Who REALLY wrote The Night Before Christmas? A linguistic analysis

| | January 15, 2024

In a chapter of his just-published book, Author Unknown, Don Foster tries to prove an old claim that had never before been taken seriously: that Clement Clarke Moore did not write the poem commonly known as “The Night before Christmas” but that it was written instead by a man named Henry Livingston Jr. (1748-1828) never took credit for the poem himself, and there is, as Foster is quick to acknowledge, no actual historical evidence to back up this extraordinary claim. (Moore, on the other hand, did claim authorship of the poem, although not for two decades after its initial–and anonymous–publication in the Troy [N.Y.] Sentinel in 1823.) Meanwhile, the claim for Livingston’s authorship was first made in the late 1840s at the earliest (and possibly as late as the 1860s), by one of his daughters, who believed that her father had written the poem back in 1808.

Why revisit it now? In the summer of 1999, Foster reports, one of Livingston’s descendants pressed him to take up the case (the family has long been prominent in New York’s history). Foster had made a splash in recent years as a “literary detective” who could find in a piece of writing certain unique and telltale clues to its authorship, clues nearly as distinctive as a fingerprint or a sample of DNA. (He has even been called on to bring his skills to courts of law.) Foster also happens to live in Poughkeepsie, New York, where Henry Livingston himself had resided. Several members of the Livingston family eagerly provided the local detective with a plethora of unpublished and published material written by Livingston, including a number of poems written in the same meter as “The Night before Christmas” (known as anapestic tetrameter: two short syllables followed by an accented one, repeated four times per line–“da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM,” in Foster’s plain rendering). These anapestic poems struck Foster as quite similar to “The Night before Christmas” in both language and spirit, and, upon further investigation, he was also struck by telling bits of word usage and spelling in that poem, all of which pointed to Henry Livingston. On the other hand, Foster found no evidence of such word usage, language, or spirit in anything written by Clement Clarke Moore–except, of course, for “The Night before Christmas” itself. Foster therefore concluded that Livingston and not Moore was the real author. The literary gumshoe had tackled and solved another hard case.

Foster’s textual evidence is ingenious, and his essay is as entertaining as a lively lawyer’s argument to the jury. If he had limited himself to offering textual evidence about similarities between “The Night before Christmas” and poems known to have been written by Livingston, he might have made a provocative case for reconsidering the authorship of America’s most beloved poem–a poem that helped create the modern American Christmas. But Foster does not stop there; he goes on to argue that textual analysis, in tandem with biographical data, proves that Clement Clarke Moore could not have written “The Night before Christmas.” In the words of an article on Foster’s theory that appeared in the New York Times, “He marshals a battery of circumstantial evidence to conclude that the poem’s spirit and style are starkly at odds with the body of Moore’s other writings.” With that evidence and that conclusion I take strenuous exception.

I. “There Arose Such a Clatter”

By itself, of course, textual analysis doesn’t prove anything. And that’s especially true in the case of Clement Moore, inasmuch as Don Foster himself insists that Moore had no consistent poetic style but was a sort of literary sponge whose language in any given poem was a function of whichever author he had recently been reading. Moore “lifts his descriptive language from other poets,” Foster writes: “The Professor’s verse is highly derivative–so much so that his reading can be tracked . . . by the dozens of phrases borrowed and recycled by his sticky-fingered Muse.” Foster also suggests that Moore may even have read Livingston’s work–one of Moore’s poems “appears to have been modeled on the anapestic animal fables of Henry Livingston.” Taken together, these points should underline the particular inadequacy of textual evidence in the case of “The Night before Christmas.”

Nevertheless, Foster insists that for all Moore’s stylistic incoherence, one ongoing obsession can be detected in his verse (and in his temperament), and that is–noise. Foster makes much of Moore’s supposed obsession with noise, partly to show that Moore was a dour “curmudgeon,” a “sourpuss,” a “grouchy pedant” who was not especially fond of young children and who could not have written such a high-spirited poem as “The Night before Christmas.” Thus Foster tells us that Moore characteristically complained, in a particularly ill-tempered poem about his family’s visit to the spa town of Saratoga Springs, about noise of all kinds, from the steamboat’s hissing roar to the “Babylonish noise about my ears” made by his own children, a hullabaloo which “[c]onfounds my brain and nearly splits my head.”

Assume for the moment that Foster is correct, that Moore was indeed obsessed with noise. It is worth remembering in that case that this very motif also plays an important role in “The Night before Christmas.” The narrator of that poem, too, is startled by a loud noise out on his lawn: “[T]here arose such a clatter / I got up from my bed to see what was the matter.” The “matter” turns out to be an uninvited visitor–a household intruder whose appearance in the narrator’s private quarters not unreasonably proves unsettling, and the intruder must provide a lengthy set of silent visual cues before the narrator is reassured that he has “nothing to dread.”

“Dread” happens to be another term that Foster associates with Moore, again to convey the man’s dour temperament. “Clement Moore is big on dread,” Foster writes, “it’s his specialty: ‘holy dread,’ ‘secret dread,’ ‘need to dread,’ ‘dreaded shoal,’ ‘dread pestilence,’ ‘unwonted dread,’ ‘pleasures dread,’ ‘dread to look,’ ‘dreaded weight,’ ‘dreadful thought,’ ‘deeper dread,’ ‘dreadful harbingers of death,’ ‘dread futurity.'” Again, I’m not convinced that the frequent use of a word has terribly much significance–but Foster is convinced, and in his own terms the appearance of this word in “The Night before Christmas” (and at a key moment in its narrative) ought to constitute textual evidence of Moore’s authorship.

