Christmas Poem Sale Stirs Plagiarism Feud

ByABC News
December 20, 2002, 11:28 AM

N E W  Y O R K, Dec. 24 -- It's days before Christmas, and children, and their nostalgic parents, can finally nestle snug in their beds. After years shadowed by accusations of plagiarism, the most famous Christmas poem of all time has been cleared.

Or at least that's the story being plugged by the historical manuscript dealer who is selling the only handwritten copy of the poem in private hands.

Seth Kaller, of Kaller Americana in New York City, is asking $795,000 for the 56-line "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," written by Clement Clarke Moore. There are three other handwritten versions by Moore, all of which reside in institutions the New York Historical Society, the Huntington Library in Los Angeles and the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y.

There's no doubt that Moore penned those four manuscripts. What's in question is whether Moore (1779-1863), a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and member of a prominent family that once owned large tracts of what is now Greenwich Village, is the originator of the lighthearted verse.

Literary sleuth and Vassar literature professor Don Foster, who famously exposed Joe Klein as the author of the book Primary Colors, sides with the family of Hudson Valley gentleman poet Henry Livingston Jr. in arguing that Livingston is the Christmas poem's true author.

But Who Is the Author?

"A Visit" was first published anonymously, by an upstate New York newspaper called The Troy Sentinel, on Dec. 23, 1823. Moore's name was attached to it publicly in an 1837 poetry anthology. In 1844 Moore himself finally admitted authorship. He was embarrassed, he explained, when this trifle he'd intended only for his children was made public.

Though there's no documentary evidence showing Livingston's hand at work, Foster became convinced that the poem closely matched Livingston's literary style and point of view.

Two years ago in his book Author Unknown, Foster argued that the curmudgeonly Moore's writing was full of words like "dread" and "strife." By contrast, argued Foster, Livingston was a jolly fellow whose comic verse was much more like the famous poem.