Friday, March 24, 2017

Dunder-Donder, Blixem-Blixen, Dunder Mifflin, Donder and Blitzen

Dr. Snodhead, a very learned man, professor of Low Dutch and High German in the college of Santa Claus and St. Pott's.... --Moby-Dick - The Decanter 
Now, in German, one of the few words known to uneducated Americans is blitzen, because it forms part of an oath supposed to be a favorite with Hollanders and the Germans. "Donder-and-blixen" used to stand as a popular and jocose synonym for a Dutchman, very much as in Mexico, at the present day, Englishmen and Americans are gravely called Los God-damés. --The Critic - April 23, 1881
Dutch and German influences linger, too, in the names of the reindeer Donder and Blitzen (Thunder and Lightning).... As for his vision, it is nothing less than the casting of a secularized and dehistoricized icon of prosperity out of the American melting pot's assorted religious and folk traditions.  --Janet Gray on Popular Poetry, Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Eric L. Haralson (Routledge, 1998).
In Author Unknown, Don Foster charged that Clement C. Moore's late preference for "Donder and Blitzen" shows he "did not know the original names of his own Dutch reindeer." Who could forget Dunder and Blixem? That "Dutch reindeer" line provided one of Foster's best sound bites during his golden years of media celebrity, back before his Funeral Elegy fiasco (Ron Rosenbaum's good word for it) became a textbook example of high-profile failure. According to Foster, the perceived inability to write "Dunder and Blixem" (as two of Santa's eight reindeer were named in the 1823 first printing) exposed Moore's ignorance of Dutch and therefore his linguistic incapacity to write "A Visit from St. Nicholas," aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Foster's catchy "Dutch reindeer" argument has been revived by MacDonald P. Jackson in Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Jackson pays even closer attention to textual variants than Foster did, but reaches the same conclusion. Jackson interprets the revision history of reindeer names as tangible evidence for Henry Livingston's authorship of the beloved Christmas classic. How Jackson went wrong is worth exploring, as a kind of public service to general readers who would never expect so much misinformation and specious reasoning in the published work of an accomplished Shakespeare scholar.

Jackson's first mistake is revealed in his idea that "Dunder and Blixem" in the 1823 Troy Sentinel printing must present an "especially awkward detail for Moore's champions" (Who Wrote, 15).

Using loaded terms like "champions" and "believers" is one way of verbally preserving the illusion of equivalency between Moore and Livingston as the two worthiest authorship candidates. They are not equally matched contenders, however, because only Moore claimed authorship, and only Moore published the poem over his name, and only Moore was credited with authorship by knowledgeable contemporaries, including (besides his daughters, the best witnesses of all) such eminent editors and literary critics as Charles King, Charles Fenno Hoffman, William Cullen Bryant, W. A. Jones, Evert A. Duyckinck, and Edmund Clarence Stedman. Since numerous verifiable facts corroborate Moore's authorship, and none identifies Henry Livingston, Jr. (who never claimed it anyway) with "A Visit from St. Nicholas," there can be nothing "awkward" presented by any printed text of the poem. The burden of proof has always been on the Livingston side, despite this early attempt by Jackson to shake it off. His authorship controversy or "question" is purely hypothetical. The label "believer" more aptly describes the supporter of a different candidate than Moore. Without evidence, belief in Livingston's authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is indeed a matter of faith.

To evaluate Jackson's discussion of reindeer names properly, it helps to keep in mind the extent to which the hypothetical authorship question imposes its own agenda. Authorship issues can wait. All kinds of editorial and interpretive problems may be addressed and scrutinized and solved, or not solved, without reference to authorship. Authorship most of the time does not have to be on the table at all. It's only before us here, now, because I'm indulging my own authorship obsession.

We know exactly what happened: the reindeer names "Dunder and Blixem" eventually became "Donder and Blixen" (most notably in The New-York Book of Poetry) and then "Donder and Blitzen" in Moore's 1844 volume of collected Poems. How and why the different versions came to exist are largely matters of conjecture. Some conjectures will be more informed and persuasive than others. Conjectures that require a hypothetical author, someone other than Clement C. Moore, will merit the very highest degree of skepticism.

Jackson's treatment of reindeer names is ill-informed on three crucial points:
  1. References to Dutch "thunder and lightning" in popular Anglo-American literature featured numerous variants of  dunder/donder + blixum/blixem, throughout the period under examination, c. 1800-1844. Variants were promiscuously employed and included the words blixen and blitzen along with blixum and blixem.

  2. The terms Dutch and German themselves were unstable and for many Americans interchangeable. Our so-called Pennsylvania Dutch are Germans. The Dutch language fundamentally is German, of course, as is English. "High Dutch" meant German. The German for "German" still is Deutsch. Jackson oversimplifies with unnecessarily rigid categories of Dutch and German that do not reflect their linguistic kinship and historical intermingling. In particular, Jackson's oversimplified view distorts the complicated settlement history of New York State:

    "From first to last the two major elements, known in the old world as "Deutsch" but differentiated as "Hoch Deutsch" and "Nieder Deutsch," mingled here in colonial America most freely, not only on account of common religious sympathies, but also on account of close similarity of languages."

    --Charles Maar on The High Dutch and the Low Dutch in New York 1624-1924 in The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association Vol. 5, No. 4 (October 1924), pp. 317-329; available via JSTOR. 

  3. Jackson underestimates pervasive Dutch influence in the Capital Region of upstate New York including Albany and Troy, the county seat of Rensselaer County. The interchangeability of terms for "thunder" and "lightning," illustrated below with numerous examples, means that anybody might have indifferently or mistakenly written "dunder" for "donder," and/or "blixem" for "blixen." Mainly because of the imperfect rhyme with "vixen," I think (but don't pretend to know) the 1823 reading "blixem" was a copyist's or printer's error for Moore's "blixen." If Clement C. Moore did not write "dunder and blixem" as originally printed in the Troy Sentinel on December 23, 1823, any changes were probably accidental, mistakes of transcription or of printing. If the change to "dunder" and "blixem" resulted from deliberate revision, then Troy (formerly Vanderheyden) was one place that a persnickety editor might have felt empowered to alter the names of Dutch reindeer in accordance with house style. In any case, it remains certain that in 1844 Moore settled on Donder and Blitzen.
Alongside misrepresentation in triplicate, Jackson neglects important evidence of Clement C. Moore's personal involvement in the first book publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Contrary to imaginary scenarios proposed over the last one hundred years by Livingston advocates, Moore himself authorized publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the 1837 New-York Book of Poetry. As his published letter to Charles King explicitly confirms, Moore contributed the poems that appeared over his name in the 1837 anthology, including "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Even without the benefit of seeing Moore's letter, published March 1, 1844 in the New York American, biographer Samuel W. Patterson realized what the number and selection of poems by Clement C. Moore in the New-York Book of Poetry implied. (So did I, even before I located Moore's  1844 letter in the microfilm archives of the New York American at The New York Public Library.) Publisher George Dearborn and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman would never have presumed to select and publish the texts of those particular poems in the 1837 New-York Book of Poetry without Moore's prior advice as well as consent.
One thing he continued to do, well into the forties: write poetry...

Moore contributed several of his pieces to The New-York Book of Poetry, which appeared in 1837. It was in this volume by native New Yorkers that he first acknowledged his authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Much of his verse had already been published in newspapers and periodicals.  --The Poet of Christmas Eve, 112-113.
Patterson's active verbs (contributed, acknowledged) are evidence-based, and may be contrasted with the fantasy that has long circulated among believers in Livingston's authorship of "Visit," that Moore passively "allowed" Charles Fenno Hoffman to publish four poems over his name.
When "The New York Book" was about to be published, I was applied to for some contribution to the work. Accordingly, I gave the publisher several pieces, among which was the "Visit from St. Nicholas." It was printed under my name, and has frequently since been republished, in your paper [Editor Charles King's New York American] among others, with my name attached to it.  --Clement C. Moore
As he states in this February 27, 1844 letter to Charles King, in 1837 Moore "gave the publisher several pieces" including "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore's 1837 contribution might explain, by the way, why in 1844 he would have needed the 1830 broadsheet for a copy-text of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Perhaps Moore sent the Sentinel broadsheet to the printer of his 1844 Poems because he had previously forwarded a manuscript version of "Visit" for publication along with three other of his poems in the New-York Book of Poetry.

Since Moore "gave the publisher" his poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in 1837, the reading there of "Donder and Blixen" should be regarded as authorized and approved by Clement C. Moore himself.

