Poetry News

On Dasher! On Dancer! On Who Actually Wrote This Thing, Anyway?

By Harriet Staff

It's that time of year, and we'll all hear "The Night Before Christmas" in some form or another, and, almost 200 years after its first publication, debates still rage over the poem's original author. This Boston Globe article takes another look at the controversy.

A new edition of the poem popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas’’ is being published next week by a small press in Freeport, Maine. Handsomely illustrated, it will sell for $150 and make a thoughtful, if not inexpensive, holiday gift.

The book credits authorship to farmer-poet Henry Livingston Jr., not Clement Clarke Moore, the man widely celebrated as the poem’s creator. And therein lies a literary whodunit with more loose ends than Santa Claus has whiskers.

Who wrote the poem - first published in 1823, anonymously, in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel as “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas’’ - has been in dispute for more than a century, notes publisher Michael Billmeyer, founder of the aptly named St. Nicholas Press, which is issuing the collector’s edition in limited quantity. He regards this as a chance to right a longstanding case of mistaken poetic identity.
"The Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore 1928 book with pictures by E. MacKinstry from Nancy H. Marshall's collection

A 1928 edition of “The Night Before Christmas” is credited to Clement Clark Moore.

Livingston’s is “a legitimate historical claim, if unprovable,’’ according to Billmeyer, who has the backing of Livingston’s descendants. One of them, Mary Van Deusen of Wrentham, a retired IBM researcher, had been investigating the poem’s origins for years. After reviewing Van Deusen’s evidence, “I thought, wow, Moore didn’t write this?’’ Billmeyer recalls. “How many times does a work like this get a first edition again?’’

The poem is in the public domain and may be republished without paying rights fees or royalties. Hundreds of published editions exist, in more than a dozen languages.

If ultimately unknowable, Van Deusen says, authorship should not automatically be ascribed to Moore, who first publicly identified himself as the author in 1844.

“I’m 150 percent convinced Henry wrote it,’’ she says.

In 2000, Van Deusen’s case was bolstered by Donald Foster, a Vassar College English professor and an authority on literary identity. Foster’s book “Author Unknown’’ devoted a chapter to the controversy, asserting that Moore, who died in 1863, had lifted language from other writers. Foster also matched the poem’s rhyme scheme, meter, and imagery with other works by Livingston and concluded he was probably the real author.

Foster’s book touched off a flurry of stories questioning whether one of the most familiar poems in the English language was written by the man who said he wrote it.

Foster has since backed off from taking sides, however, calling it one mystery that won’t ever be cleared up, or need to be.

Their families, and now a UMass Professor, got/get in on it, too:

Family members said after his death that they remembered Livingston reciting the poem years before its publication. Van Deusen speculates that a handwritten copy of the poem may have traveled from Livingston’s house to Moore’s via a visiting governess.

Whether he obtained the poem in that manner or wrote it himself, in 1822 Moore read aloud a version of it to his children, who believed it to be his. Thereafter, the mystery only deepened.

Livingston died in 1828. According to family lore, his original manuscript was passed down to a grandson, then lost in a house fire. Another descendant, Stephen Livingston Thomas of Arlington, owns a large cache of Livingston’s letters and poems, including several poems bearing distinct echoes of the Christmas classic.

Moore, a young widower raising a large family in New York City, was a scholar, professor, and published poet - although better known as a serious writer than as a composer of sugar-plummy holiday whimsy.

In 1844, according to correspondence unearthed by Van Deusen, Moore inquired about the Sentinel’s knowledge of the poem’s authorship. From the paper’s equivocal reply, Van Deusen inferred the paper did not know for certain who had written it. That same year, Moore began identifying himself as the author and included the poem in a book of his.

By that time, “The Night Before Christmas’’ had been widely reprinted in almanacs and was credited, along with the writings of Washington Irving and Thomas Nast’s illustrations, with creating the modern image of Santa Claus.

Moore’s query is curious, says Van Deusen, as if he’d been making sure no one could challenge any claim he might make. Livingston’s descendants began to challenge that claim periodically, beginning in 1899.

To Moore’s defenders, and there are many, the notion that Livingston wrote “The Night Before Christmas’’ is as fanciful as a flying sleigh.

Ten years ago, retired University of Massachusetts professor Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle For Christmas,’’ published a lengthy rebuttal to Foster’s analysis. All the evidence he’d examined, wrote Nissenbaum, proved that Moore “had the means, the opportunity, and even the motive to write the poem.’’

Originally Published: December 5th, 2011