Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Santa Claus is the focus of Christmas for us secular folks. An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, which most of us call The Night Before Christmas, created the modern vision of Santa, and is the greatest Christmas poem ever written (d’uh), probably tied with A Christmas Carol as the greatest post-gospel Christmas literature.

Everyone knows that The Night Before, as I call it here. was written by a Clement Moore, right?

Actually, no, not everyone.

Ever feel like you are the only one who read a book? I highly recommend Author Unknown by Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College. Mr. Foster has made a name for himself by analyzing anonymous literature and determining its author. He is probably most well known for correctly pointing to Joe Klein as Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors, and had previously identified, maybe correctly, a 17th century poem signed by “WS” as written by Shakespeare. OK, hard to appreciate that one – we all know that those are Shakespeare’s initials, and we can never be quite sure.

Most fascinating is Foster’s argument that The Night Before was not written by Clement Moore as everyone thinks, but by one Major Henry Livingston. He convinced me, and I’m pretty skeptical. We’ll get to the details below.

Foster’s method is combining research skills with modern technology, utilizing computer software to count and analyze the actual words used by the anonymous author. In other words the internal evidence of the work. Apparently, using internal evidence to identify the author is highly controversial among the fun loving older generation of English professors, although I couldn’t quite understand why. Perhaps its just that older folks have more difficulty getting used modern technology.

Here's how it works. Let’s say you have a poem written a long time ago, perhaps the 13th century. No one knows who wrote it. Dr. Foster analyzes it and puts it through his computer, checks databases and it turns out that this author regularly uses the pronoun thou sandwiched between a transitive verb and a gerund, which is incredibly rare (especially since I just made it up now). It further happens that only two authors in the 13th century had the same habit. However, only one of them regularly wrote about … um, the sensuous prostitutes of Old London, and that happens to be what your mystery poem is about. Presto, you are on your way.

Before I get to the nitty-gritty of who wrote The Night Before, I checked on Amazon.com to find that I may in fact be one of the few people who have read this book, or at least lately. If it was ever popular, it didn’t have legs. Its ranking in hardcover is 649,650, which can’t be good, but not as bad as say Marvin Hamlisch’s autobiography (I checked for the hell of it -- ranked 797,896). But get this. You can actually buy Foster’s hardcover for one penny. There were 11 new copies available at that lowest of low prices and 65 used ones. For some bizarre reason, the used paperbacks started at $1.50. I think I got my copy on Amazon, but I don’t remember paying a penny.

I first read about Foster’s theory in a newspaper article a few years ago. Last year I read the book, and, between you, me and the wall, some it was a little tedious. But not the Santa stuff. That was intoxicating. With apologies to Professor Foster for simplifying his exacting research, here goes.

The Night Before was published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a small newspaper in Troy, New York. Moore took credit himself in 1844 about 17 years after Livingston was dead and many years after the poem was first publicly attributed to Moore himself.

Major Livingston, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was part Scottish and part Dutch, which is quite important The first words he wrote that are still known and existing are “Happy Christmas” in a 1773 love letter to his future wife. Those words will prove more important than you think.

Henry was a journalist and illustrator, using wacky pseudonyms like Peter Pumkineater and Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo. He was quite a fun loving fellow and father, writing many whimsical poems for his children that were never published. According to his family, he wrote The Night Before in 1807-8 for their enjoyment, many years before it was published.

Clement Moore was a very wealthy man of English loyalist descent from a very old and rich American family. He was a biblical scholar and a terribly dry and pious man. He took his religion and poetry quite seriously, even declining an invitation from Washington Irving to join the gregarious St. Nicholas Society. Moore was a somber fellow, somewhat un-Santa like, and quite the opposite of the jolly Livingston, at whose home holidays were joyous affairs.

I had always pictured Clement Moore as sort of an American Fezziwig. It turns out Livingston was Fezziwig and Moore was a little more like Scrooge, bah humbing at all the fun parts of holidays and life.

Still, comparing the vivacious Livingston to the dour Moore was not what convinced Foster. Moore it seems found anapestic poetry (go with it, that’s the type of poetry The Night Before is, and has to do with that jumpy and fun meter) intolerable, while Livingston wrote quite a lot of it. The first evidence of Livingston’s poetry in this style dates to the 1780s when Moore was just a boy, and continues on for fifty years. Moore had only one poem in that style which Foster believes was based on similar poems by Livingston, and which is quite different in tone from The Night Before.

Foster makes two extremely convincing analytical points. The first concerns the word all which he points out can be a pronoun meaning every one, or an adverb meaning totally. The author of The Night Before used it to mean totally four times (all through the house,” “all snug in their beds,” “dressed all in fur,” and “all tarnished.” He also used it to mean everyone five times. Roughly even.

So what did Foster find when he looked at Moore’s and Livingston’s other known writings to see how they used all. Livingston’s usage was fairly evenly split, half pronoun, half adverb, just like The Night Before’s author. Moore on the other hand used all as a pronoun ten times for every once he used it as an adverb in his poetry, and a hundred to one in his prose.

Foster identifies the usage of all as an adverb as a particularly Scottish trait (part of Livingston's heritage) and less an English one (Moore's heritage). The earliest known usage of all snug (meaning tidy) was by a Scotsman named Allan Ramsay, who happened to be one of Livingston’s favorite poets. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gave the Ramsay source, gives one other early source of All snug (by then meaning cozy), by one Christopher Anstey, who also turns out to be another Livingston favorite. Yet another early use of all snug also turns out to be by a third Livingston favorite, John O'Keeffe. Livingston 3, Moore 0. Getting convinced?

Foster had me at all snug, but another word usage was even more convincing. The Night Before ends with "Happy Christmas to all" (later editors changed Happy to Merry). Now recall Livingston’s use of that awkward phrase "Happy Christmas" in the letter to his future wife. Was it just a popular phrase, now antiquated, that anyone might have used at the time? No. In fact it was always quite rare. But not for Livingston. If he did not write The Night Before, he sure had an amazing amount in common with its real author. Not Moore. His usage of Happy Christmas or even Merry Christmas, for that matter, was zero.

To tickle you with a little more mystery, despite the fame it had brought him, Moore never took credit for the poem, first printed it in 1823, and first attributed to him in 1836, until some eight years later, and only after he had written and received a reply to his letter from the original publisher and learned how he had acquired the poem. What Moore was told (the letters still exist) would have told him that anyone who might contradict him was dead. He published the poem as his own in a book called Poems which is strangely silent as to how he came to write it.

There’s a lot more evidence in favor of Livingston (and to be fair, some for Moore) which Foster outlines, such as the use of the Dutch Dunder and Blixem instead of the Donder and Blitzen (both mean thunder and lightning) in the great poem, often changed by modern publishers, and Livingston’s characteristic unusual usage of the exclamation point, also just like whoever wrote The Night Before.

That’s all you get here. Go buy the book. It costs one penny! (plus shipping and handling, but you know Amazon has a lot of free holiday shipping). It will also move Foster up in the Amazon rankings. He deserves it. So does Henry Livingston.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .