|Moore's 1844 Poems||Witnesses|
|Dutch St. Nicholas||How the Poem Got to Moore|
|Livingston and Moore Temperament||.|
|Historical Articles||Chronological Articles|
for Henry Livingston, Jr. as the Author of
"Night Before Christmas"
There are Dutchess folks who believe that A Visit from Saint Nicholas was written by Major Henry Livingston, Jr., of Locust Grove, Poughkeepsie. Two studies in the series of our Historical Society, and many newspaper articles, attest their faith. Benson J. Lossing, the historian, thought so, and looked up the matter seventy-five years ago; but lacking the source materials which have since appeared, did not proceed to expound his views. As early as 1860, however, the opinion was expressed. It is not an affair of yesterday, and our opinions have not changed. They are restated here to get them on record, not with the hope of persuading anybody else. The world will come around in time, no use hurrying.
Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, our scholarly and ever respected historian, wrote severely but quite truthfully about the editing in 1844 of the little volume of verse in which Dr. C. C. Moore of Chelsea, New York City, incorporated the poem, for the first time, among his own works. She pointed out that Professor Clement C. Moore in his edition of his own poems, asserted over his own signature, that all the thirty-seven poems in the volume, with the exception of two by his wife, were written by himself, and prepared with care.
On the contrary, five were not his original poems. Two were translated from the Italian, one from the Greek, one was written by William Bard, one by Philip Hone. Twenty-one other poems have sub-titles explaining the occasion of their composition, eight others have no such sub-titles, and the Visit, which, above all, considering its anonymous publication and wide circulation, deserved a sub-title, also has none. The dull Fable of the Pig and the Rooster, for example, is carefully explained as suggested by the fact that one of his children had been assigned the name of the poem at school.
Miss Reynolds wrote of this quite justly -- "There is a discrepency between the contents of
Dr. Moore's book and what Dr. Moore said, in the preface that it contained. This comment is not
made to impugn Dr. Moore's veracity. But it does show that the book was carelessly compiled,
without coordination between the preface and the contents. The fact of that
discrpency focuses attention on A Visit from St. Nicholas, the spirit and style of which
are totally unlike Dr. Moore's usual habit of thought and manner of writing and totally unlike anything
else in the book. Mrs. Mitchell, a neighbor of the Major's whose granddaughter married his son,
when she heard of this book, instntly said with calm and quiet confidence: "A mistake has been
made," which would seem to be a kind conclusion in view of the several inaccuracies in the volume."
What Dr. Moore wrote was: "I have composed them all as carefully and correctly as I could." He apologized for mixing grave and gay poems together, without careful classificiation. "It would be impossible for me now to make such an arrangement with precision." He defends his humorous verse: "A good honest hearty laugh, which conceals no malice and is intended by ntohing corrupt, however ungenteel it may be, is healthful both to body and mind."
All of which is very, very true.
"Another reason why the mere trifles in this volume have not been withheld, is, that such things have often been found by me to afford greater pleasure than what was by myself esteemed of more worth."
Since he printed A Visit from St. Nicholas without comment, it is obvious that he considered it of no value whatsoever, but was writing to indulge his friends with this worthless trifle. But is there any other instance in the history of literature, of such complete blindness to the comparative merits of one's own compositions?
Without quoting the entire volume, I cannot prove to my readers that no other poem than the Visit could possibly arouse anything so ungenteel as a good hearty laugh. On the contrary, that still more vulgar exhibition, the protracted yawn, is the only physical exercise produced by a further perusal.
The great concern which this moralistic professor of Hebrew felt for the morals of young ladies is illustrated by an extract from To My Young Countrywomen. The poem rises to heights of indignation worthy of Savonarola.
No wonder his grandson thought it wise to secure from the octogenarian a signed manuscript copy of A Visit. It had been written many years before for his two daughters, aged two and one, in 1817, (for a third child was born in 1818).
Yet in his youth he condemned frivolity more severely than at sixty. In a speech at Columbia College he contended that "wealth must precede extensive literature. It is however important to have a previous knowledge of what is best. A frivolity of education may get among us before sound learning." he denounced the kind of education which records "the stripes of tulips, the colors of butterflies."
"With us literature is but the necessary aid to other pursuits." he advocated higher mathematics as more worthy.
Sometimes, indeed, he was inclined to doubt his inspiration.
A quarrelsome fable about a pig and a rooster, the only anapaestic poem in the book, is ended with a moral, even for the little boys for whom he wrote it:
He constantly reminds his children of the transitoriness of things.
Yet he approves the dance, if "well assorted."