Then there’s the curmudgeon question. Foster presents Moore as a man temperamentally incapable of writing “The Night Before Christmas.” According to Foster, Moore was a gloomy pedant, a narrow-minded prude who was offended by every pleasure from tobacco to light verse, and a fundamentalist Bible thumper to boot, a “Professor of Biblical Learning.” (When Foster, who is himself an academic, wishes to be utterly dismissive of Moore, he refers to him with a definitive modern putdown–as “the Professor.”)

But Clement Moore, born in 1779, was not the Victorian caricature that Foster draws for us; he was a late-eighteenth-century patrician, a landed gentleman so wealthy that he never needed to take a job (his part-time professorship–of Oriental and Greek literature, by the way, not “Biblical Learning”–provided him mainly with the opportunity to pursue his scholarly inclinations). Moore was socially and politically conservative, to be sure, but his conservatism was high Federalist, not low fundamentalist. He had the misfortune to come into adulthood at the turn of the nineteenth century, a time when old-style patricians were feeling profoundly out of place in Jeffersonian America. Moore’s early prose publications are all attacks on the vulgarities of the new bourgeois culture that was taking control of the nation’s political, economic, and social life, and which he (in tandem with others of his sort) liked to discredit with the term “plebeian.” It is this attitude that accounts for much of what Foster regards as mere curmudgeonliness.

Consider “A Trip to Saratoga,” the forty-nine page account of Moore’s visit to that fashionable resort which Foster cites at length as evidence of its author’s sour temperament. The poem is in fact a satire, and written in a well-established satirical tradition of accounts of disappointing visits to that very place, America’s premier resort destination in the first half of the nineteenth century. These accounts were written by men who belonged to Moore’s own social class (or who aspired to do so), and they were all attempts to show that the majority of visitors to Saratoga were not authentic ladies and gentlemen but mere social climbers, bourgeois pretenders who merited only disdain. Foster calls Moore’s poem “serious,” but it was meant to be witty, and Moore’s intended readers (all of them members of his own class) would have understood that a poem about Saratoga could not be any more “serious” than a poem about Christmas. Surely not in Moore’s description of the beginning of the trip, on the steamboat that was taking him and his children up the Hudson River:

Dense with a living mass the vessel teem’d;
In search of pleasure, some, and some, of health;
Maids who of love and matrimony dream’d,
And speculators keen, in haste for wealth.
Or their entrance into the resort hotel:

Soon as arriv’d, like vultures on their prey,
The keen attendants on the baggage fell;
And trunks and bags were quickly caught away,
And in the destin’d dwelling thrown pell-mell.
Or the would-be sophisticates who tried to impress each other with their fashionable conversation:

And, now and then, might fall upon the ear
The voice of some conceited vulgar cit,
Who, while he would the well-bred man appear,
Mistakes low pleasantry for genuine wit.
Some of these barbs retain their punch even today (and the poem as a whole was plainly a parody of Lord Byron’s hugely popular travel romance, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”). In any case, it is a mistake to confuse social satire with joyless prudery. Foster quotes Moore, writing in 1806 to condemn people who wrote or read light verse, but in the preface to his 1844 volume of poems, Moore denied that there was anything wrong with “harmless mirth and merriment,” and he insisted that “in spite of all the cares and sorrows of this life, . . . we are so constituted that a good honest hearty laugh . . . is healthful both to body and mind.”

Healthy too, he believed, was alcohol. One of Moore’s many satirical poems, “The Wine Drinker,” was a devastating critique of the temperance movement of the 1830s–another bourgeois reform that men of his class almost universally distrusted. (If Foster’s picture of the man is to be believed, Moore could not have written this poem, either.) It begins:

I’ll drink my glass of generous wine;
And what concern is it of thine,
Thou self-erected censor pale,
Forever watching to assail
Each honest, open-hearted fellow
Who takes his liquor ripe and mellow,
And feels delight, in moderate measure,
With chosen friends to share his pleasure?
This poem goes on to embrace the adage that “[t]here’s truth in wine” and to praise the capacity of alcohol to “impart / new warmth and feeling to the heart.” It culminates in a hearty invitation to the drink:

Come then, your glasses fill, my boys.
Few and constant are the joys
That come to cheer this world below;
But nowhere do they brighter flow
Than where kind friends convivial meet,
‘Mid harmless glee and converse sweet.

These lines would have done pleasure-loving Henry Livingston proud–and so too would many others to be found in Moore’s collected poems. “Old Dobbin” was a gently humorous poem about his horse. “Lines for Valentine’s Day” found Moore in a “sportive mood” that prompted him “to send / A mimic valentine, / To teaze awhile, my little friend / That merry heart of thine.” And “Canzonet” was Moore’s translation of a sprightly Italian poem written by his friend Lorenzo Da Ponte–the same man who had written the libretti to Mozart’s three great Italian comic operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi Fan Tutte,” and who had immigrated to New York in 1805, where Moore later befriended him and helped win him a professorship at Columbia. The final stanza of this little poem could have referred to the finale of one of Da Ponte’s own operas: “Now, from your seats, all spring alert, / ‘Twere folly to delay, / In well-assorted pairs unite, / And nimbly trip away.”

Moore was neither the dull pedant nor the joy-hating prude that Don Foster makes him out to be. Of Henry Livingston himself I know only what Foster has written, but from that alone it is clear enough that he and Moore, whatever their political and even temperamental differences, were both members of the same patrician social class, and that the two men shared a fundamental cultural sensibility that comes through in the verses they produced. If anything, Livingston, born in 1746, was more a comfortable gentleman of the high eighteenth century, whereas Moore, born thirty-three years later in the midst of the American Revolution, and to loyalist parents at that, was marked from the beginning with a problem in coming to terms with the facts of life in republican America.

By: Stephen Nissenbaum

READ MORE: The History of Christmas

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