Whatever Moore may have originally written, in 1837 he authorized the correction or revision to "Donder and Blixen." In 1844 he again changed "Blixem," this time to "Blitzen." As shown below, blixen and blitzen could be and were used interchangeably in popular literature. Poets and journalists treated blixen and blitzen as variants of the same Dutch word. Jackson's investigation goes bust, before it ever gets started, on the reindeer names Dunder and Blixem. Here and elsewhere, the manufactured authorship dispute obscures other problems that are worthier of attention by literary critics and scholars. How to twist blixem into an argument for Livingston's authorship is not the right question. Here's a better one posed by the revision history, more interesting and legitimately arguable: What if anything did Moore mean in 1844 by changing Blixen to Blitzen?

Now for the nitty gritty...

From "The Journal of a Student," signed "F." (for Sumner Lincoln Fairfield)
North American Magazine - April 1835
Foster's original argument and Jackson's restatement both require a comically precise reading of Dunder and Blixem as proper Dutch terms for "Thunder" and "Lightning," consistent with what Jackson calls "the prevailing forms" Dunder/Donder and Blixem/Blixum. Jackson accepts Donder and Blixum as allowable variants. Blixen he regards as inherently suspicious and probably unauthorized, something imposed by Charles Fenno Hoffman. German Blitzen is right out. Even granting the questionable assumption and strained reasoning, the phrase "Dunder and Blixem" never appears anywhere in Livingston's known writings, poetry or prose, and therefore offers just nothing in the way of textual support for his supposed authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

Moreover, Jackson's facts are incomplete and therefore misleading. His examples in Table 3.1 purport to show early usage of blixem in specifically Dutch contexts and blitzen for German ones. According to Jackson's neat chronology, only later (1843 and after) does the word blitzen occur with Dutch rather than German associations. For the sake of tidiness, apparently, Jackson has omitted telling counter-examples from his published Table 3.1, including instances of blitzen in Guy Mannering (1815) by Sir Walter Scott. (Jackson's note: "The table excludes the instances by Scott mentioned in the text.") In chapter 4 of the first volume, the 1820 Philadelphia edition of Guy Mannering gives "Donder and blitzen!" in early dialogue by the Dutch smuggler, Dirk Hatteraick.

"Donder and Blitzen" in Scott's Guy Mannering (Philadelphia, 1820)
In the first edition of Guy Mannering (Edinburgh, 1815), the same passage gave Dirk Hatteraick's expression as "Donner and blitzen!"

Here as in the case of Happy Christmas, Jackson's over-reliance on the LION database (and on Don Foster) gets him into trouble. "Happy Christmas" turns out to have been commonplace; and blixem was never the regular or "prevailing" English term for Dutch "lightning" in popular literature. Journalists differ about what constitutes true Dutch. Aiming for realistic Dutch dialogue, a political anecdote in the Black Rock [New York] Gazette on November 9, 1826 made it "tunder un blixzen":

Reprinted with the reading "tunder and blizzen" in the Worcester, Massachusetts Eclipse of the Sun, November 29, 1826. In Fayetteville, North Carolina the Weekly Observer gave the same expression in the same story as "tunder un blitzen."

Moreover, usages of blixen rival blixem/blixum all through the first half of the nineteenth century.


... the beastly, unmannerly insinuation that follows—dunder, blixen, Tyvel!
--The Scots Magazine - November 1743
Now stalk'd like a Cyrus the lean dame Van Blixen
Whom Scandal has christ'ned a paragon'd vixen
--"Description of a Dutch Ball at the Cape of Good Hope" By Miss Emily Brittle. Weekly Museum, August 18, 1792
Oh Hell! and dunder and blixen! 
Centinel of Freedom [Newark, New Jersey], March 12, 1799
I endeavored to appease the enraged Dutchman in vain. He told me it was the same dueifels kint that had insulted his master, and clenching his fist swore with a tremendous dunder and blixen that he would have satisfaction….
--Francis Fungus "To Christopher Caustic, Esq. Apothecary, &c." Philadelphia Repertory, September 1, 1810
"Donner and Blitzen, exclaimed she...." [Dame Van Dam, Dutch wife of Mynheer Van Dam in "Job Cook--A Legend," The Atlantic Magazine, July 1, 1824.]
[blixum as "German"] ... while an old German, who was sitting against the capstan with his pipe in his mouth, grumbled out--"Dunder and blixum, you've broke mine pipe mit your nonsense!"
--"Ten Days in the Country," New York Spectator, August 31, 1824

D. [Dutchman] Ash?? Do you gall me ash, and do you say I am grazy? Dunder and blixen!  --Skillman's New-York Police Reports
"Dunder and blixen," roared one of the party--a Dutchman--dey pe noting put de fox grape!  --"The Yankee and The Grape-Vines" from the New York Constellation; frequently reprinted, for example in the Haverhill [Massachusetts] Gazette, February 25, 1832; and Miller's Weekly Messenger [Pendleton, South Carolina], March 21, 1832.
"Dunder und blitzen, said their magistrates..." --"The Red Satchel" in Atkinson's Casket, September 1833 ("From the Saturday Evening Post") 
"Dunder and blitzen! exclaimed Johannes [Puterbaugh, "Dutch" patriarch of Rock-Hollow]...." --Cincinnati Mirror, and Western Gazette of Literature - October 5, 1833
 …where's Naso Tremaine, my plebe? Demme if he shan't taste of 4th July in the shape of a genteel swig of donder and blixen just from Amsterdam, and out of a brown Dutch jug. --"Arthur Tremaine" in the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, July 1834
Found on powered by
Weekly Standard [Raleigh, North Carolina] - July 3, 1839
Greensboro Patriot - May 11, 1841
As demonstrated by the examples above, "blixen" appears repeatedly in newspapers and magazines c. 1800-1844, usually with "dunder" but sometimes "donder." Below, a relevant and suggestive instance from the verse burlesque titled "A Yankee Pass," where "blixen" rhymes with "vixen":
Ere long the merchant on the 'Squire
Call'd about payment to inquire,
Shows him the note--like any vixen,
He cries out "dunder, blood and blixen;

I bees won foolish, cheated ass;
Dat be de Got tam Yankee pass."
--New England Galaxy via The Weekly Miners' Journal [Pottsville Pennsylvania], April 15, 1826
Two years later the Salem Gazette reprinted "A Yankee Pass" with the end-rhyme blixen changed to blitzen
Shows him the note--like any vixen
He cries out, "Dunder, blood, and blitzen,
I am one fooolish cheated ass,
Dat is de cot tam yankes pass."
--Richmond Whig via Salem Massachusetts Gazette, June 17, 1828
These printed versions of "A Yankee Pass" show that as early as 1828, blitzen could and did replace blixen as a rhyme for vixen in popular American verse about a Dutchman. As shown in the warm-up post on A Dutch Quarrel, British newspaper editors in 1835 likewise treated blixen and blitzen as variant spellings of the same Dutch word. The London story, originally titled "Much Ado about Nothing," circulated with alternative forms for the stereotypical Dutch oath, including "Donder on Blixen!" and "Donder and Blitzen!"

The 1833 Anecdote of Two Dutchmen, widely reprinted in American newspapers and magazines from Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, gives "Dunder and blitzen" (alternatively, blizen in the Schenectady, New York Cabinet, April 3, 1833) as typically Dutch.

Found on powered by
Several Dutchmen were laboring in the field below. A sand-bag bursting to pieces as it struck the earth near them, caused them to raise their eyes, and a shout of "Dunder and Blitzen!" as they saw the teefle, as they verily believed, making a stoop directly upon them. --"Clayton the Aeronaut," signed "P." in the Boston Transcript via The New York Commercial Advertiser, June 30, 1837
Over the pseudonym "Verbum Sapienti," the writer of a letter to the editor of the Richmond Whig alluded to the commonplace expression "dunder and blixen" by way of correcting another writer's supposed error in using it. For the Richmond linguist, the most proper "Dutch" forms of the familiar oath were not dunder/donder and blixem/blixum but "donner and blitzen":
[there are] no such words in Dutch as "dunder and blixen," which he meant, I presume, for the vulgar oath in that language of "donner and blitzen." --Richmond Whig, April 20, 1841.  --Richmond Whig, April 20, 1841
In "The Barber of Gottingen," by Robert Macnish, widely reprinted from the October 1826 number of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, the barber's fiendish customer shouts both "Donner and blitzen!" and "Dunder and blixum!" Reprinted widely, for example in the New-York American, November 24, 1826, Macnish's "Barber" influenced Poe's The Devil in the Belfry with its "Donder and Blitzen" (listed and dated 1840 in Jackson's Table 3.1, although not identified there by story title).

