Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 2 · January 2001
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St. Nick
Nineteenth-century engraving of Santa Claus, courtesy the AAS.

 

 

"It is clear even to my own inexpert eye that the penned inscription "by Clement C. Moore, A.M." is not written in Moore's rather distinctive hand."

There Arose Such a Clatter
Who Really Wrote "The Night before Christmas"? (And Why Does It Matter?)

Stephen Nissenbaum

Part I | II | III

II. Who Really Wrote "The Night before Christmas"?

Don Foster also claims that Clement Clarke Moore loathed children, but from the 1820s on--after he was forty, and beginning at the very time "The Night before Christmas" was first published--Moore seems (like many other Americans) to have found satisfaction and something like serenity by taking emotional refuge in the ordinary pleasures of family life. His later poems show him as a doting father, a man who cherished domesticity and loved to spend what we would now call "quality time" with his six children. (His wife died in 1830, and it is clear that he cared to provide serious moral training along with lots of indulgence.) "Lines Written after a Snow-Storm" could almost be titled "The Morning after Christmas":

Come children dear, and look around;
Behold how soft and light
The silent snow has clad the ground
In robes of purest white . . .
You wonder how the snows were made
That dance upon the air,
As if from purer worlds they stray'd,
So lightly and so fair.

(It is true that the poem concludes allegorically, by pointing out that the snow will soon melt. But that does not make it any less child-centered and affectionate.) In another later poem, Moore recalled his own childhood and his parents putting him to sleep:

Whene'er night's shadows call'd to rest,
I sought my father, to request
His benediction mild:
A mother's love more loud would speak,
With kiss on kiss she'd print my cheek,
And bless her darling child.

Moore actually based one of his poems on a homework assignment one of his own children had received at school. That poem, "The Pig and the Rooster," was in anapestic tetrameter, the poetic meter of "The Night before Christmas." (Don Foster makes the curiously self-defeating claim that "The Pig and the Rooster" was "modeled on the anapestic animal fables of Henry Livingston.") But what is just as significant is that Moore took such an interest in his son's homework that he would write a poem about it.

Even in "The Wine Drinker," Moore reserves what may be his deepest scorn for the fact that the temperance movement was willing to exploit innocent children for political ends. There is no ironic humor but only what Moore called "indignant feelings" in these lines (which bring to mind the tactics of modern anti-abortion organizers):

Children I see paraded round,
In badges deck'd, with ribbons bound,
And banners floating o'er their head,
Like victims to the slaughter led . . .
How can ye dare to fill a child,
Whose spirits should be free and wild,
And only love to run and romp,
With vanity and pride and pomp?

But it may be his long poem "A Trip to Saratoga" that shows Moore at his most child-centered. While this poem is social satire, even more fundamentally it is the story of a widowed father who, in the face of all his own feelings, allows his six children to persuade him to leave his beloved fireside--"the pure delights of their dear home"--and take them for the summer to a place he well knows will prove a vulgar disappointment. Foster says this poem shows Moore's loathing of children, and especially of their "noise." It is true that Moore begins the poem with his six children simultaneously begging their father, over breakfast, to take them on "a summer trip," and that he responds by asking for a little order (Foster quotes only the last two of these lines):

"One at a time, for pity's sake, my dears,"
Half laughing, half provok'd, at length he said,
"This babylonish din about my ears
Confounds my brain, and nearly splits my head."

The Clement Moore whom Foster gives us would have simply ordered his children to shut up--but this father soon gives in to his children's demands. And from this point on, for the remainder of the poem, he displays nothing but affection for them. When, as he reports, they get bored on the train out of New York City and "begin to pant for somewhat [i.e., something] new"--this is on the very first day of the trip--Moore reports what any modern parent will find easy to recognize, as the children begin

To ask the distance they still had to go;
At what abode they were to pass the night;
Their progress seems continually more slow;
They wish'd that Albany would come in sight.

Hardly the tone of a man who was incapable of tolerating children. And, let us not forget, this was a single parent dealing by himself with six of them.

In fact, Moore is pleased pink with his kids, with their behavior, their personalities, and even their physical beauty. Saratoga may have been filled with beautiful belles, Moore acknowledges--but his own eldest daughter was "the loveliest of them all." Even when this same daughter argues with her father, and he rebuts her argument with a single dismissive word--this is at the very beginning of the poem--Moore lets us in on his real feelings when he tells us that his "brisk retort [was] made"

With half a smile, and twinkle of the eye
That spoke--"You are a darling saucy jade."

In just the same voiceless fashion, in a far better-known poem generally attributed to the same author, it is with a smile--and, yes, with eyes that twinkle--that Santa Claus lets us know that he means well.