He is even willing, on occasion, to look upon the bright side of things.
Profound, indeed, and most appropriate for a wealthy owner of much New York City real estate, as he views the '37 panic, and thanks his stars his fortune is safe in New York real estate from Seventeenth to Twenty-seventh Street.
A Trip to Saratoga is Dr. Moore's masterpiece, and it occupies the place of honor in his book of poems, while A Visit from St. Nicholas is buried in the group of insignificance. In six stately cantos the scholarly father takes his children to Saratoga, probably the worse choice in America. Mrs. Maturin Livingston, at any rate, thought its hotel and sporting life all that was most vulgar and vicious. Hiding himself under the name "our Henry", the poet tried to rationalize a desire to be in the swim at Saratoga by a moralistic trick. With wealth and the whole of America to choose from, his choice of Saratoga shows how much he knew of childhood. I must quote the whole passage that ended this epic.
Chelsea Farm, where this scene transpired, was a fine country seat of the Moores, at Ninth Avenue and Twenty-third Street in New York. It became their generous gift for the General Theological Seminary. Dr. Moore, in right of his wife, was a very wealthy man. The son of a Bishop of his church, he was not himself a clergyman, but a scholar of Hebrew literature. He was an excellent organist. Occasionally he took a hand in politics, as when in an anonymous pamphlet he denounced Jefferson as a very dangerous person, and a subverter of religion.
There runs through all Professor Moore's verse a kind of frustration. He feels he should be a greater man than he is, a greater poet. The public did not agree with him, even about his poetry. His friendst ried to get him to relax, but he never let down his moral guard. Dr. Willy Bard tried to get him to come to a dance, but Moore answered the famous physician in a surly poem. He was a self-torturing Midas; all around him was a rich harvest of poetry, which he turned to lead.
Could he have written about Dutch Saint Nicholas?
The Visit from St. Nicholas is a little masterpiece of juvenile poetry. It is one of the best poems for children ever written. It begins and ends with children. everything is designed in minature. Mamma and papa are mere spectators. Mamma even disappears altogether after the first mention. But who cares? Papa is only a reporter of the sight, not a sharer.
Children love motion, and the Visit is all motion. Papa flies to the window. The reindeer fly, too. So do the dry leaves. Santa Claus is all action, though no words.
The adjectives all suggest childhood. Snug, rosy, joly, happy, quick, are all in the child's world. So is the up and down, the on and away, of the reindeer. The tempo is that of the happy child, who must run to express his excitement.
It is this breathless quality that gives speed to the rhythm of the anapaestic gallop. Only two images give even a hint of the adult point of view; the dry leaves blown aloft by the wild hurricane; and the midday lustre of a clear moonlight in snow. Both are novel and net, but not beyond a child's observation.
These four qualities, the childhood level of miniature, the motion of flying, the adjectives of joy, and the speed of action, are characteristic of Major Henry's verse, and woefully lacking in Moore's.
The anapaests of the Visit carry out these principles. The accented syllable is stressed, the lighter syllables either unaccented parts of words, or else minor parts of speech, prepositions, articles, copulatives, conjunctions, pronouns. It is literally impossible to read the poem slowly. It races on to its end, like the reindeer.
All the devices for giving speed and emphasis to those swift anapaests are simple and obvious. They consist of exclamations, but chiefly of repetitions, in which, as in music, force and speed accumulate without the useless obstruction of new thought. On, on, on; away,away, away; this is nursery bouncing, which every child loves.
Children love to learn exactly what folks wear, just how they look. Mamma and Papa are dressed; so is santa. The detail of his pack and its unpacking satisfies child curiosity, who wants the fairy vision explained? Whoever wrote it loved his children, and knew how to enter their minds and feelings familiarly.
In Knickerbocker's History of New York, the author, in the fifth chapter of the second book, tells the dream of Olaffe Van Kortlandt. He sees the sage St. Nicholas approaching him in the wagon in which he is represented as bringing gifts to children. The saint's smoke creates a vision; after which, "laying his finger one side of his nose," he departs and Olaffe tells the dream to his mates who thereupon settle in Manhattan. This episode is not found in the 1809 edition, but it appears in that of 1812. Henry Livingston's poem, perhaps? It's stated date, 1803-1810, makes it possible. Irving wanted the saint; his gift was to be Manhattan Island. Hstory reuqired a wagon, for it was spring. The "laying of the finger one side of his nose" was evidently borrowed. It is in Livingston; in Moore, too, in his Pig and Rooster, much later than the Visit. It is out of place there, for the Owl has no secrets to hide.
