Academic journal article Style

Style and Authorship in a Classic of Popular Culture: Henry Livingston and "The Night before Christmas"

Academic journal article Style

Style and Authorship in a Classic of Popular Culture: Henry Livingston and "The Night before Christmas"

Article excerpt

"The Night Before Christmas" has been called "arguably the best-known poem by an American" (Burrows and Wallace 462-63). A classic of popular culture, it has been endlessly reprinted and illustrated. It has spawned radio, television, film, theatre, and musical adaptations. But it was first published anonymously, under the title "Account of A Visit from St. Nicholas," in a newspaper, the Troy Sentinel, on December 23, 1823, and from time to time controversy has erupted over who was the author. Traditionally it has been credited to the New York professor of Greek and Oriental Literature Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), who included it among his Poems, but the descendants of Henry Livingston (1748-1828), a Dutchess County army major, farmer, surveyor, and justice of the peace, claim that he wrote it and read it to his children around about 1808. Donald Foster's case for Livingston, in a chapter of his Author Unknown (2001), received a great deal of publicity. Foster had gained deserved celebrity for identifying the journalist Joe Klein as the "Anonymous" responsible for Primary Colors, a best-selling novel that satirized Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. But his work on "The Night Before Christmas" was attacked by Seth Kaller, Joe Nickell, and Stephen Nissenbaum, among others.

No experienced reader of poetry who had worked their way through the extant verse of both Livingston and Moore could fail to recognize that their characteristics are dissimilar. Livingston's output is warm-hearted, celebratory, and imaginative. It has verve and humor. The shorter pieces have an easy lyric grace. Livingston's poetic personality is playful and whimsical. Moore, in contrast, is a moralist, pedagogue, and satirist. He is inclined to preach. His poems are often clogged with earnest cogitation. Whereas Livingston's lines trip off the tongue, Moore's trip up the tongue. But of course attribution studies must turn such subjective literary-critical impressions into objectively quantifiable data.

"The Night Before Christmas" deserves its fame. The imagined encounter with an elfin St. Nick, his tiny reindeer, and miniature airborne sleigh is told with verve and considerable narrative skill, riveting attention from beginning to end. Energized by a string of active verbs, the poem is crammed with sensory detail. A substantial article might be devoted to analysis of its organization, as the speaking voice modulates--rising and falling, speeding up and slowing down--through a variety of tones and emotions (expectation, surprise, excitement, wonder, amusement, and joy) and of the range of rhetorical figures and poetic devices employed, right through to the chiasmic structure (abba) of the concluding line, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night." But distinguishing between authors requires a more mundane approach.

In a recent book, I attempted a thorough reassessment of the arguments in favor of Moore's or Livingston's authorship and described statistical tests that distinguish between the acknowledged poetry of the two claimants (Jackson, Who Wrote). When these were applied to "The Night Before Christmas," it turned out to be consistently associated with Livingston, not Moore. The evidence as a whole seemed to warrant the reattribution of the famous poem to Livingston.

Both Moore and Livingston had produced a sufficient amount of verse for the purposes of differentiating between their styles. Since no other candidate had ever been, or was ever likely to be, proposed as author of "The Night Before Christmas," it was necessary only to search for features that in combination discriminated between one man's work and the other's. The results were unequivocal. It might, however, be claimed--though not plausibly, as I tried to show--that they were a consequence of genre, rather than of authorship: Moore aspired to join a poetic mainstream, whereas Livingston belonged to a more popular rhyming tradition, associated at the time with fugitive publication in newspapers and magazines. …

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