On a crisp morning not long ago, at a second-hand bookstore on the shore of a New Hampshire lake, I found a hard-bound book in green cloth: “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809)” by Washington Irving. And I got it in honor of Santa Claus.
This late-fall discovery took me back to last winter, when I first stumbled on the link between the man who wrote Rip van Winkle, the man who wrote one of the best-known Christmas poems in the world, and a small city just over the mountain known mostly for its 19th-century iron industry.
Continuing my stroll in the archives, I’ve come across that link again. Here it is, in honor of Dec. 1.
[Dec. 19, 2013] On a cold morning nearly 200 years ago, just over the ridge, imagine a family in a city much like Pittsfield opening their morning paper. It is a wealthy small city, making steel and shipping produce from Vermont farms down the Hudson river. The Eerie canal will shortly make it still richer.
And over breakfast, children waiting eagerly for the holiday will read over their father’s finger, for the first time, a poem in a newspaper column: ‘… and all through the house not a creature was stirring ...”
The classic is local. I’ve just stumbled on something many of my readers may already know: Clement Moore lived right around the mountain.
“In December of 1823, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ was first printed, anonymously, in the Troy Sentinel,” explains Seth Kaller, a historian and collector of manuscripts. (www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc)
Kaller believes that Moore actually wrote it. A recent controversy has evolved, claiming that the poem belonged to another local writer, Henry Livingston. Kaller offers a vigorous conterargument.
I would need more time to sort out the various arguments fully — maybe an afternoon to sit down with the Berkshire Athenaeum’s copy of Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas” and follow the history of the holiday in America. (Now that they allow hot drinks downstairs, I might be able to read it over a cup of cocoa with a candy cane to stir it).
But I find Kaller’s argument compelling because he gives it in clear and simple English — and because he has a sense of humor. He shows us Clement Moore laughing at himself. Here is Moore unbending from his professorial height to discover that he has fallen in love — laughing in helpless delight at the force of his longing for the woman he would marry and the thought of his scholarly self looking for her at all hours, walking with her, trembling to hold her hand.
Moore did have some height to unbend from. He was professor of “Oriental and Greek literature,” scholar of Hebrew and son of an Episcopal Bishop in New York. Moore got his bachelor’s and master’s at Columbia College (where his father served as president). He also, according to his own poems, liked a romp with his children and a drink with his friends.