Donner and blitzen! exclaimed the bewildered cobbler [Jacob Kats, Dutch "Cobbler of Dort"], as he took the pipe out of his mouth....  --Plattsburgh Republican, March 9, 1839
As late as 1851, we find Herman Melville indiscriminately lumping Dutch and Germans together as one nation of sailors. In chapter 81 of Moby-Dick, the Pequod meets and then competes for sperm whales against the heretofore unsuccessful Jungfrau or "Virgin." In the heat of the chase, Stubb refers to Jungfrau captain Derick De Deer as both a "Yarman" (German) and "unmannerly Dutch dogger." As another such personified confusion of Dutch and German stereotypes, Melville's Dr. Snodhead would relish the looseness and fluidity of Stubb's categories.

As I have urged the WHY of Blitzen as a more fruitful question than WHO (you know who), let me end with three very arguable answers. Why did Clement C. Moore in 1844 choose Blitzen over Blixem, and Blixen?
  1. Moore simply forgot about his previously approved change to "Blixen" and wrote "Blitzen" instead. With the 1830 Sentinel broadsheet before him, the important thing to Moore in 1844 was fixing the imperfect rhyme by revising "Blixem." Blixen and Blitzen were interchangeable rhymes for "Vixen," as the different versions of "A Yankee Pass" in 1826-8 demonstrate.

  2. Moore the Super-Dad and Responsible Family Man was forever haunted by James Kirke Paulding's off-hand dismissal of "blixum" as "little better than swearing." Thinking of the children, Moore hoped against hope that Blitzen would vary the familiar curse just enough to hide it from his kids, and posterity.

  3. Moore the myth-maker and linguist extraordinaire wanted to honor Old World Christmas traditions along with his specifically Dutch Saint. Dutch reindeer? Humbug! Moore's reindeer are who we thought they were, Finns. Dolf and Bärtyly don't quite match up with Prancer and Vixen, but Blitzen inches closer to the hardy Nordic spirit we're always looking for around the holidays. Despite (rather than in keeping with) the popular notion of Blitzen as Dutch, Moore finally and expertly linked his Nordic reindeer with Christmas trees and other more broadly Germanic rites of December. In so doing, Moore honored the German heritage of his intimate friend Dr. Francis:
    —to whom the New Year's festival, as characteristic of his father's Nuremberg home as of Dutch hospitality, and his old friend Clement Moore's household rhymes of Santa Claus, with the annual schnapps and pipes of this local saint, brought such genial inspiration.... --Henry T. Tuckerman, biographical introduction to Old New York by John Wakefield Francis.
 Donder goes with Comet, for better assonance. 

Derick De Deer, German or Dutch?

Both, right? The Dutch and Germans chase after sperm whales under one "flag." And Stubb calls Captain De Deer "Yarman" and "unmannerly Dutch dogger!"

Probably Dr. Snodhead could sort it out.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Dutch Quarrel or Much Ado about Nothing

"He say Donder und Blitzen!"
--"Marlborough Street.—'Much Ado about Nothing.'—" London Morning Advertiser, 4 June 1835
"He say, Donder on Blixen!" --London Morning Post, 4 June 1835
"He say Donder and Blitzen!" --London Examiner, 7 June 1835 
"He say, donder en blixen!" --Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 8 June 1835
"He say, Donder on blixen!" --same story as above, headlined "A Dutch Quarrel" and reprinted in The Scotsman, 10 June 1835.
More to follow soon, hopefully, all about Donder, Dunder, Blitzen, Blixen, Blixem, etc.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Polar Music Talks 2014 - Dave Edmunds on Chuck Berry

Cadillacs and ragged Fords

To continue with the automobile analogy advanced in the post on recommended fixes, I'm here with the tow truck for that broken-down Ford. Again. Three wheels are off and MacDonald P. Jackson wants more gas. What's that about "a follow-up study"? In the can, apparently:
... a follow-up study that finds high-frequency words and phoneme pairs that combine to distinguish Livingston’s verse from a similarly-sized corpus of verse by contributors to the newspapers and journals in which he published, and that places “The Night Before Christmas” with the Livingston poems. It remains true, however, that when capitalized and uncapitalized words are differentiated, the “Livingston-favored words” results show “The Night Before Christmas,” along with the majority of Livingston’s poems, falling beyond Moore’s range (Who Wrote, 133). --Jackson on Norsworthy
Mister, no disrespect but you might ought to think about trading it in.

Jackson justifies his withholding of "Charles Elphinstone" and other manuscript poems by Clement C. Moore in order "to test the efficacy of the tests" as "best practice." Best practice of what? Answer: authorship attribution studies in Jackson's field of globally acknowledged expertise which is Shakespeare and early modern English theater. Good, except in that game scholars play with bigger balls. Not literally, of course. I mean bigger data sets. In Shakespeare-World, it's all about Big Data.

How big? For quick and easy reference I checked Open Source Shakespeare for numbers of words in Shakespeare's plays. Zounds! Hamlet has 30,557 words; Midsummer Night's Dream 16,511. Average number of words per play for Shakespeare is 22,595. Your average Shakespeare play contains more words than all of Clement C. Moore's published poems combined (20,585 according to the Words in Moore page at Mary S. Van Deusen's marvelous Henry Livingston site). Hamlet at over 30,000 words plus half of MND is roughly the size of the entire Moore corpus including unpublished pieces, for example Moore's ambitious Charles Elphinstone and the revealing Biography of the heart.

The number of words in poetry by Henry Livingston, Jr. is difficult, maybe impossible to nail down. A few enthusiastic family members have sought to credit Livingston with poems he did not write. Where's a licensed English Professor when you really need one? We could use one now, preferably from the old school of Samuel Schoenbaum. Going old-school, the first order of scholarly business would be to determine if possible which pieces in Henry Livingston's manuscript book are actually his own compositions. Some of them might have been copied from the magazines and newspapers in which Livingston evidently published. (I do not claim that any were. I'm pointing out the undone dirty work of scholarship. Livingston submitted prose work by other writers without giving them credit, as the published essay on Eskimos demonstrates. Today we call that plagiarism, but when Livingston did it American literature was mostly just recycled British literature anyway, thoroughly and unavoidably derivative.)

Published in two different places, A Frontier Song in Livingston's manuscript book deserves particularly close attention for evidence of transmission. "The Frontier Song" appeared February 1791 in The New-York magazine; or, Literary repository, unsigned, with the refrain "My wife, my dog, and gun" closing each of the Song's four stanzas. The "Song" is sandwiched between two poems that also appear in Henry Livingston's manuscript book, The vine and oak and Epithalamium. Neither is signed. "Vine and Oak" is dated "Banks of the Hudson, Feb. 8, 1791," although its manuscript context implies an earlier date of c. 1786. Then on March 5, 1791, "A Frontier Song" appears over the signature "R—" in Henry Livingston's local newspaper the Poughkeepsie Journal. The Journal printing follows Livingston's manuscript reading "My puppy, squaw, and gun," as also reprinted in the American Museum - July 1792. Again, I'm not arguing that Livingston did not write these pieces. I do mean to point out how the authorship "controversy" about "The Night Before Christmas" too easily leapfrogs necessary grunt work of scholarship. On the other hand, I appreciate how questions of authorship draw attention to overlooked or neglected writings, and along the way create interesting and fun opportunities for learning. Hence my obsession with authorship questions.