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Clement Clarke Moore was capable of having fun, writing light verse, and loving his children. Was he also a liar?

Having attacked Moore's personality, ideology, and parental style, in the end Foster challenges the man's personal integrity as well. In a way, he needs to do so, since Moore did, after all, eventually have "The Night before Christmas" published under his own name, a circumstance that would seem to offer the most powerful evidence of his authorship. A man could be dour and child-hating without being a liar to boot--and a serious liar Moore must have been if he did not really write the poem.

At the end of his argument, Foster delivers a parting shot, proof positive that Moore falsely took credit for another work which was not his. Foster learned that Moore donated a book to the New-York Historical Society. The book, an 1811 treatise on the raising of Merino sheep, was originally written in French, and on the title page of the copy he donated, just beneath the words "translated from the French," is a penned-in notation: "by Clement C. Moore, A.M." But Foster found a copyright notice for this book, included only in a later bound-in appendix, showing that another man, one Francis Durand, "is also the book's sole translator" (these are Foster's words). Foster concludes, "Professor Moore does not just recycle a few borrowed phrases, as in his poetry--he lays claim to an entire book that was the work of another man."

The charge will not stick. It is clear even to my own inexpert eye that the penned inscription "by Clement C. Moore, A.M." is not written in Moore's rather distinctive hand. Moreover, Moore was not in the habit of referring to his master's degree when he signed his name. In all likelihood, the inscription was written by someone at the New-York Historical Society in recognition of Moore's gift. It is no evidence that Moore tried to take credit for the translation. Charge dismissed.

writing sample The inscription on the title page of the copy of A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, which Foster cites as proof of plagiarism. Courtesy of New-York Historical Society

writing sample Moore's signature from a manuscript for "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." Courtesy Kaller's America Gallery, Inc., N.Y.

Still, why the apparently erroneous attribution? While this question requires no answer here, the most likely one happens to shed light on a larger question: I believe that the attribution was correct: Moore did do the translation, perhaps together with Durand, and he never chose to take public credit for it. The reason is simple, and revealing: men of high social position often published their work anonymously in the early nineteenth century (Moore often did so himself), because public anonymity was often a sign of gentility. But it is easy to imagine that Moore was pleased with his work and he did not object to letting word of it become known to the small elite group who were his fellow members of the New-York Historical Society. (In fact, the copyright notice does not show that Francis Durand translated this treatise but only that he claimed legal rights to it--rights that Moore could easily have assigned to him in a display of noblesse, perhaps for collaborating in the translation. Furthermore, while the title page of the book indicates that it was "translated from the French," it does not name a translator. Had Francis Durand really done that job himself, he could easily have said so on the title page--and he did not.) The whole inconsequential affair shows, again, not that Moore was a liar but that he was just what we already know him to have been--a patrician.

A similar dynamic was probably at play with "The Night before Christmas." The poem first appeared in 1823, anonymously, in a newspaper in Troy, New York (there is no clear evidence how it got there, though legend has it that one of Moore's relatives was responsible for copying the poem down after hearing Moore say it aloud to his family the year before). In 1829 that same Troy newspaper reprinted the poem, which by now had already begun to circulate widely around the country. The 1829 printing was again anonymous, but this time the newspaper's editor added some tantalizing hints about the identity of the poem's author: he was a New York City man "by birth and residence," and "a gentleman of more merit as a scholar and writer than many of more noisy pretensions." While keeping up the aura of genteel anonymity, these words pointed pretty clearly to Moore (Henry Livingston, who had died two years before, was neither a scholar nor a New Yorker), and it seems rather likely that Moore's name had been cropping up for some time among people in his own circle. Moore was almost certainly becoming privately proud of what was far and away the most famous thing he had ever done. Eight years later, in 1837, a member of Moore's circle publicly named him as the author; Moore did not object. Finally, in 1844, Moore used the rationale that his own children had pressed him to publish his collected poetry as an excuse to include the poem and thereby to openly acknowledge his authorship. (Moore's children believed--and perhaps with very good reason--that their father had written "The Night before Christmas.")

Assume for a moment that Foster is correct after all in his assessment of Moore's personality. In that case--if the man was so curmudgeonly, prudish, and moralistic, so profoundly offended by frivolous poetry, that he would not have written "The Night before Christmas"--why would he have chosen to take public credit for it? If there was anything less likely than his writing such a thing (and doing so for wholly private use), surely it was choosing to name himself in print as its author--in a handsomely printed collection of his own poetry, no less. From Moore's own perspective--though crucially not from ours, and we should be sure to make this distinction--such a thing could have brought him only discredit. Foster's claim that Moore was incapable of writing the poem is incompatible with the fact that Moore was capable of claiming its authorship.

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