Friday, December 24, 2010

Oy to the World! (Clement Moore Did Not Write "Twas the Night Before Christmas"))

Our neighbor's yard, expressing "OY to the World"
It's the day before Christmas
and along all the shelves,
the revisions were clammoring
for they weren't going to write themselves...

I've never been a huge fan of "T'was the Night Before Christmas."  It was always a bit too cheesy for me.  Even as a kid, I felt it was not only out of touch with my reality, but the overall tone of the thing sounded to me like it was talking down to me.

And the fact that I had no idea what a sugarplum was only annoyed me.

A few years back I heard a story on NPR that gave me some respect for the poem.  In the story, Morning Edition host Renee Montagne talks with Don Foster, a literary detective who uses a computer algorithm to analyse writing considered to be written anonymously to identify the author.  Most famously, Foster used this process to correctly identify the anonymous author behind the Clinton presidential campaign expose, Primary Colors.

After being contacted by the descendants of Major Henry Livingston, a Revolutionary War veteran who had long claimed authorship of the poem, Foster agreed to look into the poem's history and potential authorship.

What he found, as described in the NPR story, is pretty striking.  "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was published anonymously in the Troy, New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823.  I was popular with the public and was reprinted at Christmas for several years, each time with the author listed as Anonymous.  Several years later, Moore contacted the editor of the paper, asking if authorship had ever been determined.  When the answer came back no, Moore claimed the poem as his own.

Foster provides examples of Moore's writing style and Livingston's writing style.  I grant you that they're cherry-picked examples, but giving Moore's other writing, his overall writing style and scholarly reputation, the structure of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" doesn't fit with Moore at all.

I'll be raising a toast to Livingston this year.  I may not be a big fan of his most famous work, but I appreciate an underdog who's work was stolen out from under him.

Merry Chirstmas, Chappy Chaunukah, Khappy Kwanza, Joyous Soltice and/or however you may choose to celebrate this time of year.  Take care of yourselves.

-- Tom