Tuesday 12th December 2017

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The Night Before Christmas . . . An Ongoing Christmas Controversy

December 17, 2016 Frontpage No Comments

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By RAY CAVANAUGH

With lyrics that evoke wholesome images of holiday glee and anticipation, what could be more innocent and straightforward than The Night Before Christmas?
Well, it turns out, not even that item is free of controversy. For more than 100 years now, debate has persisted over who actually penned this beloved American poem, which appeared anonymously on December 23, 1823, in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel newspaper.
The two leading candidates for authorship are: Clement Clarke Moore, a New York City literature professor long credited with writing the poem; and Henry Livingston Jr., a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native whom multiple literature professors have since proclaimed as the author.
In the 19th century, poetry was a major part of popular culture, and newspapers of the day routinely published poem after poem. The overwhelming lot of these compositions met with oblivion soon after seeing print.
But there was something different about The Night Before Christmas (or A Visit From St. Nicholas as it was then titled). About one week after appearing in the Troy Sentinel, the piece appeared in the New York Spectator, and soon was seen in almanacs and literary magazines. In ensuing years, the unattributed poem only gained in popularity.
There’s nothing inherently peculiar about the poem having appeared without a name attached. As New York Times journalist David D. Kirkpatrick points out, “genteel men of letters often published anonymously because newspapers were considered beneath them,” at least back in 1823.
Clement Clarke Moore, who reportedly graduated first in his class at Columbia, was one such “genteel” man. Stephen Nissenbaum’s book The Battle for Christmas, which credits Moore with authorship, describes him as an “old-style country gentleman” (even though he lived in Manhattan) and a “patrician man of leisure who inherited so much land” that he never needed to work. After turning 40, he began to receive a “token salary” as a professor of ancient literature at New York’s General Theological (Episcopalian) Seminary. He also authored and translated scholarly books.
Moore — at least at first — wished to be known more for his scholarly contributions, as opposed to some intellectually frivolous holiday verse. But eventually he relented, and included the poem in his 1844 anthology of verses. The trifling Christmas ditty commanded exponentially more notoriety than his sober books ever could, and to a large extent its imagery shaped the Christmas holiday as we know, at least in America.
But not everyone was convinced that Moore was the true author of America’s most-beloved Christmas poem. Though articles had been written that questioned Moore’s authorship and advocated for Livingston, a real sea change in Livingston’s case for authorship occurred in 2000 with the publication of Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, written by Don Foster.
Foster, a professor at Vassar College, is a pioneer of literary forensics and has worked on such cases as the one involving Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (he compared the Unabomber’s “Manifesto” to known samples of Kaczynski’s writing). In Foster’s view, each writer has a “literary DNA” as unique as one’s physical DNA.
Having analyzed the complete known poetic output of both men, Foster concludes that Livingston is the author. He points out how Moore, whom he refers to as a “curmudgeon,” tended to emulate more solemn and devotional bards, as where Livingston was both the more playful man and poet — and the more likely candidate to write something like The Night Before Christmas.
There’s also another intriguing item: Before officially coming out as the poem’s author in 1844, Moore wrote a letter (currently in the possession of the New York Historical Society) to one Norman Tuttle — the former owner of the defunct Troy Sentinel newspaper — asking if he knew exactly who had been involved with the Christmas poem’s 1823 publication.
Tuttle replied that anyone who’d been involved with publishing the poem in 1823 was now deceased. Livingston had died in 1828, so in the event that he’d written it, there wasn’t much he personally could do. As Foster writes, “the coast was clear” now for Moore to come forward with confidence in his claim of authorship.
According to the Livingston family, by the time they noticed that the Christmas poem had become famous, Moore had already taken credit. And credit he would get. Even today, the attribution often goes to him. Meanwhile, there’s a great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Livingston who advocates for her ancestor’s authorship. In recent years, scholars have tended to agree with her.
The Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org) now credits Livingston as the author, though it states that he “made no written mention” of the poem while he was alive, and his friends were unaware of his authorship. It has been suggested that the poem appeared in a Poughkeepsie newspaper before its 1823 appearance in the Troy Sentinel. However, any such pre-1823 copy has yet to surface.
Livingston, a farmer and surveyor descended from a prominent colonial family, attained the rank of major fighting on behalf of the Americans in the Revolutionary War. His poetical endeavors typically consisted of “light verse” that was “published anonymously or under the pseudonym R,” according to the Poetry Foundation.
If Livingston was the poem’s true author, had he even bothered to use the “R” pseudonym, it would’ve spared much later controversy — which continues to linger. As recently as April 2016, MacDonald P. Jackson’s book Who Wrote “The Night Before Christmas”? was released. Jackson’s verdict as to the poem’s writer: Livingston.

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