Sunday, February 5, 2017

Cleaning up after Don Foster

Author Unknown to me remains truly riveting as autobiographical fiction, but in the name of Jesus, what a mess Don Foster made of the whole Christmas business in that last and obviously hurried chapter. Here we are in 2017, still having to clean up after him. 

As the email trail preserved by Mary Van Deusen shows, Foster ignorantly doubted Clement C. Moore's authorship of "The Night Before Christmas" before he had read a word of Moore's other poetry:
"I haven't yet read Moore's poems, but the case for Moore's authorship of "A Vis[i]t from St. Nicholas" seems, on the face of it, doubtful at best [!!!] and the case for Livingston's authorship quite strong."  --Don Foster, 11 August 1999
In the same 1999 email, Foster acknowledged formidable obstacles to the goal of discrediting Moore, while fantasizing about overcoming them by means of "an authoritative refutation" that would be legitimized in part by his "reputation as an attributional expert":
"Because the attribution to Moore has the weight of tradition behind it, there will have to be an authoritative refutation for Moore's authorship to be discredited. It may take a miracle for publishers to expunge Moore's name from future editions and to replace it with Livingston's, but we may be able to pull it off. If I can prove to my own satisfaction that Livingston wrote "A Visit," I'd be happy to lay out the evidence--and I may be in a unique position, given my reputation as an attributional expert, to make my verdict stick."
Bent on portraying Moore as the cartoonish incarnation of Grinch and Scrooge combined, Foster fudged the facts whenever necessary to get his pre-determined result. Years ago, Seth Kaller convincingly exposed the most outrageous errors in Author Unknown, but Foster's highly entertaining morality play continues to beguile scholars who ought to know better.

Foster's authorship agenda, recently taken up again by MacDonald P. Jackson, required sinister interpretations of normal and understandable behavior by Moore, and also required overlooking counter-examples of commendable words and actions. Case in point. Jackson buys all of Foster's ultra-sinister reading of the February 26, 1844 letter to Moore from Troy Sentinel publisher Norman Tuttle. In this letter, Tuttle was replying to Moore's prior request (unlocated, but dated February 23, 1844 according to Tuttle) for information about the original, unauthorized publication of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Full of unjustified suspicion, Foster memorably characterized Tuttle's reply to Moore as encouraging news that the "coast was clear." A-ha! Moore in Foster's warped view must have been afraid of being exposed as a fraud by the true author if he published "Visit" as his own work.

Happily, fresh evidence of the published exchange between editors of the Washington National Intelligencer and the New York American corrects the prejudiced readings by Foster and now Jackson. As revealed in the 1844 newspaper exchange, Clement C. Moore had only just learned of a bogus, published claim that somebody named Joseph Wood wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The timing indeed seems more than coincidental. Most likely, unexpected news of the published claim for Joseph Wood that Moore stated (in the published letter dated February 27, 1844) he had received only "a few days ago" prompted Moore's letter of February 23rd to Norman Tuttle. Considering that Moore was soon to publish the volume of his collected poems including "Visit," he had good and new reasons for concern that another man, namely the deceased JOSEPH WOOD, might somewhere have been credited, wrongly, with the writing of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Yes, Moore needed to learn about the publication history of his own poem, but not because he did not write it. As plainly stated in Moore's newly-discovered letter to Charles King, Moore himself had personally supplied all the poems that were published under his name in the 1837 New-York Book of Poetry.

New York American - March 1, 1844
Moore's published letter to Charles King amounts to a pretty thorough cleaning-up of the manufactured controversy over the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," efficiently sweeping away at least three canards with one documentary broom:
  1. Moore never overtly claimed authorship of  "A Visit from St Nicholas"? Wrong.
    "... a visit from St. Nicholas, which I wrote many years ago, I think somewhere between 1823 and 1824, not for publication, but to amuse my children." --Clement C. Moore
  2.  Moore passively "allowed" Charles Fenno Hoffman to give him credit? Wrong.
    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."  --Clement C. Moore
  3. Moore's 1844 letter to Norman Tuttle must have been motivated by fear of evidence for Henry Livingston's authorship of "Visit" turning up in Troy or elsewhere? Wrong. Henry Livingston, Jr. now has to line up behind at least one prior claimant. Timing indicates Moore's letter to Tuttle was prompted by news of a different false claim, the published (and speedily retracted) attribution of "Visit" to Joseph Wood in the Washington National Intelligencer:
"I feel it incumbent on me not to remain silent, while so bold a claim, as the above quoted, is laid to my literary property, however small the intrinsic value of that property may be." --Clement C. Moore
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