Sunday, December 24, 2006

Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Part Two


Four copies of the most famous Christmas poem ever written are extant today. Three are held by scholarly institutions: the New-York Historical Society, the Huntington Library in Los Angeles and the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y. A fourth copy, the only one in private hands, is owned by historical manuscript dealer Seth Kaller, director of Kaller Americana, headquartered in Marlboro, New Jersey. All are in the handwriting of Clement Clarke Moore.

The Kaller firm bought the manuscript for $211,000 at Christie's in 1997 and has a price tag of $795,000 on its copy of the 56-line poem titled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." It is more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," and is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. There's no question that Moore penned each of those four manuscripts later in his life. What is in doubt, however, is whether Moore, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the prominent family that once owned large portions of the section of New York City called Chelsea, was the one who originally penned the famous verse years before Moore claimed authorship.

For years, the descendants of Hudson Valley gentleman poet Henry Livingston Jr. of Poughkeepsie have argued that Livingston was the Christmas poem's true author. Also in Poughkeepsie, Vassar College English literature professor Don Foster, who exposed Joe Klein as the author of the book Primary Colors, sides with the Livingston family. Four years ago, Foster's book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 2000) presented a strong case arguing for Livingston provenance.

We know that "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published anonymously in a newspaper, the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel, on Dec. 23, 1823. Moore's name was not attached to it publicly until fourteen years later in a poetry anthology published nine years after Livingston's death. In 1844 Moore "admitted" authorship, claiming that he was embarrassed that his little poetic trifle intended only for his children had reached the eyes of the public. Prodded by Livingston's descendants, Foster examined the poem and became convinced that the poem closely matched Livingston's literary style and point of view. He argued that the curmudgeonly Moore's writing was full of doleful words like "dread" and "strife," In contrast, Livingston was a jolly country gentleman whose light verse much more resembled the famous poem.

Unhappy with the charges leveled by Professor Foster, Mr. Kaller hired investigator Joe Nickell, senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Claims of the Paranormal ,who writes regularly for the thirty-year-old journal titled Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell's report on the Moore-Livingston controversy included biographical sketches of both men. These sketches are reproduced here:

Clement C. Moore
Son of an Episcopal Bishop, Clement Clarke Moore was born July 15, 1779, in New York City. He graduated from Columbia College in 1798 and prepared for the ministry. However, he instead became a professor of biblical studies at the General Theological Seminary, of which he was both a founder and a benefactor. Later he served as professor of Oriental and Greek literature. His two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809) established him as a pioneer lexicographer in America.

Although his detractors portray him as a humorless curmudgeon (hoping to convince others he would never have written light-hearted verse), a biographical reference work characterized him as "a man of rare beauty and simplicity of character, kindly disposed and generous to a fault." His book of Poems (1844) was compiled at the request of his children and contained not only the St. Nicholas poem-the authorship of which he then publicly acknowledged-but also the comparable children's verse, "The Pig and the Rooster." These were included in part because he believed in the healthful effects of "a good honest hearty laugh." Moore died July 10, 1863, just five days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. His wife (whom he married in 1813), Catharine Elizabeth Taylor, had preceded him in death; indeed he included a poem "by my late wife" in his little family-oriented volume.

Henry Livingston Jr.
Unlike Clement Moore, whose accomplishments led to his inclusion in such reference works as The National Cyclopedia of American Biography and The Dictionary of American Biography, Henry Livingston Jr. is a relatively obscure figure. His life and works are now largely promoted by his descendants who are eager to prove his authorship of the famous poem.

However, Livingston's life was fruitful in its own right. Born October 13, 1748, into a prominent colonial American family at Poughkeepsie, New York, he became a farmer, lumberman, surveyor, and occasional contributor of light verse and prose satires to local newspapers. In 1774 he married Sarah ("Sally") Welles and the following year, the day after his first child was born, he became a soldier in the American Revolution. After his wife died in 1783, Major Livingston raised their four children; then-on the tenth anniversary of her death-remarried. With his second wife Jane Patterson he had eight more children. On February 29, 1828, at the age of eighty and still in Poughkeepsie, Major Henry Livingston died. In death he has become a figure in a controversy he probably never could have imagined.

After studying all available documents and records, Nickell concluded that without a doubt Moore was the author of the poem Nickell published his findings in an article in Manuscript magazine, widely read by dealers and collectors of historical documents in manuscript form.

Nickell's strongest argument revolved around the image of Santa Claus in the poem. The Nickell report claims that the popular American image of a merry Santa portrayed in the poem ("he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf") is consistent with later authorship. Reindeer, as well, were a new motif introduced in America in 1821, but accepting this ignores the fact that reindeer had been pulling sleds in Scandinavia for centuries. The Livingston family and their supporters date the poem between 1780 and 1808. The Moore camp claims authorship occurred at a later date. Major Henry Livingston died in 1828 at the age of 80, and so had a foot in both periods. One of the claims made for Livingston as author is that, according to family lore, the names of the reindeer were the names of some of the many horses Major Livingston had owned. Nowhere does the Nickell repot acknowledge the persistence of information passed down orally as part of every family's oral tradition.

For whatever reason, Moore had conveniently waited until Livingston had died before he allowed his name to be connected in print to the poem. It was anthologized in The New-York Book of Poetry, edited by Charles Feno Hoffman (New York: G. Dearborn, 1837). Later, it was included in Moore's Poems, a collection of his verse (New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844) privately printed for distribution to friends and family.

Nickell also read through works by Moore, published and unpublished, to discover what he claimed were examples of similar word usage. Undeterred, Foster called the Kaller and Nickell attempt to discredit him "a very tendentious argument in order to sell a manuscript." And what are the opinions of manuscript experts? "We won't ever know for sure who wrote it," said Sue Hudson, whose title is Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the Huntington Library. "But in a sense, the authorship doesn't matter. It's a beloved poem, with warm, resonating touches for all of us."

Manuscript dealer Kaller obviously has more at stake in the outcome of the debate than the identification of the poet, although he feels that his copy of the poem would retain value even if Moore were exposed as a plagiarist. "Then it would be one of the greatest pieces of fraud in American history, "Mr. Kaller suggests, "and who knows whether it would be worth more or less."

Although the question of the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has not been resolved, the mystery has been complicated by an Associated Press news story dated Tuesday, December 19, 2006. According to Greg Rohan, president of Houston-based Heritage Auction Galleries, the only copy of "A Visit to St. Nicholas" in private hands and written in 1860 was not sold at auction but was recently purchased directly by a New York chief executive of a media company for $280,000. What relationship this copy bears to the manuscript copy in the hands of the Kaller Americana of New York has not become clear nor what effect the sale may have had on the value of other copies of the poem written and signed by Clement Clarke Moore. Whoever negotiated the deal must have been a hard bargainer. If the copy that changed hands is indeed the copy priced at $795,000, the $280,000 price still represents a gross profit of $69,000 on an item held for nine years--a simple interest gain of 25 percent. The manuscript of the poem does not now appear on Kaller's on-line catalog. They are offering a copy of a first edition of Moore's 1844 volume of his collected poems inscribed in 1846 to "The Rev. C.S. Henry" at $8,500. It contains the famous poem.

To return to the question of the disputed authorship of the famous poem, here are two samples of poetic works by the respective poets:

Sample A

Old Santeclaus

Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O'er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.
Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.
Where e'er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.
To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.
No drums to stun their Mother's ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent's hand to use
When virtue's path his sons refuse.

Sample B

Such gadding--such ambling--such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy--to sweet Willy's rout,
New parties at coffee--then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major must dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea [tea], and destroy bread and butter.

Sample A is a Christmas poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Its last eight lines represents the attitudes of an autocratic authoritarian punishment freak. The rollicking rhythms of Sample B are by Major Henry Livingston Jr. In this contest, our money's on the Major's entry.

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