placed as a memento or perhaps a prayer symbol for the author of the “Concord Hymn” and indeed many philosophical essays which expressed America’s thought on Nature and the very soul of its people. Now, I am an avid rock collector as testified earlier. They serve to be a reminder of the event or time when I first collected them. I simply had to add a stone to the others on Emerson’s grave. Given that I have told my children that it is stones which I wish to have placed on my grave site one day, I couldn’t help but be in complete understanding of what I was witnessing on that sunny day which seemed subdued because of the forest of trees which filled the cemetery. Rays of September sunlight filtered through those trees to highlight the crystal like substances within the rocks lining Emerson’s grave stone. They glistened and shone like a sparkling diamond.
I scurried around to find just the right stone to add to the collection and found one just next to the family plot which turned out to be that of Louisa May Alcott and her parents and family. There I stood amazed to be at the site of the author of “Little Women.” Having driven by her home called Orchard House, which served as the setting for her story, I could not help to create the image of my favorite movie version of her story. There in that image I saw June Allyson and Peter Lawford romping through an area not very different from where I stood, minus the graves of course. After paying my respects and wondering who put the Flag of the United States on her grave I turned and returned to Emerson’s grave to place my rock
A few steps later we were at the grave of Henry David Thoreau. A small bouquet of fresh flowers lay at the base of his stone and a scattering of Pine Cones surrounded the small stone having fallen form the near by Pine trees which bordered the grave sites. Thoreau whose reflections at Walden’s Pond are a study for any literature course was right there. I had seen the pond which inspired him and I could relate how such a serene site could do so. For wasn’t I inspired to write my story of THE SHAMROCK CROWN by those magnificent ruins in central Ireland called Glendalough and Tintern Abbey in Wales. Did not a late night stroll through an empty Roman Forum help me to form the plot line within my upcoming novel of THE STONE CUTTER GENIUS?
Wouldn’t Mrs. King, who taught literature at Oak Park High School back in Illinois be so pleased to see her former student here amongst these giants of literature and poetry? But not just being here but communing with their ideas and reflecting on their work as I pondered how a budding writer, like me, could possibly hope to achieve the likes of their accomplishments.
I slowly walked away from Thoreau and found myself at a grave site surrounded by a low lying chain held up by short stone pillars. Mike introduced me to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family who were reburied near him. The tiny blackened headstone stood in stark contrast to the large bright granite of the new headstones of his wife and daughter.
Here I was not but a few weeks from a cultural celebration which most people now know has achieved epic proportions since the Celts in Ireland first began the practice of celebrating All Hallows Eve. The sun’s rays were almost gone now and a light drizzle began which coated the leaves, acorns and pine cones with shimmering rain drops. I stooped down to pick up a stone while reading the Hawthorne headstones. I was recalling how this author of “The Scarlet Letter” amongst many others had added a “w” to the family name of Hathorne in order to distance himself from a relative who served as a judge at the Salem Witch Trials. I was deciding that such a thought was appropriate just before Halloween, when Mike asked me if I wanted to go what with the rain and now a wind swiftly moving through the branches of the trees.
“Not quite yet Mike,” I had replied still enthralled with being in the presence of such literary greats.
Mike was kind and moved on down to take cover under some foliage which offered protection from the drizzle.
As I pulled up the hood of my jacket, I could have sworn that I heard a voice. I looked over to Mike who had moved down the path. He waved. Thus I knew that it wasn’t his voice. I took a few steps back towards Emerson’s grave and the words became clearer.
A hearty deep throated voice seemed to be delivering an address of sorts. A man spoke with fervor and conviction.
“When these acorns that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history. The good, the wise and the great will have left their names and virtues on the trees…which will have made the air tuneable and articulate.”
I stood frozen in reflection. “Good grief, if I’m not mistaken those words were spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he dedicated this very cemetery.”
A rustle of branches caused me to turn. A tiny pumpkin rolled out from behind Hawthorne’s headstone stopping at my feet.
“Nice try Mike, but it was Irving who wrote the headless horseman tale not Hawthorne,” and I picked up the little orange colored member of the squash family and smiled. But when I looked about Mike was nowhere to be seen.
There was however a shadowy figure dressed in a black suit often seen in Civil War vintage photographs. The figure spoke to me.
“So you were privileged to hear Emerson himself,” the shadow spoke respectfully.
I could not speak so I nodded yes. My eyes were transfixed on the figure of a man around my age.
“I did admire Washington Irving. That which you hold was what I thought his calling card should be,” the shadow said while pointing to the pumpkin in my hands. “If it wasn’t for Irving I may never have been a writer. He would write me letters you know… from England, always encouraging me to continue my work. I thought that people would not want to read stories with moral messages, but he knew better. Oh, I do wish he were resting with us here. Emerson and I were so fond of him. That’s why Ralph chose “Sleepy Hallow” as the name for this cemetery.”
I found my voice and stuttered out, “then you must be Nathaniel Hawthorne?”
The shadowy figure smiled as a rush of wind seemed to dissolve his presence and I was left alone still holding that pumpkin in my now shaking hands.