As each new generation of children at Christmas time continues to delight in the rhythm, the gaiety and the fun of "A visit from St. Nicholas", it becomes a perennial holiday symbol as well as one of America's great folk poems. For this reason the controversy as to its authorship is of growing interest.
Did Dr. Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863), distinguished New York City scholar, author of a Hebrew dictionary and professor at the General Theological Seminary, write it, or was the true author Major Henry Livingston, Jr., of Poughkeepsie, New York (1748-1828), who had been a Revolutionary War officer surveyor, justice of the peace, farmer and amateur of music and painting?
It is believed that the ballad first appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel of December 23, 1823, but without any indication of its authorship. Finally, after it had been reprinted each season for six years in the same journal, the paper's editor hinted that Clement C. Moore was the author. For another eight years the poem continued to be printed in various places and widely quoted, still as anonymous verses. But, in 1837 The New York Book of Poetry, an anthology, included it with Moore's name attached. At length, in 1844, Dr. Moore himself included the poem in a book of his collected verse. From the traditionalist point of view, the fact that, also, a signed manuscript copy of the Christmas poem has survived and that Moore has been accepted as the author for one hundred and forty years might seem sufficient reason to curb further speculation. But, that is not the case. There is another side to the story.
In the first place, Livingston in the period 1784 to the early 1800's was a fairly constant writer of light and occasional verse. He, also, wrote serious prose articles on varied subjects such as the Esquimaux Indians, the Catamount or Panther, the Mohawk River. These and others without his name but identified by the letter "R" were usually illustrated by his own sketches which did bear his name and appeared in The New York Magazine from 1791-1795. However, some of his poetry included several newsboys' addresses in Poughkeepsie papers, which never bore his name.
The Livingston family tradition, handed down for five generations and documented in a series of letters is that The Night Before Christmas appeared in at least one of several possible Poughkeepskie newspapers, probably between 1804 and 1805, thirty-two years before Moore claimed it. A granddaughter of Livingston, Miss Gertrude F. Thomas, in a letter in the early 1900's, wrote that her uncle, Dr. Charles P. Livingston, remembered perfectly when his father wrote the poem and showed his children the old Poughkeepsie newspaper in which it first appeared. Several persons over the years have made searches of files of these newspapers of the period in question, but no issue containing the poem has been located. Another descendent, Mrs. Jeanne Livingston Denig in 1917 wrote, "My mother, Jane Paterson Livingston, said all during her early childhood she often listened to both her parents (Major and Mrs. Henry Livingston) recite The Night Before Christmas who invariably told her that her grandfather Livingston had written the verses." Still, more testimony is that of another descendant, Henry Livingston of Babylon, New York, who in 1900 wrote "My father Sidney Montgomery Livingston claimed that his father (Henry, Jr.) was the author. It was first read to the children at the old homestead below Poughkeepsie (Locust Grove) 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 he gave it to his brother, Edwin. The latter's personal effects were destroyed by fire in Waukesha, Wisconsin, about 1847 to 1848.
In the second place, internal evidence in verse of both authors in the form of meter, figures of speech, similarity of ideas and other features supports the belief that it is more likely that Livingston wrote the Christmas poem. Fortunately, there exists today a manuscript volume of Livingston poetry, probably written before 1789. Of the forty-five metrical compositions in this book fifteen employ the anapestic meter of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Not only did Henry Livingston use this particular meter, but there is a sprightliness and gaiety throughout all his work vividly reminding one of the holiday verses. On the other hand, out of the thirty-three poems in the Moore collected edition of 1844, only one of them, an incongruous piece, entitled The Pig and the Rooster, is an anapest.
Further search of internal evidence reveals some startling similarities between the St. Nicholas poem and other Livingston verse. Some samples are: quoting the line, "But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer", one investigator has written, "Certainly the tinniest of the central figure (Santa Claus) and his equipment is a charming and particular feature of the picture presented by the poem. Tiny things are often mentioned in Henry Livingston's verses. He even conceives of a tiny vehicle conveying the personage of the king of the fairies as in the lines "Green katydids draw him, a nutshell contains him. His kingdom a meadow; a dewdrop sustains him." And he writes of other little people and things such as cupids shooting flies with their bows and arrows."
Even if Henry Livingston had not become as well known as he is because of the The Night Before Christmas, we have enough information about him to show he was a striking and versatile figure of his period, a study of whose life has uncovered important points of eighteenth century social history of the Hudson River Valley. As early as 1860 people of Dutchess County were talking about the disputed authorship. In 1886, the well-known historian, Benson J. Lossing, wrote in a letter to a Livingston descendant, "The circumstantial evidence that your great-grandfather wrote The Visit of St. Nicholas seems as conclusive as that which has taken innocent men to the gallows. . . I am greatly interested in this matter. I should be highly gratified by finding positive proof that the poem was the product of my native county of Dutchess." It is unfortunate that although Lossing started to look up the subject, he had to abandon his search because of lack of source materials.
Another, later historian and scholar, Miss Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, in
analyzing Clement Moore's verse, wrote in 1941, "The spirit and style of
Christmas poem are totally unlike Dr. Moore's usual habit of thought and
manner of writing and totally unlike anything else in the book." Henry
MacCracken, former president of Vassar College, after a thorough look at
Reynolds statement as well as after an examination of the Thomas papers,
concluded in his book, Blythe Dutchess, that Moore, after a copy of The
Visit had been left in his home and had lain there as an anonymous
production, may have corrected and smoothed out the working and, then,
allowed it to be printed as his own.
It should be noted that the late William Sturgis Thomas (1871-1941) of NYC and a great grandson of Livingston, spent over forty years collecting material and interviewing descendents and others regarding the Christmas poem dispute. Some of his findings have been used in articles on the subject by Henry Litchfield West, Winthrop P. Tryon, Robert Benchley, James Thurber and, also by Burton Stevenson and Vincent Starrett in books each had written on disputed poetry.
The Dutchess County Historical Society is to be congratulated that it has
taken the occasion of this Christmas Season to arrange a lecture program
an exhibition to pay tribute to Major Henry Livingston, Jr. at the very
of Locust Grove where he lived and where he read his poems to his children.
It behooves all those stimulated by the story of The Visit and its curious
destiny to keep their ears open and their eyes alert in hopes of finding a
copy of the Poughkeepsie newspaper in which the lines of the poem in their
first printed form may be resting.
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