As a piece of folklore, Santa Claus is pure Dutch, in which he is Sinterklaas; the aa have the sound of au in daughter. The Prootestant Netherlanders moved up his gift-giving to Christmas eve, from December 6, his day in Catholic countries. I once attended his feast in Cracow. Andre Theuriot in La saint Nicolas (1875), tells of the saint's journey by night on an ass, which he leaves to enter homes of good children by the chimney, laden with gifts. The scene is the Argonne, near Belgium, and the day is december 6.
English folk gave gifts on New Year's Eve. This was the custom in old New York as late as 1840; Mrs. Maturin Livingston, a member of Grace Church, kept it as a family gifting to her own children. She knew C. C. Moore, who certainly did not believe in Santa Claus, for he later ascribed the idea of the poem to "a rubicund Dutchman" of his vicinity. In England the New Year's Gift, universal in Chaucer's day, was moved back to December 26, Boxing Day, when postmen, and later children got Christmas-boxes. First to last, A Visit from Santa Claus is a Dutch picture.
Henry Livingston, Jr., was nine-tenths Dutch by inheritance. Nearly all his paternal ancestry was Dutch on the woman's side, while all his mother's people were Dutch. His maternal grandfather, "Uncle" Johnny Conklin of Pleasant Valley, lived on Turkey Hill (Kalkoen Berg) and used to smoke his pipe by the fireside as he read his Dutch Bible, brought from Holland by his father. Elizabeth Tappen, named in a poem later quoted, was his first cousin by this grandfather. George Clinton's wife was a Poughkeepsie Tappen. Two Van Benschotens also married Tappen girls, Henry's cousins.
Thus A Visit from Saint Nicholas is absolutely in the Dutch tradition of Henry Livingston, and just as absolutely not in that of C. C. Moore. To have written the Visit would have required a complete break with a culture to which Moore was devoted all his life. He edited his father's sermons, for example. We do not know why Mrs. Maturin Livingson, our guide on matters social, should have written her daughter on New Year's Day, "one house on which I shall not call is the C. C. Moores," but we can guess that the Moores were not even in the New Year Tradition of old New York, with its toasts and gayety.
The difference in temperament between Henry Livingston and C. C. Moore is best illustrated by a poem on those very arts "first brought" so very improperly from France. Here are Henry's thoughts on this serious matter.
It was indeed, time to stop this investigation so lightheartedly entered upon, into the "art first brought by prostitutes from France."
Major Henry never missed a dance, unlike our Professor.
Major Henry should be ashamed of himself. but he does hit it off. The joke is still green, after a hundred and seventy years. And do you begin to catch the lilt of A Visit? The observation of details of dress, the conveyance of motion, music -- the waltz, this time --, the use of repetition, alliteration, and contrast, the bandana and handkerchief, and the active little verbs, all crowding and pushing to get in the picture?
Now come sleigh-bells, though the moral is the same as that of A Trip to Saratoga; "the contented mind." How kind it is of thoughtful Major Henry to tell Brother Beekman what a jolly time he is having, and then urge the moral values of contentment upon his little brother. I'll bet Henry catches it when Beekman gets back from his clerking at Shaker Store in New Lebanon. Insufferable! Who wants his commiseration?
Even more typical of Major Henry's skill in light anapaestic rhythm is The News Boy's Address, written in 1803. For many years these broadsides were presented to subscribers, who were thus teased to contribute a New Year's gift to the diligent purveyor of news. Major Henry wrote several, out of pure good nature. The editors of the Political Barometer were his friends Jesse Buel and Isaac Mitchell. Though Major Henry speaks through the newsboys of 1800, the poet's own personality, loving life good-naturedly but quite willing to let the world wag without his worrying about it, comes clearly through the poetical screen
One sees from which inspiration came Lowell's Fable for Critics. Major Henry might have been a moralist, too, it appears, but chose to be blithesome, instead; to make an album of his verse, to collect songs and tunes, composing his own at times, and playing from his book of music, still preserved, dozens of popular melodies, on flute or fiddle, on both proficient. To love his twelve children and working hard as surveyor to support them; making charming maps of old Dutchess, signing them with his hand warrant in clever little sketches of shepherds and shepherdesses, reapers in a field, or a dock at the riverside loaded with grain.
