Christmas Poem Sale Stirs Plagiarism Feud

BySusan Adams,

N E W  Y O R K, Dec. 24, 2002 -- 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.

Kaller, who bought the Moore manuscript for $211,000 at Christie's in 1997, decided to take Foster on. He hired manuscript expert and former private gumshoe Joe Nickell to slog through archives and quiz experts. Nickell's conclusion: Moore is unquestionably the author.

Nickell is publishing his findings in a two-part article in Manuscript magazine, the main trade organ for the historical document-collecting crowd.

The Santa Context

Nickell's strongest argument: "the Santa context." While the Livingston camp maintains that the poem was written between 1780 and 1808 (Livingston died in 1828 at the age of 80), the popular American image of a merry Santa, as portrayed in the poem, wasn't even invented until 1809.

Prior to that, St. Nick was still the good cop/bad cop figure, known as Sinter Klass, favored by the Dutch. In one hand he had a sack of toys for well-behaved youngsters, in the other, a club for beating the naughty ones.

The poem's happy Santa ("he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf") is consistent with authorship in 1822, as claimed by Moore, and not in the time period cited by the Livingston camp, maintains Nickell. Reindeer, as well, were a new motif introduced in America in 1821. Nickell also read through a bunch of unpublished work by Moore and found numerous examples of upbeat prose.

What do other experts think? Foster stands by his story, adding that Kaller and Nickell are making "a very tendentious argument in order to sell a manuscript."

"We won't ever know for sure who wrote it," says Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library. "But in a sense, the authorship doesn't matter. It's a beloved poem, with warm, resonating touches for all of us."

For manuscript dealer Kaller, there's obviously more at stake, though he admits that his copy of the poem would retain value even if Moore were exposed as a plagiarist.

Muses Kaller, "Then it would be one of the greatest pieces of fraud in American history, and who knows whether it would be worth more or less."

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