Second job, weeding out newspaper and magazine contributions by other writers who also signed their contributions "R." If you think all "R's" for the period are Livingston, you might feel bound to add the following piece, published January 30, 1790 in the New-York Weekly Museum:
I Dreamt,--my dear; (quoth Ralph to Joan,
One morning as they lay alone)
I can't help laughing, faith!--I dreamt,
Our Neighbour Charles was impotent,--
There is no truth in dreams (says Joan;)
And whilst I live I'll credit none.--
But afterwards, (quoth Ralph) I dreamt,
For all that he was impotent,
He got in bed my dear to thee!
And made a shift to cuckold me--
Good lack! (cry'd Joan) I never knew
A dream before that happen'd true.
--New-York Weekly Museum January 30, 1790.
But that dont sound like Henry Livingston, Jr. and indeed can't be his original composition, since it formerly appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine for January 1733. True, Livingston could have submitted "Dream" over his cryptic initial. Still, not all "R's" represent Livingston in disguise. Does "R." in 18th century periodical literature ever signify merely "Reader"? Should we distinguish "R"; "R." with a period after it; and "R—." followed by a dash or dash and end punctuation? What else besides the signature "R." identifies the Song - Shrew'd remarkers (for example) as an original piece by Henry Livingston, Jr.? Another candidate for banishment from the official, approved Livingston collection would be Adventures of an American Eagle. Published over the signature "R." in 1822, "American Eagle" exhibits a curiously un-Livingston-like vocabulary (Capac, Canton Crape, quaff, chemic fire) and ends in a clunky moral about the "golden calf" as "Israel's sin and Israel's shame." Before "American Eagle," when was Livingston's last confirmed publication over the signature "R"? So far as I can tell, nothing else had been published over the signature of "R." in the Poughkeepsie Journal for twenty years and more before the appearance of "American Eagle" in 1822, making it doubtful that Livingston was actively writing and submitting poetry then.

Reality Check, and Double-Standard Alert

Imagine the worldwide delight (not to mention the raucous academic dinner parties) that would follow the finding of a published letter from Stratford upon Avon in which William Shakespeare exclaimed, "Kyd be hanged! I writ Arden of Faversham to amuse my kin." Or think of the joy in Poughkeepsie over the discovery of a published claim for "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Henry Livingston, Jr. News flash! Clement C. Moore openly and vigorously claimed authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in his letter to Charles King, published in the New York American on March 1, 1844. Smart people like Samuel H. Turner and Evert A. Duyckinck who really knew Moore praised his integrity, decency, and humility. Nobody in Moore's lifetime ever called him a scoundrel, but Jackson now has to. Unless he changes his mind and stops driving that ragged Ford.

Subtracting the 1803 and 1819 Carrier Addresses (735 + 677 = 1412), for a start, would (as Jackson has reminded me) bring down the gradually shrinking corpus of known poems by Henry Livingston from 12,599 to 11,187 words--and that's still too many for Livingston, probably. And we would need far larger data sets for Jackson's common single words to have any chance of identifying distinctive patterns of usage, even in combination with other common, single words. The earlier post on recommended fixes attempted to fine-tune Jackson's methodology for the purpose of correctly discriminating between Livingston and Moore. Seems now I underestimated the difficulty of insufficient data. Regardless, I'm continually fascinated by results and potential results of Jackson's approach for purposes of literary criticism and scholarship. One very fine finding by Jackson is the revelatory presence of the noun heart in the list of "Moore-favored" high-frequency words, pulsating there amidst the usual run of essential but uninspiring function words. What a brilliant discovery! and most suggestive for the appreciation of the thing that distinguishes Moore's poetry from that of dabblers and recyclers like Livingston. It's heart.

And let's not neglect the medium-high frequency words for Moore that also jump out of Jackson's footnotes: joy, joys, life and light.

For identifying authorship, however, the data sets may be too small for Jackson's method to work its magic. Best practice requires big data. Shakespeare brainiacs prefer testing with blocks of multiple thousands of words, though for practical reasons they will settle for 1500. Considering the tiny and tinier bodies of work involved here, best practice when evaluating the poetry of Moore and Livingston would be to Use Extreme Caution. Primum non nocere, as my old friend Galen used to say. Without big data we should not bother overmuch about common pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and such. Well, of course we can count them and play around with the numbers, but our concern for "best practice" will prohibit us from trying to use partial data of dubious value in the attempt to, say, deprive a fellow scholar and gentleman of his good reputation.

If we have to fool with common words, let's at least count them properly, all of them, before deciding which ones are "Livingston-favored" and which ones are "Moore-favored." Jackson points out that he deals with "Charles Elphinstone" and other withheld manuscript poems on page 92 of Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? But look how his numbers replace and eventually displace words, and consider the cumulative effect of that numerical displacement. Moreover, in accordance with Jackson's method, his numbers often do not stand for words but combinations of words, and the percentages those seemingly magical word-combinations generate. That can't be best practice over such small samples. Sorry, we're sold out of Big Data. Have you tried the Searchable Database of Longfellow Poems?

Ironically, Jackson's successive tables of stats do a great job of hiding the actual words behind the numbers. The presentation of table after table serves to flatten essential differences which occasionally scream at you when you read and compare poems by Moore and Livingston. Besides masking the literary insignificance of much raw data, this process of flattening also works to preserve the false equivalency of Moore and Livingston as equally worthy contestants for the grand prize of The Night Before Christmas. That kind of hypothetical construction might pass for best practice in Early Modern studies where in some cases little to nothing has survived in the way of external documentary evidence. Sometimes there's no water in their swimming pool. When they give lessons over there they have to imagine how real swimmers look and act in real water. Over here it's Laguna Beach, baby. Nothing but surfing and splashing all day, an ocean of biographical and historical evidence before us. Best practice in 19th century studies will be to integrate external external and internal evidence of authorship. As Harold Love advises,
"Neither kind should be given priority by fiat." --Attributing Authorship: An Introduction
Internal evidence like shared trigrams and near trigrams may not establish authorship, but in this particular case the numerous parallels confirm qualitatively, in aesthetically satisfying terms, what has already been firmly established by the biographical and historical evidence. With so much physical evidence on his side already, numerical ties go to Moore.

Thanks to the generosity and bravery of Mary S. Van Deusen, the word-frequency counts on her fantastic Henry Livingston website permit independent verification of Jackson's statistical tests. 

At their best, Jackson's tables of stats establish that one poet's verses can look like those of another poet when examined for usages of common words in isolation from their grammatical and literary contexts. His statistics "prove" just nothing in connection with the authorship of Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas." I checked the Manual, it's still best practice to acknowledge the limits of your model:
The results of computational stylistics are always a matter of probability, not of certainty. Writers are free agents, and language is an endlessly flexible instrument. Writers tend to remain within a defined band of style, but this is a propensity, not an iron law. In the past, quantitative work in literary studies has sometimes suffered from exaggerating the reliability of its findings.... Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney
The good news is, best practice evolves. Around the same time that Jackson began moonlighting in the new-fallen snow, tracking the footsteps of Don Foster, their peers were formalizing the received opinion of Foster's methodology as bad practice. In Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney cite Foster as their prime example of how not to go about the tricky business of authorship attribution. Paradoxically, Foster's work is so bad that it's good. Foster's celebrated Funeral Elegy fiasco is now regarded as instructively bad--which makes it good for something, after all. To the same effect, Patrick Juola summarizes Foster's unusually public record as an exemplary "failure":
"Another noted episode (and noted failure) in the history of authorship attribution is the work in the late 1990s, of Don Foster [41, 44]."
--Authorship Attribution by Patrick Juola
As Joe Nickell and Seth Kaller have shown already, Foster's distorted treatment of Clement C. Moore and "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" offers no improvement over his notoriously flawed work on Shakespeare and Ford's Funeral Elegy. Best practice nowadays is to acknowledge Foster's mistakes, and avoid repeating them. Jackson in his book Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? only gets halfway there.

Before determining "high frequency" and "medium-high frequency" words, Jackson excluded Moore's verse translations and numerous unpublished poems including the allegorical "Biography of the heart" and epic verse narrative "Charles Elphinstone." Besides being inappropriate for the small sample sizes involved, Jackson's exclusions pre-judged and mis-judged Moore's ability to creatively manipulate the "endlessly flexible instrument" of language. As "Charles Elphinstone" will reveal to the patient and attentive reader, our old boy had a wild imagination and was surprisingly ambitious for an amateur writer of light domestic verse. Hurrah!!! once more for Mary S. Van Deusen who heroically transcribed Charles Elphinstone, and made it available online with the rest of Moore's manuscript poems.

In future, best practice should make it easier for engaged readers to see words behind the screen of numbers. More transparency next time, please. Transparency seems especially desirable when presenting crucial numbers that relate to words in "The Night Before Christmas." That may sound obvious, but in chapters 16 and 17 of his book, Jackson makes us work to determine the precise distribution of supposedly Livingston-favored and Moore-favored words. He sticks the inventory of high frequency and medium-high frequency words in the footnotes, and in the main body only gives numbers and percentages, not the distribution of actual words. Let's peep behind the curtain.

