February 19, 2018

Santa Anapests

On this day in 1823 the Christmas classic, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas") was published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel. Twenty years and much popularity later, Clement C. Moore claimed and was accorded authorship, but recent scholarship by forensic literary critic Don Foster -- he's the one who established the author of Primary Colors -- has cast this very much in doubt. Moore was a dour and strait-laced biblical scholar, a man decidedly un-jolly, and in Author Unknown, his 2000 collection of literary whodunits, Foster provides much circumstantial evidence against him.

If all is as Foster claims, much of the credit must go to Mary Van Deusen; she not only put him on the case but gave him the true author, her ancestor Henry Livingston Jr. Apart from her stories of little Livingstons enjoying fireside readings of the poem at least fifteen years before the first newspaper publication, she provided Foster with other Livingston lines which, when set beside typical lines from Moore, seem to furnish the smoking pen:

Typical lines from Moore:
    To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
    From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure.
    For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
    In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice,
    Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:
    Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread....
Typical lines from Livingston:
    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 will dine!
    Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
    To guzzle bohea, and destroy bread and butter....
Foster adds a list of other improbabilities and perfidies to the case against Moore -- including evidence that Moore seems to have checked to see if the coast was clear before making his claim to the poem. Foster also speculates that Moore may very well be the author of another, still-anonymous Christmas classic, "Old Santeclaus," often titled "The Children's Friend." This poem first appeared in 1821 -- two years before "Twas the Night" -- in a sixteen-page publication which contains the first drawings of the Santa we now know. The poem starts in the jolly-old mould, and then takes off both mask and gloves:
    ...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.
Seth Kaller, the man who owns the earliest extant Moore manuscript of the poem, has provided the most recent rebuttal of Foster's arguments:

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble