Retired Syracuse University geology professor Gary Boone of Presque Isle reports that he was poking through a weekly newspaper recently “when what to my wondering eyes did appear, but the printing of ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas,’ with authorship a smear.”
The classic poem, perhaps more familiarly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” describes the traditional Christmas Eve endeavors of Santa Claus. It was originally published anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823.
“The poem’s supposed author — as has been attributed for over a century and a half — is listed as one Rev. Clement Clarke Moore. But apparently this is not so,” Boone suggested in an e-mail message.
If that was news to an old dawg who long ago had been hornswoggled into believing that the Rev. Moore was inspired to write the poem while riding home in a one-horse sleigh after shopping for a Christmas turkey, then I should check out the book “Author Unknown — On the Trail of Anonymous,” Boone advised.
The work by literary sleuth Donald Foster was published in 2000 by Henry Holt & Co. Boone said if I didn’t enjoy reading it, he’d be some surprised. He mailed me a copy of the chapter pertaining to the authorship controversy, a most welcome gift from Santa’s pack for my exemplary behavior these past 11-plus months.
Foster paints the Rev. Moore, a professor of biblical studies in New York’s theological seminary, as a puritanical man incapable of mirth who was given to publishing moralistic poetry deriding holiday pleasures and advocating use of the “birchen rod” to discipline naughty children.
On that basis alone, Moore seems an unlikely candidate to have written such an upbeat work enhancing the spirit of Christmas as “The Visit.” But a meticulous textual analysis of vocabulary, phrasing, cadence, use of metaphor and the like unearths more clues suggesting that his credit for authorship is unwarranted.
Moore published a collection of his poems years after Foster’s choice as the true author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — Maj. Henry Livingston Jr., of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — had died. Included in the collection was the verse in question, which became what Foster calls “the New World’s best-loved, most well-known poem, turning Christmas into a festival of good cheer and gift-giving by transforming Saint Nicholas from a thin, dour European saint into the plump and jolly American superstar we know as Santa Claus.”
Livingston, a former Continental Army officer of Dutch ancestry, was immersed in Dutch-American traditions such as promotion of the St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas” myth. Foster describes Livingston as “an artist, journalist, and poet; a surveyor and cartographer; an archaeologist and anthropologist; a flute player and a fiddler; a free spirit and all-around merry old soul if ever there was one.”
It would be hard to find two men more different from each other in philosophy and disposition: Moore, the dour face of doom and gloom, versus Livingston, the gregarious fellow consistently positive in outlook.
A Livingston descendant seeking Foster’s help in confirming her ancestor’s authorship of the classic claimed that when the poem was ascribed to Moore in 1836, “probably by mistake,” he did nothing to dispel the misattribution. When it became a big hit he remained silent, presumably because the work embarrassed him as being inferior doggerel, she alleged, and it was in print for more than 20 years before he took credit. She found that “interesting.”
“And did Major Henry take credit?” Foster asked the lady. “No. But I can explain that. He was dead,” she replied.
Dead, you say. Well, that would account for the old poet’s reluctance to make his own case. Foster agreed to take on the job, likely knowing it was a no-win deal because, as Boone stated in his e-mail, “entrenched patterns of supposed authorship are so often difficult to dislodge.”
This may account for why Moore continues to get credit for the poem, in most cases, and probably always will. No matter. The fun for Foster in coming down on the side of Livingston was in his exhaustive detective work. The joy for readers lies in the details of his quest. And in the opportunity to second the seasonal sentiment of the original poem’s often misquoted tag line: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.