In chapter 16, Jackson's Table 16.2 counts 53 "Livingston-favored" words in The Night Before Christmas, vs. 34 "Moore-favored" words. Here as in most of Jackson's tables, the numbers look more impressive as numbers than as the common words they are. Breaking down the 53 so-called "Livingston-favored" words in The Night Before Christmas:
I = 10
his - 18
my = 3
her = 1
on = 6
as = 2
was = 8
When = 3
me = 1
While =1


By Jackson's method, Livingston gets credit for eighteen occurrences of the pronoun his, all with reference to (who else?) Santa Claus. 18 hits for one word represents a huge chunk, practically one third, of the total 53. To see why Jackson deems the common pronoun his a "Livingston-favored" word, we can to go to Mary S. Van Deusen's online charts of the word frequencies. 
Henry has 109 instances of his = 0.865% of his 12,599 words.
Moore has 112 instances of his = 0.544% of his 20,585 words, excluding his unpublished poems.

(Here and below, I am using word counts in Jackson's book and the Livingston website whenever possible.) For the sake of argument I will pretend to accept small differences as meaningful when Jackson says they are. Poetry is more than data, however, and percentages may have statistical "significance" without having any real poetical or literary importance.

Playing the numbers game for fun (no judgment now), let's see what happens when we incorporate more of the manuscript poetry including "Charles Elphinstone" and "Biography of the heart." True, the total sample for Moore might swell to the size of two Julius Caesars after adding everything Jackson kept out. I and my humble calculator app will try to adjust accordingly.

First we need to add occurrences of "his" in light blue on Mary Van Deusen's color-coded page of All Words, to capture the excluded poems. Then we can add instances from Moore's "Biography of the heart."

237 in Charles Elphinstone plus 5 in other manuscript poems = 242 + 16 in Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore = 258. (Not counting instances of "His," with "H" capitalized, considered a separate category). And I'm keeping translations out as requested, only adding "Biography of the heart," bringing the tally of Moore words to 38,714. I got that total number by adding 12 manuscript notebook poems with 3,479 words by Jackson's count + 13,670 words in "Charles Elphinstone" by Jackson's count + 980 in "Biography of the Heart" according to my ordinary Microsoft Word software  = 18,129 + 20,585 from Mary Van Deusen's Words in Moore page = 38,714 total words in Moore. Not counting the translations from Aeschylus, Metastasio, and (in manuscript) Petrarch. 

So then, add 258 to Moore's old total of 112 = 370 in 38,714 words = 0.956%. Now Moore's percentage turns out to be greater than Livingston's percentage, though not 1.2 times greater, which is what Jackson's method would require for "his" to count as a Moore-favored word. The main thing is, the word his can no longer be counted with "Henry-favored" words. Subtract 18 from Livingston's total of 53.


Henry = 47 instances of was = 0.373%
Moore = 62 instances of was = 0.301%

To Moore's total for the word "was" we need to add 89 hits in the unpublished manuscript poems, plus 6 in "Biography of the heart" = 95 + 62 = 157 which is 0.4055% of 38,714.

Thus, was must not be considered a "Livingston-favored" word, so we have to subtract 8 additional hits. 53-18 = 35; 35-8 = 27

on, etc.

Livingston has 68 = 0.540%
Moore has 81 = 0.393%

62 + 1 = 63 + 81 = 144 which makes 0.372% of 38,714. With the larger sample size, Moore's percentage for "on" actually drops a bit: "on" stays a "Livingston-favored" word. Livingston likewise keeps "I" and "my," with "her" and the rest of them.

Corrected GRAND TOTAL for the key stat in Jackson's Table 16.2 of "High-frequency words" should be 34 Moore-favored vs. 27 Livingston-favored.

The corrected percentage of Jackson's figure L/L + M on page 83 would be 27/34+27 = 44.26.

In chapter 17 Jackson examines "Medium-high frequency" words and counts 26 Moore-Favored words; vs. 29 Livingston-Favored words in "The Night Before Christmas."
Let's break down Livingston's 29:
an = 1
around = 1
As =2
good = 1
He = 5
him = 2
His = 3
little = 4
long = 1
up = 4
rose = 1
what = 2
name = 1
meet = 1
Here, too, observe the predominating cluster of masculine pronouns He/him/His. These collectively are responsible for 10 of the 29 hits for Livingston--again a big chunk, roughly one third of them.


Moore has 15 = 0.073%
Livingston has 18 = 0.143%

For Moore's usages of "He" add 45 in "Elphinstone" + 2 in "Biography of the heart" = 47 + 15 = 62 of 38,714 = 0.160% beating out Livingston. No longer Livingston-favored, subtract 5.


Moore 13 = 0.63 %
Livingston 13 = 0.103%

Add 24 + 5 = 29 + 13 = 42 which is 0.108% of 38,714. Dead heat now, so we have to subtract 3 more from the total of Livingston-favored words.


For "him" we need to add 57 from "Charles Elphinstone" plus 14 in "Biography" = 71 + the measly 16 in Moore 's original count 87 is 0.225% of 38,714 which doubles Livingston's 14 = 0.111 %
Ha! The word "him" turns out to be insanely Moore-favored. I think we're legally obligated to subtract 2 from Livingston's total, and also to add 2 to Moore's.

The rest of them can stand for now.

Corrected GRAND TOTAL for Table 17.2 of "Medium-High-frequency words in "The Night Before Christmas" 29 - 10 (5+3+2) = 19 for Livingston; vs. 25 + 2 = 27 for Moore, after correcting Jackson's partial stats. And the percentage of 19/19 + 27 = 41.30%

To be clear, I do understand that enlarging Moore's database to its right and proper size, and appropriately reducing Livingston's as well, means that all figures, everything in every category would need to be recounted and all percentages re-calculated. Further scrutiny seems desirable and potentially enlightening. I may try to do more of that down the road. Hopefully Jackson, too, will re-count and re-calculate along the lines I am recommending. I will be interested to learn exactly how the expansion of Moore's corpus would affect the words now categorized as Moore-favored; and how the reductions to Livingston's will affect the frequency rates of words currently treated as Livingston-favored. I guess that "heart" would remain a high-frequency word, distinctive to Moore. [Sigh.] Oh alright, let me check that one, starting with Words in Moore: Moore's heart rate now holding steady at 52 = 0.253%  To which, add 55 occurrences in "Elphinstone" and other manuscript poems plus 6 in "Biography of the heart." 52 + 61 = 113 which means that Moore's heart rate remains stronger than ever at 0.290% Woo-hoo!!!!

Randomly, let me try another one from "The Night Before Christmas." What happens to "not"?
Current total for Moore, 73 = 0.355%. Adding 90 from the manuscript poems gets us to 163 which is 0.421%. The word not, like heart, remains distinctive of Moore even with the greatly expanded sample size.

With my calculator still humming, I might as well check to see what how elimination of two Carrier Addresses would affect one or two Livingston-favored words. Having triumphantly dropped the all-important "his" from Jackson's tally of Livingston-favored words, I'd better take a minute to see how "his" would fare with Livingston's smaller sample.

his in Livingston according to Words in Henry currently stands at 109 = 0.865%
1803 Carrier Address instances of his,  4
1819 Carrier Address instances of his, 8
Well then, 109 - 12 = 97 which, after subtracting 735 + 677 = 1412 lines from Livingston's previous number of total words (12,599 - 1412 = 11,187) would be 0.867% About the same, still short of Moore's 0.956%

How about the word was?

was in Livingston poems currently stands at 47 = 0.373%
1803 Carrier Address instances of was, 0
1819 Carrier Address instances of was, 0
OK, still 47 which with the reduced corpus of 11,187 words increases the percentage to 0.420% , beating Moore's  0.403% by a nose. Nevertheless, by Jackson's rule the usage must be 1.2 times greater to count as Livingston-favored. To keep was, Livingston needed to reach 0.484%. Since it's basically a tie now, Jackson still must remove was from his list of Livingston-favored high frequency words in "The Night Before Christmas."  Ho ho ho.

One more before I go: him, from the list of medium-high frequency words. I'd better check that, too, having reassigned it from Livingston to Moore.

Over at Words in Henry, him in Livingston poems currently stands at 14 = 0.111 %
1803 Carrier Address instances of him, 1
1819 Carrier Address instances of him, 1
Now 14 - 2 = 12 in 11,187 words, which reduces Livingston's percentage to 0.107% vs. Moore's
0.225% Ha! Jackson still has to give him to Moore.

