LiteratEye #43: Oh, I wonder, wonder who, ummbadoo-ooh, who, who wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Here’s the forty-third installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #43: Oh, I wonder, wonder who, ummbadoo-ooh, who, who wrote "The Night Before Christmas"?
By W.J. Elvin III
December 11, 2009

santa_record_broken-200Sure, some of us are nostalgic for ancient pagan winter rites like getting all painted up in blue for a sun worshipping cavort around a circle of huge boulders. Or those jolly pre-Christian customs like decorating trees with the intestines and various organs of one's enemies. But let's face it, the old-fashioned ways of celebrating year's end are pretty much out of favor with the mainstream.

All that old-fashioned revelry has been transposed into kinder, gentler Christmas. In fact — regardless of your position as participant, observer of some other tradition, or just as bystander — you probably see the reality of two Christmases operating side by side. There's the Christian religious celebration and then there's the giving and getting commercial holiday frenzy.

Well, we'll leave the religious rigmarole for someone else to tackle. Let's look at the evolution of the commercial frenzy.

While Charles Dickens certainly deserves the most credit for creating the Christmas fantasy so cherished by merchants today, a close rival is W. Clement Moore with his "Night Before Christmas" poem.

There is a literary mystery connected with Moore's authorship of the famous poem. Moore was an eminent biblical scholar and church official. He is said to have considered his poem a trifle. He only acknowledged authorship when it became famous.

The first recorded appearance of the poem was in 1823 when it was published anonymously in the Troy, NY, Record.

Enter, the mystery. Each year about this time, we get feature stories (and now blog entries) devoted to the possibility that Henry Livingston, Jr., was actually the author.

Livingston was much more the live wire, a full-of-life country gentleman given to writing humorous verse.

The controversy is nothing new but it has heated up in recent years due to the serious disagreement between two titans in the literary detection field, Don Foster and Joe Nickell.

Both are very entertaining academic researchers. Both are tops at garnering media attention.

Foster supports the Livingston claim, Nickell argues mightily on behalf of Moore.

Foster is an English professor at Vassar. He is famous as a literary detective, author of several books. I didn't find a web site for Foster. He does, of course, have a Wikipedia entry.

Joe Nickell, also a Ph.D. author, is very active with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a praiseworthy band of amateur and professional skeptics. His website provides a profile and links to his articles and books.

He also has a Wikipedia entry.

Moore is just about universally acknowledged as author of the poem. The major disputants are Livingston's descendants and literary detective Foster, who has termed Moore a liar.

Foster says Moore was too much of a stodgy grouch to have written the jovial poem. He asserts Moore only took credit when assured that no one else had claimed authorship. Based on evidence developed through his area of expertise, analysis by computer program, Foster says the language of the poem is far more likely to be Livingston's. Foster's arguments can be found in his book, Author Unknown.

Nickell, author of books to be found in almost any modern bibliography of forensic authentication of authorship, fairly much rips Foster to shreds. He contends Foster began with the conclusion he wanted to reach and then found or dreamed up data to back it up.

To some extent Nickell simply quibbles with Foster, showing that his findings are open to serious question. But he also goes into cultural context and linguistic parallels, making some telling points in favor of Moore.

Kaller Historical Documents,Inc., having purchased a very expensive copy of the poem hand-written by Moore, hired Nickell to research the Livingston claim. A copy of Nickell's findings is posted on the Kaller website.

The thing is, despite all the marvelous mirrors and smoke of forensic investigation, the only way to establish authenticity of a document beyond doubt is through provenance, establishing a verifiable chain of ownership tracing to the source. Okay, in my opinion.

Generations of Livingstons have searched in vain for the all-important external evidence of authorship.

All they've come up with are stories.

One story is that a governess heard the poem and asked for a copy. She later passed it on to Moore. Another is that the poem was first published in a Poughkeepsie newspaper as Livingston's, but no copies of the edition survive.

Well, families pass down cherished myths. One that might apply is the "Claim-to-Fame Myth." Great-grand-pappy invented this, discovered that, or was a hero of such-and-such battle, that kind of thing. Without documentation there's no way of proving the story true, half-true, or just a treasured family fairy tale.

It's quite possible that Livingston wrote a Christmas poem of one sort or another that got lost. The tricks of memory and wishful thinking replaced the lost poem with "Night Before."

As for Moore, it's authoritatively stated that the owner of the Troy Record attributed the poem to him. Elsewhere, though, you will find that the Record's editor, who actually received the document, "never confirmed who delivered the poem..." Take your pick.

I don't see that either gun is smoking.

Though quite a lot of information comes up for the poem and the players when you do a search, I particularly liked the overview created by students of Paul Schacht in a collaborative writing project.

Bottom line as of this writing: Moore rules. Livingston's possible authorship is an interesting footnote.

photo: weirdspot.com


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


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