Thursday, April 13, 2017

The mean side of Henry Noble MacCracken

Henry Noble MacCracken, c. 1940
Henry Noble MacCracken via Wikimedia Commons
Academia is no place for crybabies. Nevertheless, I can't remember reading anything so overtly cruel in academic prose (however informal) as Henry Noble MacCracken's mockery of Clement C. Moore in Blithe Dutchess. In print, the retired Vassar president goes way out of his way to criticize Moore for loving his wife too much. Then he jeers at Moore's lyrical expression of grief in the poem "To Southey," written after the deaths of Moore's wife and two children. Is hostility to Moore a rule at Vassar, mandated by the Code of Conduct or something?
Professor Moore begot nine children in eleven years (1815-1826), a somewhat uxorious rate, even in those years of large families. His wife died in 1830, and the Doctor bewailed her in lines of self-pity addressed to Robert Southey, his favorite poet.
"A strange relief the mourner's bosom knows
In clinging close and closer to its woes.
In unheard plaints it consolation finds,
And weeps and murmurs to the heedless winds."
It would have been instructive to learn whether Dr. Moore wrote this after listening to an alley cat, of the famous New York breed. No other animal is known to have a weeping bosom. --Henry Noble MacCracken, Blithe Dutchess, 388-389.
In the Dedication to A Tale of Paraguay, Southey recalls the death of his infant daughter. Moore addressed Southey not merely as "his favorite poet," but as a fellow mourner, one who knew firsthand the grief of losing a child. Moore's wife Eliza died in April 1830. Before that, his and Eliza's daughter Emily died in 1828 at the age of six. Another daughter named Charity, age 14, died in December of 1830. Moore grieves for all three in his lines "To Southey" that were "never sent to him," as the headnote explains. MacCracken chose not to quote the most vivid illustration in "To Southey" of very human heartache:
I saw my wife, then, to the grave descend,
Beloved of my heart, my bosom friend.
So interwoven were our joys, our pains
That, as I weeping followed her remains,
I thought to tell her of the mournful scene—
I could not realize the gulph between. --To Southey
Equally mean, or maybe meaner in its Orwellian attempt to rewrite a man out of documented history, is the scrubbing of Clement C. Moore's name from the story of Lorenzo Da Ponte in New York City.
"Lacking a patron, he had at last sought refuge in New York, where Gulian Verplanck befriended him..."
"Da Ponte initiated Italian studies in America, for the self-appointed ambassador to the American people had added a library and a school to his grandiose plans for an endowed Italian opera in New York. Gulian Verplanck secured a post for him at Columbia."
"... the protegé of Gulian Verplanck...." --Blithe Dutchess, 113.
Everybody else credits Clement C. Moore as the earliest New York patron of Lorenzo Da Ponte. Everybody, including Da Ponte. In his memoirs, Da Ponte himself calls Clement Moore "my guardian angel."
"I went to pay my first call on Mr. Charles [sic] Clement Moore, as the person who held (and he will always hold) the first place among my pupils and benefactors...."
--Memoirs by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Much later in his autobiography, Da Ponte remembers also his former boarding student Congressman "Julian" Verplanck with gratitude for arranging the sale of some expensive Italian books to the Library of Congress. At Da Ponte's funeral his old pupils Moore and Verplanck both served as pall-bearers. But the name of Moore comes first in every version but MacCracken's.

Ex-President MacCracken alludes knowingly to Da Ponte's memoir, but fails to mention the effusive praise therein for Clement C. Moore:
Pray allow me, Mr. Clement Moore, to adorn this part of my Memoirs with your dear and respected name! Pray allow my grateful heart, mindful of the honor, the graciousness, the kindness, received of you, and your never interrupted favor, and mindful no less, of the advantages and the glory shed by that same favor upon the sublimest geniuses of Italy, upon Italy herself and upon me—pray allow me, I say, to seize this occasion to make a public testimonial of my proper gratitude, and solemnly protest that if the language of Italy, if her noblest authors, are known and loved in New York not only, but in the most cultured cities of america, if, finally, I am enabled to make the glorious boast of having, I alone, introduced them, I alone, spread their fame, their practice, their light in America, the principal merit belongs to you...." Memoirs - Lorenzo Da Ponte
In 1940, Columbia librarian Milton Halsey Thomas recalled that Da Ponte's professorship in Italian came "largely through Moore's influence." In 1958, MacCracken's revised history in Blithe Dutchess blithely erased Moore and replaced him with Verplanck. The alteration does not read like a careless mistake, or oversight--which is too bad.

Fortunately, correctives are easy to find. One good one is by the late Jack Beeson, distinguished Professor of Music at Columbia. Professor Beeson's chapter in Living Legacies at Columbia properly acknowledges the early role of Clement C. Moore in promoting Lorenzo Da Ponte:
A chance meeting in a bookstore with the recent Columbia College alumnus Clement Clarke Moore led to private teaching and to meeting Moore's father, Benjamin, who was Bishop of the Anglican Church. (Benjamin was also President of Columbia College, and his son was a Columbia Trustee.)....

At the suggestion of the younger Moore, he returned to New York City and opened a bookstore and a rooming house, both frequented by Columbia College students, who savored the sophisticated talk about the arts, the Mozart years, and the Italian cooking. It was not long before Moore, by that time the author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," suggested a professorship in Italian, and Da Ponte was forthwith appointed.
Professor Beeson's fine biographical essay on Da Ponte, MacDowell, [Douglas] Moore, and Lang is also available online via the Columbia Magazine - Living Legacies series.

Later: Another victim of MacCracken's revisionism in Blithe Dutchess is Frances Laight Cottenet, whom Lorenzo Da Ponte affectionately honored as
"without doubt the brightest jewel in my Tuscan crown."
--Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte
As Da Ponte explains, his "Tuscan crown" refers to "my New York pupils." Da Ponte means New York City pupils, not the Livingston daughters he lectured one fine summer and left behind in Staatsburg. MacCracken coolly cuts the exceptionally gifted Mrs. Cottenet out of Da Ponte's narrative and replaces her with Cornelia Livingston.

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