The evident swing from Livingston to Moore in "The Night Before Christmas" seems mainly though not exclusively a matter of pronouns. In our relatively small samples, some numbers and percentages may be volatile and change with every addition or subtraction to the data set. But numbers for "heart" and "not" remained pretty stable, which looks encouraging for the explanatory potential of even a smaller database. And percentages for the very small Livingston sample will probably be more volatile and therefore unreliable than Moore's. Especially with respect to the Livingston corpus, it seems unwise for now to rely on the commonest words for anything but fun and games with respect to Clement C. Moore's authorship of "The Night Before Christmas."

You can't escape from subjectivity, and best practice requires qualitative as well as quantitative analysis.

Best practice is integrative. The Cadillac model integrates qualitative with quantitative, external with internal evidence. Being integrative, best practice would never discount, as Jackson persistently does, excellent documentary evidence of authorship, especially with zero documentary evidence for any other claimant. (Sorry, the Livingston "witness letters" count as rich and fascinating family history, not evidence of authorship, as I will have to review in a separate post. And since Jackson opened the door, I'll walk him through the reindeer names so he won't keep tripping on Blixem.) In his Appendix III, Jackson demonstrates convincingly that the 1830 Sentinel broadsheet served as the printer's copy text for Moore's 1844 Poems. Good! Therefore, what Jackson has in front of him is solid physical evidence of Clement C. Moore's authorship of "The Night Before Christmas." For Christmas' sake, hang on to that "doctored copy of the 1830 Sentinel broadsheet," as Jackson describes it in a footnote to Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? (page 184, note 4).

Doctored? I guess that means, "doctored" with revisions to the printed text in Dr. Moore's handwriting. In other words, physical evidence of authorship.  Double-standard alert!

Moore's use of the Sentinel broadsheet reminds me of Melville's practice when he submitted his more substantially revised version of "The Admiral of the White" for re-publication as "The Haglets" in John Marr and Other Sailors. Like Moore's "Visit" (though never so sensationally popular, of course), Melville's poem had already been printed in more than one newspaper. Melville gave the printer a marked-up and cut-up clipping from the New York Tribune.
The printer's copy for John Marr, in fact, consists of the Tribune clipping cut apart and fitted in with the manuscript pages.
--Hennig Cohen, Selected Poems of Herman Melville
Relevant images showing how Melville marked and scissored a printed newspaper text of his own poem may be found in Douglas Robillard's facsimile edition of John Marr and Other Sailors, published in 2006 by The Kent State University Press.

Did I mention the poem Clement C. Moore wrote for one of his daughters titled "From Saint Nicholas"? The manuscript is owned by the Museum of the City of New York. You can see a fine image of the manuscript poem online via Emily Chapin's beautifully illustrated article on Clement Clarke Moore and Santa in the City. Smoking-Gun Alert!   Double-standard alert!

Aside from hypothetical and largely counter-factual (which is to say, imaginary) constructions, no real problem exists with respect to the authorship of "The Night Before Christmas." There exists no counter-claim by Henry Livingston, Jr., and there is no troubling conflict between internal and external evidence. Granted, many of us would benefit from remedial classes in prosody and source-study. Our old-school English professor could favor us with a guest lecture on how anapests work in limericks and verses for kids, and why every poem in anapestic tetrameter kind of sounds the same. Any present-day disciple of Andrew B. Myers could guide us to Moore's poem by the easy and direct route from Washington Irving's house. Jackson's detour through Tristram Shandy is entertaining for sure, but far out of our way.

Possibly I have mentioned this once or twice already, but Jackson unreasonably slights good internal evidence for Moore. Here's my latest favorite example, not cited in the Melvilliana blog-review of his book. Jackson necessarily admits the word like as a Moore-favored word, but his method of combining multiple common words effectively masks how strong of a Moore-marker "like" really is. Introducing very persuasive evidence of similes, Joe Nickell has Jackson in a pickle. Like after like after like after like after like after like after like after like. What to do with so many Moore-markers? Jackson has to count them, of course, but he wishes they would behave and go away:
"Without those eight instances of "like"--six of them crowded into a mere nine lines, in a manner unique within either poet's work--the percentage of Livingston-favored test words in Table 17.1 would be 64.043, even further outside Moore's range." 
--MacDonald P. Jackson, Who Wrote the Night Before Christmas? p. 89
If all those Moore-words weren't there, the test results for Livingston would be stunning. I've heard that doing computational statistics is basically like sorting jellybeans. Hmm. Here I guess we've got jellybeans of two different colors: green for Livingston's high and medium-high frequency words, blue for Moore's. They're mixed up in the jellybean jar labelled "NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS." Our task: sort by color and count them up. Earlier, the trouble was that some jellybeans are green AND blue. Problem now is, somebody keeps eating the blue ones.

Total Words

Directly confronting the inadequate sample sizes, Livingston's in particular, leads me to make a suggestion in closing. For a truly helpful follow-up study, MacDonald P. Jackson might test-drive the Cadillac model of best practice by investigating or re-investigating the "Total words" column in his Table 13.1. In all seriousness, the number of Total Words could turn out to be the easiest and most economical discriminator of all between Livingston and Moore.

In presenting "Definite and indefinite articles in Livingston and Moore," Jackson gives us potentially significant counts of the "Total words" in most (not all) poems by Moore and Livingston. "A Visit from St Nicholas" aka The Night Before Christmas contains 542 words. No stretch for Moore, but clearly beyond Livingston's comfort zone. Livingston liked to work in smaller fields, fenced in by clever puzzles and sturdy governing conceits. Only a handful of his pieces exceed 300 lines. Three poems over 400 lines are probably not by Livingston anyway (namely those 1803 and 1819 Carrier Addresses, and that strangely late, curiously worded 1822 parable, "Adventures of an American Eagle." Drop poems of doubtful authorship and we're left with two animal fables and Livingston's playful verse-letter to his brother Beekman. None of which is as long as Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

Livingston almost never attempted longer poems. The average length of the 54 poems evaluated by Jackson after excluding very short poems of less than 100 words is 228 words (12,303/54). Delete the 1803 Carrier Address in Isaac Mitchell's Political Barometer, and the 1819 Address of doubtful authorship, and Livingston's average drops to 215 (11,187/52).  The 100-word minimum requirement excluded eleven poems by Livingston, but only one of Moore's published poems (Lines / On Seeing My Name Written By a Young Lady in the Sand of the Sea-Shore). Moore's average here, even without adding in "Charles Elphinstone," is 20,556/32 = 642 words. Adding "Sand" back in plus the manuscript poems brings the average to 38,714/47 = 824.

This here is just where I need Jackson's expert help, since averages won't properly convey what the Total Words category demonstrates about the essential difference between Livingston's poems and Moore's. Besides the jet off-take, railroad air horns and military spot, I want this Cadillac equipped with arithmetical means and all the standard deviations. And t-tests. It's a yellow convertible, so we definitely want good t-tests. Factory built. While we're rolling on down the road, tell me again... What's a t-test?
"I want four carburetors
And two straight exhausts
I'm burnin' aviation fuel
No matter what the cost
I want railroad air horns
And a military spot
And I want a five-year guarantee
On everything I got
I want ten-dollar deductible
I want twenty dollar notes
I want thirty thousand liability
That's all she wrote

I got me a car
And I'm headed on down the road
(No money down)
I don't have to worry
About that broken-down, ragged Ford."
--Chuck Berry - No Money Down

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Jackson on Norsworthy on “The Night Before Christmas”

Jackson on Norsworthy on “The Night Before Christmas”

Scott Norsworthy lists (February 9, 2017) “Recommended fixes” for my “flawed methodology” in Who Wrote “The Night Before Christmas”? Analyzing the Clement Clarke Moore vs. Henry Livingston Question. He believes I ought to have done some things differently.

Of course I agree with him that “Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore” should be added to the Moore poems investigated. His transcription of the manuscript now makes the whole poem readily available, whereas I had relied on the cut version of the poem, amounting to 72 per cent of the whole, that was printed by Samuel White Patterson in his The Poet of Christmas Eve: A Life of Clement Clarke Moore 1779–1863.    