To paint pictures of West Point and the Palisades, and of many other scenes; to inspect old Indian mounds of the mid-West. To take a comission from John Jacob Astor as his land-agent, visiting the Putnam farms with the fateful news that Astor had bought out the rights of the Philipse-Morris heirs, and was now demanding recognition of his legal claims -- an unhappy event, for which New York State paid Astor half-a-million, four-fifths of it profit, and met its guarantee to the settlers in much afflicted Putnam (1826). Such was his life from youth to old age - His gay times went right on, though he no longer spent week-ends in the dissipated little city. But in 1827, when he was seventy-eight, his daughter Susan would write, as he had done forty years earlier, and his son Sidney later: "We have had pretty gay times, I tell you -- 4-horse sleigh, and bells had to fly."
In a second Carriers' Address two postboys promise not to waste their tips in noisy ways. Again the scene of A Visit is suggested.
Major Henry wished happiness to everyone. To his sister Joanna:
There is no one line of elegy, one bite of sarcasm in either verse or prose. A truly joyous nature. It is hard to believe that a Justice of the Peace he ever sent anyone to the lock-up, or as assessor of taxes put on the screws.
All of which lends some credence to the external evidence that Major Henry wrote A Visit from Saint Nicholas for his children, some time about 1805, eighteen years earlier than the date attributed to C. C. Moore's composition. I will not speak further of the internal evidence, apparent in these quoted lines and in all the rest he wrote; the aborption in the little things of nature, bees, insects, little children such as he pictured; his never ceeasing reference to wild hurricanes and storms, to things floating in air:
The witnesses begin with Jane Paterson Thomas, daughter of Major Henry, and grandmother of William S. Thomas, who revived the poet's claim to authorship of the Visit. Her account was verified both by his mother, Mrs. Annie Thomas, and her sister Gertrude, who was interviewed in 1920. Their mother, Jane Paterson Livingston Thomas, used to tell them of the governesses provided by Major Henry. One of them, who contracted tuberculosis after her life with them, was brought back and nursed in the Livingston home until her death.
Sidney Montgomery Livingston, Major Henry's second son, told his son that he was about ten years old when his father first read his poem to the family.
A letter written to Mrs. Annie Thomas in 1879 by Eliza Livingston Thompson, daughter of Major
Henry and widow of Smith Thompson, a neighbor, once associate Justice of the United States
Supreme Court, adds much.
Your letter has just reached me, and I hasten to tell you all I know about the poem 'Night Before Christmas.' It was approved and believed in our family to be Father's, and I well remember our astonishment when we saw it claimed as Clement C. Moore's.
On January 3, 1900, Cornelia G. Goodrich, a great-great granddaughter of Major Henry, stated that Edwin Livingston had the original poem in manuscript and prized it very highly, but it was destroyed in a fire when he was out West, with all his household articles.
He and all his brothers and sisters remember distinctly their father coming out of his 'den,' as he called his study in the old Manor house at Locust Grove on the South Road, two miles out of Poughkeepsie and long since the property of my uncle Professor S.F.B. Morse, and sending this poem to his children just before Christmas. I have letters in my possession testifying to this, at the time the question was asked in the daily papers about twenty-five years ago as to who was the author of Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes, and who the author of 'Twas the Night before Xmas! We could find no paper in which it was published, altho all this children remember its having been published, in a Poughkeepsie paper at that time, between 1780 and 1800.
On January 10, 1900, Henry Livingston, of Babylon, L.I., editor of The Signal, a local
paper, replied to Cornelia Goodrich that his father (Sidney Montgomery), "as long ago as I can
remember," claimed that his father (Henry, Jr.) was the author, that it was first read to the
children at the old homestead below Poughkeepsie, when he was about eight years old, which
would be about 1804 or 1805: He had the original manuscript, with many corrections,
in his possession, for a long time, and to him Mrs. Jeanne Livingston Denig, on December 23, 1918,
wrote that her grandmother, Eliza Clement Brewer Livingston, wife of Major Livingston's eldest son,
knew her father-in-law, and had been on intimate terms with his family from childhood.
She lived as a child with her own grandparents, Mitchell, at Rust Plaets, next door to Henry
Livingston. This was at Christmas, 1808, when she was ten years old. She repeatedly told of
hearing him read his own poem. She remembered his use of a night-cap and Mrs. Livingston's use
of a kerchief.
All these documents, and quotations from others which are to follow, are presently in the possession of W. Stephen Thomas, U.S. Naval Reserve, director of the Rochester, New York, Museum of Arts and Sciences. They were gathered by his father, Dr. W.S. Thomas of New York, grandson of Major Henry's daughter. His father, Dr. William Thomas of Poughkeepsie, was a veteran of the War of 1812. His grandfather, Dr. John Thomas, also of Poughkeepsie, was a veteran surgeon of the Revolution. Both of these Poughkeepsians were active in civic life.
Evidence of people of this sort cannot be put down as just the whim of a few old ladies, as Robert Benchley tried to do years ago. If it comes to that, what evidence did the editor of the Troy Sentinel, Mr. Colley, go upon? The word of a young lady who had been in New York, and had abstracted the letter from an album. According to W.S. Pelletreau, a conscientious writer, she was a Miss Butler, of Troy. If so, she must have been Lydia or Harriet Butler.
Their father, Rev. David Butler, rector of St. Paul's at Troy, had been a pupil of Dr. Moore, and had named his son for him. Young Clement was twelve when A Visit was published. His sisters were old enough to be governesses of the Moore children. Professor Moore begot nine children in eleven years (1815-1826), a somewhat uxorious rate, even in those days of large families. His wife died in 1830, and the Doctor bewailed her in lines of self-pity addressed to Robert Southey, his favorite poet.
It would have been instructive to learn whether Dr. Moore wrote this after listening to an alley cat, of the famous New York breed. No other animal is known to have a weeping bosom.
Two other pupils of Dr. Moore were friends of Rev. David Butler. They were Rev. William H. Hart and Rev. David Moore, rectors in Hempstead, LI, and Richmond, Virginia. Hart's father was a clergyman, a distant cousin of Emma Hart Willard of the Willard School. Hart himself taught also, at Trinity School, for a time. The two men had married sisters of the name of Moore; their mother, Judith Livingston, was a first cousin and next-door neighbor of Major Henry Livingston, Jr.
To ties of scholarship and of clerical office connecting Professor Moore with his young colleagues were added the social bonds of marriage. The Harts had a daughter, Frances Livingston Hart, who grew up to marry young Clement Moore Butler of Troy, and to see him translated to the chaplaincy of the United States Senate in due time. Their path to the homes of Rev. David Butler, C.C. Moore, and Henry Livingston, Jr., is clear.
Equally natural is that of the second daughter of Judith Livingston Moore, Maria Seabury Moore, wife of the Rev. David Moore of Richmond. Not only did she commend herself to C.C. Moore, son of an Episcopal bishop, by the fact that her own middle name was that of the first American bishop; her father-in-law, Richard Channing Moore, was Bishop of Virginia, and brother of Thomas Lambert Moore, who in turn was brother-in-law of Benjamin Moore of New York, Bishop, and C.C. Moore's father.
Simple, is it not? But we must remember that marriage and blood ties were much more important in those days when everyone kept his genealogy in his family bible.
This web of Moores, Livingstons, and Butlers proves merely that it would have been perfectly easy for a young lady of any one of these families to turn up as visitor at Mrs. C.C. Moore's, and either to bring or to find an album there, with St. Nick in it. Or a governess from Henry Livingston's might have brought the poem to the Harts or Moores in Richmond. Hart was rector there for a short time.
Mrs. Griswold, granddaughter of Major Henry, had a daughter, Mrs. Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who lived at Locust Grove. Mrs. Griswold recalled that a former governess of her grandfather's family had gone South to serve a Moore family. Mary Montgomery, another descendant, had the same story from Edwin Livingston, second son of the Major. Mrs. Mary L. Hewin of Oakland had it from her cousin, Jeanne Curry, daughter of "Aunt Susan Livingston." Mary Livingston, a great granddaughter repeated it in a letter of 1917. Thus the story of the governess seems well attested.
We can now trace the route of A Visit from St. Nicholas in its album with some degree of probability. From Locust Grove to Judith Livingston Moore's children is the first step. One of her daughters leaves an album containing the poem at the home of Dr. C.C. Moore. There a Miss Butler finds and copies it. She takes it to Troy in 1823, though without the Doctor's permission, for anything in an album is "in the public domain." When asked where she got it, she tells the editor of the Troy Sentinel at the house of Dr. Moore." The editor makes the guess that the poem is Dr. Moore's, and surmises that it was taken without permission. He therefore published it anonymously, though with hints that become broader with successive reprints, for the public of Troy and vicinity had much better taste than the Orientalist professor who was reputed to be the poet.
No one so far has made any mis-statement. Dr. Moore, at some later date, unknown, hears of the newspaper piracy,
but lets the matter go. The poem is trivial and worthless. he is deep in a new Hebrew lexicon. Time
goes on, and greatness is thrust upon him when the American public takes the poem
to its heart, as the image of happy childhood and gift-bringing at Christmas. Why throw the poem back upon
anonymity? Henry Livingston is long dead (1828). Miss Butler insists she found it in a Moore album. Perhaps he did amend it, in a foolish
moment. Let it ride. Is there anything wrong in that?
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