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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
One thing he continued to do, well into the forties: write poetry...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.
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.
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. MooreAs 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 he needed the 1830 broadsheet for a copy-text of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in 1844. 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 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. 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...
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.
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 Gazette made it "tunder un blizzen"(reprinted in the Worcester, Massachusetts Eclipse of the Sun, November 29, 1826.
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!1792
--The Scots Magazine - November 1743
Now stalk'd like a Cyrus the lean dame Van Blixen1799
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!1810
--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….1824 (blixum as "German")
--Francis Fungus "To Christopher Caustic, Esq. Apothecary, &c." Philadelphia Repertory, September 1, 1810
... 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 Reports1832
"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, 1832.1834
…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 1834Found on Newspapers.com powered by Newspapers.com
|Weekly Standard [Raleigh, North Carolina] - July 3, 1839|
|Greensboro Patriot - May 11, 1841|
Ere long the merchant on the 'SquireTwo years later the Salem Gazette reprinted "A Yankee Pass" with the end-rhyme blixen changed to blitzen:
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
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!"Shows him the note--like any vixenHe 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
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 Newspapers.com powered by Newspapers.com
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, 1837Over 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, 1841In "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 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, 1839As 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 Blixum, and Blixen?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.