In devising tests that distinguished between Moore’s verse and Livingston’s, I of course ignored all “Henry Plus” pieces and used the Livingston corpus that had been established on Mary Van Deusen’s “Henry Livingston” website several years before I began my investigations. The Moore and Livingston poems were listed in Who Wrote, 164–72. Norsworthy thinks I ought to exclude from the Livingston canon the Carrier Addresses, 1803 and 1819. He suggests (March 8) that the 1803 address is by Isaac Mitchell. He may be right. But in the test described in the last paragraph of the “Accuracy of transcription” section below, the 1803 and 1819 addresses both belong with Livingston rather than with a miscellaneous group of his contemporaries. It would be worth seeing how a Mitchell poem fares. Livingston’s descendants passed both addresses down through the family as his, along with some of his letters and scraps of other writing, and there are no obvious ulterior motives for their having done so. Gertrude Fonda Thomas’s ascription of CA 1803 would have come from Livingston’s daughter Jane, her mother.  But it would be possible to try excluding theses two addresses from the database and to find out whether this makes any appreciable difference in Moore versus Livingston tests of “The Night Before Christmas.”

Norsworthy also wants Moore’s translations from Italian and Greek included, repeating his insistence that verse translations are poetry and “take creative work to achieve.” This I have never denied. Of course they are, and of course they do. Whether translations from a foreign language are suitable for testing by stylometric methods (counts of rates of common words, for example) is less clear. Most attribution scholars would say that they are not. My omission of Moore’s translations was not based on “aesthetic judgements,” as Norsworthy charges, but on familiarity with the field of attribution studies. But, again, it shouldn’t be too hard to indulge Norsworthy over this matter too.

He wants me to compile statistics that from the start compare all Livingston’s poems with all Moore’s. Holding in reserve some items on which to test the efficacy of the tests is, however, common practice among attribution scholars. Norsworthy appears to imply (“too-conveniently”) some kind of sleight of hand in my following it. But in fact it is considered “best practice.” I used all the poems (except the Petrarch translation) in Moore’s manuscript notebook, including the long “Charles Elphinstone,” for this kind of checking, and found that none was, on the full combination of tests, so consistently Livingston-like as “The Night Before Christmas.” And we can now add “Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore” to poems reserved for checking the tests. In Figure 4 (Who Wrote, 133), which shows percentages of Livingston favored high-frequency and medium-high-frequency words combined, it would score 42.105 and so be placed in the percentage range occupied by the largest number of Moore poems and remote from where “The Night Before Christmas” near the mean for Livingston’s poems. I’ve not yet been able to check its phoneme pairs, but it is a typical Moore poem in its rates of use of “the” + “a” (6.735 as a percentage of total words) and “that” (17.347 per 1,000 words); it includes the Moore markers “in vain,” “some,” and “many a,” and one might add that it has three instances of “Oh!”—used fairly frequently by Moore but never by Livingston.

Some of Norsworthy’s sarcasm seems to be based on the assumption that my research took no account of phoneme pairs and high-and-medium-frequency words in “Charles Elphinstone,” but the results for this whole poem are reported in Chapter 18 (Who Wrote?, page 92 for words; 93 for phoneme pairs): they are in accord with the figures derived from Moore’s published poems plus the manuscript pieces “From St. Nicholas,” “To Fanny,” and “To Clem.”

I didn’t hold in reserve any of Livingston’s poems, because what mattered in the checking of tests was to find out whether they yielded “false positives” for Livingston—whether, in combination, they falsely ascribed Moore poems to Livingston.

High-frequency words and “lexical” words

No doubt Norsworthy and I could debate at length whether the rates of use of high-frequency words are less subject than choices of lexical or content words to a writer’s conscious and deliberate decision-making. But that issue is of little importance. What matters is that many empirical studies have shown that writers do in fact differ in their rates of use of high-frequency words (however conscious or unconscious their choices among them)—and indeed, I show that high-frequency words and phoneme pairs differentiate most poems by Moore from most poems by Livingston. Because they are so frequent in any piece of writing, they afford enough data to be, in combination, useful discriminators even for short texts such as poems. Attribution scholars have not found the less frequently occurring content words so effective for determining the authors of short poems. It may be possible to devise a reliable means of using words like “brains” and “visions,” but the difference between the sizes of Moore’s and Livingston’s bodies of verse would have to be taken into account—and Norsworthy wants Livingston’s to be reduced by a further 1,400 words.

Accuracy of transcription

Norsworthy urges me to check every word by Moore and Livingston in Mary Van Deusen’s transcriptions of their verse and to correct errors. Getting the text perfectly accurate is indeed desirable. I had amended some mistakes, but I agree that further effort is needed to amend them all. Doing so is most unlikely to make an appreciable difference to the counts of common words. Norsworthy notes the mistranscription of Moore’s “clad” as “glad” and of Livingston’s “sempstress” as “seamstress.” But since neither “clad,” “glad,” “sempstress,” nor “seamstress” occurs in “The Night Before Christmas,” and neither spelling of “sempstress” recurs in either poet’s verse, the authorship tests I employed are unaffected.

I am glad that Norsworthy recognizes that “Mary Van Deusen has made unquestionably valuable and enduring contributions to scholarship on Henry Livingston, Jr. and Clement C. Moore.”

I agree that it would be a good idea to combine counts for capitalized and uncapitalized words. I have done this for a follow-up study that finds high-frequency words and phoneme pairs that combine to distinguish Livingston’s verse from a similarly-sized corpus of verse by contributors to the newspapers and journals in which he published, and that places “The Night Before Christmas” with the Livingston poems. It remains true, however, that when capitalized and uncapitalized words are differentiated, the “Livingston-favored words” results show “The Night Before Christmas,” along with the majority of Livingston’s poems, falling beyond Moore’s range (Who Wrote, 133).


Norsworthy notes the many similes in “The Night Before Christmas” and observes that Moore is much more partial to similes than Livingston. Joe Nickell had made the same point in 2003, and I answered it in Who Wrote, 89. As Norsworthy says, most similes are signalled by “like,” a word that Moore uses at a much greater rate than Livingston. But “like” is duly counted among “Moore-favored words” in the test of “medium-high frequency words” described in Chapter 17. Despite NBC’s total of eight uses of this word—“six of them crowded into a mere nine lines, in a manner unique within either poet’s work” (Who Wrote, 89)—the overall percentage of Livingston-favored test words associates NBC with Livingston. To Norsworthy the “profusion of similes” in “The Writing of Hezekiah” “seems unusual for Livingston and possibly indicates a different writer.” But the poem was published—in the Country Journal and Poughkeepsie Advertiser, to which Livingston contributed other pieces—over his pseudonym “R,” and the four similes within eight lines derive from Isaiah 38: 9–20, on which “Hezekiah” is loosely based. “Hezekiah” nevertheless scores 64.286 for its percentage of the combined Livingston-favored words graphed in Figure 4 (Who Wrote, 133), which places it within the five per cent range that contains the largest number of Livingston poems. (It has too few test phoneme pairs to qualify for inclusion in Figure 3.) Since another of Livingston’s poems takes off from Isaiah 65: 25, “The Writing of Hezekiah” cannot reasonably be banished from the Livingston canon.

Norsworthy is right that more extended similes are to be found in Moore’s verse than in Livingston’s, but the comparison of the upward flight of St Nick’s reindeer to leaves before a hurricane does not seem beyond Livingston. While “coursers” appears once in Moore’s verse but not in Livingston, Livingston, in his smaller corpus, twice mentions hurricanes, and Moore never does. The extended similes by Moore that Norsworthy cites come from the long and ambitious “A Trip to Saratoga” and “Charles Elphinstone.” It is hardly surprising that elaborate similes do not appear in Livingston’s puzzle-poems. The livelier Livingston similes that Norsworthy cites are from longer pieces that are neither rebuses not acrostics, and he might have added others, such as: “My dear native village I scarcely can see / I’ll hie to my home like the tempest-tost bee” (where the bee is windblown like the leaves in NBC); or the portrayal of the lapdog Belle, “Like a sweet pretty lady she bridled her chin / And trip’d o’er the floor like another Miss Prim”; or the description of little “Master Timmy brisk and airy / Blythe as Oberon the fairy.”

