18 December 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever, Part II

The thing every author creates that marks a work as their own is also the very thing they cannot see. Fans and critics might well rave about a writer’s “style,” but those writers have no clue what these mad people are talking about. A writer can try to imitate another writer’s style, but not for long. Inevitably, the thing that makes a writer unique eventually outs. That’s why those Sherlockian pastiches never really nail Doyle. Close, but no meerschaum pipe.

Writers love to lament quirks of their style. But when they do that, they’re really moping about defects that are painfully obvious to them. When I edit my work, I try desperately to excise the stuff I hate about my writing. I know, for example, that I overuse words like “concoct”—not to mention “desperately” and “excise.” And sure, there are tons of junk words I search for during an editing pass that have been culled, I might as well confess, from previous columns on that subject right here on the Sleuthsayers blog. (A tip of the hat here to Messrs. Lopresti and Floyd.)

But let’s face it: no matter how much I tinker with my paragraphs and sentences, the Joe-ness within me inevitably spills onto the page. I have no idea, for example, how my use of definite and indefinite articles differ from some other writers. And I have no clue how my use of phonemes (don’t ask) punctuate the Joe-itude. For every quirk I prune away, I lay down a thousand more tells that taint the prose with what can probably be described as a sort of invisible literary fingerprint.

And modern scientists can lift those prints.

Toward the end of the 19th century, descendants of a man named Henry Livingston Jr. went public with the shocking truth, as they perceived it: Clement Clarke Moore had claimed authorship of a poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written by their ancestor.

Livingston (1748-1828) was many things in life—a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a surveyor, a justice of the peace, and an inveterate poet. When Livingston’s first wife died, he married and fathered children with another woman. It was to this second crop of kids that Livingston—who lives in the literature as a light-hearted, jolly fellow—is believed to have first read his Christmas poem sometime between 1807-09. The family suspected that a visitor to Henry’s estate in Poughkeepsie brought a copy with her to New York City, where it somehow ended up in Moore’s household.


Of course, there’s no proof of any of this. Livingston’s original text, with numerous cross-outs—was said to have been preserved in the family for decades, until it was lost in a house fire in Wisconsin in the 1840s.

But we do have those marvelous words. If Livingston wrote the poem, his invisible fingerprints would be all over it, wouldn’t they? In 1999, a descendant convinced a Vassar professor to begin a textual analysis of the poem, comparing its signature quirks to other known examples of Livingston’s and Moore’s poetry. After a long study, the first prof, Don Foster, said yep, Livingston did it!(1) If that weren’t enough, a second professor—MacDonald P. Jackson, professor emeritus at the University of Auckland—subjected the work of the two men to numerous tests, producing a 2016 book in the process, ultimately finding for Livingston.(2) I urge you read Professor Mac’s work, if long asides on phoneme pairs, attributive adjectives, and high- and low-frequency words—and the syllables that love them—run to your taste.


The thing is, we should have known all along. I can’t help imagining Hercule Poirot or Ellery Queen or even the aforementioned Mr. Holmes pegging Moore as the malingerer after a long weekend in the country with him.

On paper, the dude looks temperamentally incapable of writing such a poem.

Item 1: In 1799, New York passed a law allowing for gradual emancipation. That meant that all enslaved persons in the state had to be freed by 1827. Clement Clarke Moore—a biblical scholar, a man of the freaking cloth—held onto his enslaved persons till the very end. The year A Visit from St. Nicholas was published, 1823, Moore owned five human beings. They had to be pried from his grip at the very last gasp of the manumission law. To make matters worse, Moore was rabidly against abolition and went to his grave in 1863 objecting to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Item 2: When Moore sold his Chelsea property in Manhattan, he did it in such a way to exclude working class New Yorkers, and did everything in his power to create an atmosphere modern Americans would associate with a gated community, banning everything from stables to factories to retail shops within the confines of Chelsea’s boundaries. When city fathers announced they wanted to run Ninth Avenue through his estate, he railed against it, saying it was a plot to appease the working class.

Item 3: When scholars speak of Moore, they use words like stodgy, stuffy, elitist, narrow, unplayful, or curmudgeonly. His other writing, especially the other poems he wrote, express a weirdly moralistic tone. He doesn’t really seem to like children. In one of the Christmas poems in his ouevre, Santa comes off like a dick—mocking the children for whom he has left a sackful of coal. As you read this poem, Moore appears in your mind’s eye, sadistically flexing a switch, as if prepping to whip a naughty child’s backside. In 1995, when the New-York Historical Society mounted an exhibition devoted to the poem, the museum’s curator confided to the New York Times, “He was clearly a prig. He had a very closed mind.”

I don’t have to tell you that scholars, academics, and museum curators choose their words very carefully.

Does this sound like the kind of man who could effortlessly write about sugar-plums and dozing tots? In the poem we all know and love, Santa comes to life as a pipe-smoking, soot-covered, working class hero, i.e., a “peddler just opening his pack.” That is not a portrayal you’d expect from the pen of a man who hated filthy tradesmen and their tobacco with equal venom. Could a guy like this really breathe life into a right jolly old elf?

If the modern academics are correct, suddenly tiny bits of the story surrounding the writing of the Christmas poem make a whole lot more sense.

No wonder Moore didn’t want his children and guests to share the poem he read them in 1822. No wonder he downplayed his “creation” for two decades, claiming the poem as his own and inserting it into a published collection of his poetry only after his children pushed him to do so. No wonder he claimed the poem was easy to write. (Trivial works usually are, aren’t they? Compiling a Hebrew-English dictionary, as Moore had, is far more mentally taxing.)

I might add that before Moore published the poem in his collection, he wrote a strange letter to the editor of the Troy, New York, newspaper that first pubbed the poem anonymously. Moore asked if editor Norman Tuttle knew who the author of the poem was when Tuttle first released it in the pages of his publication in 1823. Speaking as a writer myself, that is a very weird question for a writer to ask of his own work. As Livingston descendants and researchers point out, such a query only makes sense if Moore was trying to suss out if the coast was clear before he formally claimed the poem as his own.

Maybe it’s time for us to face facts. Maybe Moore wasn’t a brilliant-but-humble genius at all, as I hinted three weeks ago. Maybe he was just another hypocritical, moralizing, enslaving churchman. A man who willfully perpetrated one of the most outrageous thefts in the history of U.S. literature.

Not the “Poet of Christmas” at all. More like the plagiarist who stole Christmas.

Signed first edition? I think not.

Happy New Year to you all! See you in three weeks.

* * * 

(1) Author Unknown, by Don Foster (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt, 2000). Chapter 6, beginning page 221, on the Santa Claus poem analysis.
(2) Who Wrote The Night Before Christmas?: Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question, by MacDonald P. Jackson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016).
See also:
* Henry Livingston, Jr.: The Poet You Always Loved, by Mary Van Deusen (Wrentham, Massacusetts: Val Alain Publishing, 2016).


  1. I have considerable respect for forensic linguistics, which, added to your analysis becomes very persuasive, even convincing. That's one bit of literary ownership that should be set straight.

    I think you've come up with one or more superb upcoming article titles, perhaps Keeping Up With the Joe-ness or The Book of Joeb. Such Joenity Joeynacion take true Joeitude. I find myself Joenified.

    Merry Christmas (sans Moore), Joe!

  2. Is nothing sacred! Thanks for a real Christmas mystery.

  3. Interesting column, Joe--as usual. Apparently nothing IS sacred!

    Merry Christmas, and hi to Denise! Hoping y'all have a great holiday.

  4. Wow. But it makes sense. After all, if you're determined to be master of all you survey, human, animal, vegetable, and mineral, well, it makes sense to claim authorship of a stray poem if everyone's bragging on it. A little Christmas present to one's self.

  5. Wow. Talk about a twist at the end!

  6. Joe, nice two-part article. You dug a little deeper into the subject than I did.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I should probably say that some people have raised objections about the academic studies, arguing that the researchers cherry-picked the work of both men in their analyses, and that this may have influenced the results. Detractors and Moore defenders say that until someone produces the poem in Livingston's handwriting, all bets are off. I just don't need that MS to believe. I respect the science, and I think Foster and Jackson have nailed the truth.


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