Variant versions

Norsworthy wants me to “deal with the problem of different versions” though he “can’t think of any easy fix.” I don’t believe any “fixing” is needed.  I based my corpus of Moore’s verse on his Poems (1844), which gave the texts he approved for final publication, and, on Moore’s autographs of poems that had not been printed. That still seems to me a reasonable decision. Norsworthy has tracked down and put on his website a few earlier published versions of poems that Moore included in his Poems (1844). He notes that in 1824 Moore’s “Lines Written after a Snow-Storm” were printed in the Troy Sentinel, where “ivy bowers” “is probably a copyist’s or printer’s error for ‘icy bowers’,” the Poems reading, and concludes that if we reject “ivy” from Moore’s corpus we should also reject from NBC the Sentinel’s “Dunder and Blixem,” “later revised by Moore” to “Donder and Blitzen.” But “ivy” is an obvious single-letter misprint, and makes no sense in the context, whereas “Dunder and Blixem” makes excellent sense and is most unlikely to be due to complex scribal or compositorial corruption for the reasons I spelt out in my “Response to Scott Norsworthy.”  Presumably this is why Norsworthy now writes of Moore’s having “revised.” If this implies that the Sentinel’s version of the NBC couplet was Moore’s own original version, Norsworthy needs to explain why that version of the couplet has the Livingston features (Dutch oath, nasal half-rhyming final syllables, idiosyncratically placed exclamation marks) that I noted in my “Response.”

If we were to take Poems (1844), instead of the original Sentinel printing, of NBC as our text for testing, the poem would gain an instance of Moore-favored “that” and lose an instance of Livingston-favored “was,” but there would be no change to Livingston-favored or Moore-favored phoneme pairs, and neither of the graphs on Who Wrote, 132–3—showing NBC beyond Moore’s range for both Livingston-favored phoneme pairs and Livingston-favored common words—would require alteration.


I agree with Norsworthy that for trigrams shared with “The Night Before Christmas” I ought to have carefully checked all Moore’s manuscript poems that I had held back for “checking the tests.” The incidence of shared trigrams was one test that I failed to check in the previously withheld material. Had I done this checking I would have discovered that shared trigrams are ineffectual for distinguishing between Moore and Livingston as candidates for the authorship of “The Night Before Christmas.”

Norsworthy (March 6) has found trigrams that the poem shares with Moore’s manuscript poems, and two in Poems (1844) that I missed because the three-word sequences are interrupted by commas: one with “The Pig and the Rooster”  that reads “Pig turn’d, with a grunt, to his mire anew,” where “with a grunt” intervenes between the beginning and end of the phrase “turn’d . . . to his mire,” so that the syntax is rather different from “turn’d with a jirk” in “The Night Before Christmas;” and another with “The Water Drinker,” where “I, in my” matches “I in my” in NBC. He also lists “and then, in” in “Charles Elphinstone.” Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept these punctuated trigrams as matching the unpunctuated counterparts in NBC.

To Livingston’s matches I can now add “his eye and,” not used by Moore.

So far as I can see, the situation is now that Livingston has three NBC trigrams that are not used by Moore—“new fallen snow” / “new fall’n snows,” “meet with an” / “meet with a,” and “his eye and”—while Moore has nine that are not used by Livingston: “I, in my,” “not a word,” “as the snow,” “and then, in,” “turn’d, with a,” “in a moment,” “of his eye,” “the breast of,” “top of the.”  Moore is here credited with “top of the,” since “the top of the,” found in NBC and once in Moore’s “Irish Valentine,” contains not only “the top of” but also “the top of.” Norsworthy judges that the numbers “strongly support the claim for Clement C. Moore.” But he fails to take account of the fact that a Moore corpus including “Charles Elphinstone,” “Biography of the Heart of Clement C. Moore,” and the shorter manuscript pieces is three times the size (in terms of total numbers of words) of the Livingston corpus. “Charles Elphinstone” alone contains more words than the full Livingston corpus. So the numbers of trigrams that NBC shares exclusively with Moore (9) or with Livingston (3) are exactly proportional to the sizes of their poetic corpora (3 to 1).

Of the trigrams that are used by one of the poets but not the other, only  Livingston’s “new fall’n snows” and “meet with a” and Moore’s “turn’d, with a” are rare enough to be found thirty or fewer times in Literature Online poetry of 1750–1850. All the others occur over fifty times, most of them well over a hundred times. So Moore’s are not, as a group, less common than Livingston’s.

If we focus on trigrams shared with NBC but not necessarily exclusive to either poet, and count the numbers of instances, we find that Moore uses “the breast of” twice, “not a word” twice, “to the skies” five times, “the top of” twice, “out of sight” once, and the other seven of his exclusive ones once each, giving a total of nineteen occurrences, whereas Livingston uses “to the skies” four times, and “the top of” and “out of sight” once each, along with single instances of his three exclusive ones, giving a total of nine occurrences. So Livingston’s rate of use, in proportion to the size of his corpus, considerably exceeds Moore’s.

It might be pointed out that “the top of” occurs twice in NBC, which could be said to create four links to Moore (2 x 2) and two (2 x 1) to Livingston, and that since each instance in NBC is actually “the top of the,” which incorporates the further repeated trigram “top of the,” Moore’s one instance of “top of the” might also be doubled. Allowing these adjustments would bring the totals to ten for Livingston, twenty-two for Moore, with Livingston’s rate of use, in proportion to the size of his corpus still exceeding Moore’s.

I noted in my book, however, that one of Moore’s examples of “to the skies” affords a more extended correspondence with NBC, its “mount to the sky” finding a parallel in Moore’s “mounts . . . to the skies” in “The Organist.”  On the other hand, as I also noted, Livingston uses “in a moment” no fewer than five times in his far from voluminous prose. And we might add that the poems categorized as “Henry Plus,” or possibly Livingston’s, and which amount to two-thirds the size of “Charles Elphinstone,” afford three further instances of “to the skies” and one of the singular “to the sky” of NBC, and also an instance of “the top of the.”

The upshot is, I think, that trigrams end up telling us “nothing, neither way” about the authorship of “The Night Before Christmas.”

Only a small proportion of Livingston’s poems survive, mostly from the period 1776–90. You can see how the size of the corpus affects trigram results by comparing trigrams in Livingston’s with trigrams in “Charles Elphinstone,” which is larger by about eight hundred words than all Livingston’s verse combined. Livingston has five trigrams not in CE (the three that Moore doesn’t use anywhere plus “the top of” and “out of sight”), while CE has five not used in Livingston’s verse: “in a moment,” “the breast of” (twice), “of his eye,” “and then, in,” and “not a word.” Counting all instances of trigrams shared by Livingston or CE with NBC, we can add to CE’s total “to the skies” and the second instance of “the breast of” to get seven; and to Livingston’s total four instances of “to the skies” to get nine.

Norsworthy also cites a few collocations that link NBC to Moore’s verse, but in doing so he enters Moore in a one-horse race that he alone can win: mere gathering of similarities with NBC from a single author cannot establish his authorship.

Norsworthy mentions that “Irish Valentine” contains the rhyme “snow”–“below,” not counted in my chapter on “Rhyme Links.” But of course it wasn’t relevant to that context, since “Irish Valentine” was one of the poems reserved for checking the tests, and in Chapter 18 the instance of the rhyme in that poem is duly recorded (Who Wrote, 99).

Norsworthy has now encountered the attribution technique that analyses “word adjacency networks,” which he thinks “looks promising.” In “Attributing the Authorship of the Henry VI Plays by Word Adjacency,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 67 (2016): 232-56, Santiago Segarra, Mark Eisen, Gabriel Egan, and Alejandro Ribeiro report on the application of the technique to some Shakespeare First Folio plays. How well the technique would work on short poems remains untested. But another mathematically sophisticated technique, derived from signal testing and called “modal distance,” did well on 500-word blocks of verse: it measures the extent to which authors use, or avoid using, certain words together. It is described by Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, “A Touchstone for the Bard,” Computers and the Humanites, 25 (1991), 199-209, and “Was the Earl of Oxford the True Shakespeare? A Computer-Aided Analysis’, Notes and Queries, 236 (1991): 501-6. But I know of nobody except Elliott and Valenza who can apply it.

Happy Christmas

Norsworthy certainly shows that wishing somebody a “Happy Christmas,” rather than a “Merry Christmas,” was much less rare in Livingston’s and Moore’s time than in Literature Online, though several of his examples are not of the direct wish, as in NBC’s “Happy Christmas to all.” I happily grant that Norsworthy is brilliant at digging out this kind of information.

MacDonald P Jackson
March 13, 2017

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Clement C. Moore, "one of the most estimable, genial, and popular men of his day"

... the late Clement C. Moore, who will be remembered by all old New Yorkers as one of the most estimable, genial, and popular men of his day. He wrote the Christmas poem familiar to every nursery and school room, beginning, "'Twas the night before Christmas," and was well known in both the literary and the social world.
--The New York Sun, May 16, 1886