Thursday, March 30, 2017

Milton Halsey Thomas on the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas"

Moore was simply not the kind of man to claim authorship of something he had not written. --Milton Halsey Thomas
In January 1947 librarian Milton Halsey Thomas (1903-1977) wrote to the editor the Chatham Courier (Albert S. Callan, Jr.) in support of the traditional attribution of "The Night Before Christmas" poem to Clement C. Moore. He may have seen this item in the Chatam Courier on December 19, 1946:

Chatham Courier - December 19, 1946
Thomas appears to connect the Claverack legend to claims for Henry Livingston, Jr., although most versions of that dubious story have Clement C. Moore visiting the Webb home as a friend and regular visitor. Transcribed below, the letter from Milton Halsey Thomas was published in the Chatham Courier on January 23, 1947. Found in the online newspaper archives at Fulton History.
Chatham Courier
Chatham, N. Y.

Dear Major:

I noted with interest your recent article that Clement Clark Moore's poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was written in Claverack, N. Y. I beg to differ and offer the following as evidence.

Some fifty or sixty years ago the claim was made in a magazine article that "A Visit from St. Nicholas" had been written by Major Henry Livingston of Locust Grove near Poughkeepsie. No evidence has ever been produced except family tradition, and a resemblance in style between the poetry known to have been written by Livingston and the Moore poem. Miss Gebhard is quite vague in her book, and does not even give the name of the supposed author.

The facts are all in favor of Moore. It is true that the poem was first published in the Troy Sentinel, and the explanation that the poem was copied by the daughter of the rector of St. Paul's church and sent to the paper fits in with the facts. The first time the poem was published with the author's name was in "The New York Book of Poetry" (1837); In 1844 Moore issued a collected volume of his own poems, and included this one. A number of years later, he wrote out a manuscript copy, signed his name to it and presented it to the New York Historical Society. Moore was simply not the kind of man to claim authorship of something he had not written. I wrote a long biographical introduction to a book of Moore's which was reprinted by the Columbia University Press in 1940 and became quite familiar with the facts of his life at that time. I ran across the Livingston claims, but felt certain that Moore was the real author and that the Livingston claimants did not have a leg to stand on.

It is rather interesting that one of Major Livingston's descendants was Dr. William Sturgis Thomas of New York (no direct relation of mine) who spent many years trying to support the Livingston claim of authorship of the poem. He was never able to turn up a manuscript of it, and although he claimed the poem was published in a Poughkeepsie paper before it appeared in the Troy Sentinel, he was never able to produce the Poughkeepsie newspaper; the files were said to be missing. I am no more interested in taking anything away from Columbia County than you would be, but I am thoroughly convinced that "The Night Before Christmas" was written at Chelsea house in Manhattan.

I almost never get to Chatham these days, nevertheless, I spent some of the pleasantest days of my life there, and always look back upon it with pleasure.

With kindest regards and best wishes for the New Year, I am

Yours very sincerely

Milton Halsey Thomas

Ed. Note: Mr. Thomas, a former resident of Chatham, is curator of the Columbiana Collection in Low Memorial Library, Columbia University, New York.
The book by "Miss Gebhard" must be The Parsonage Between Two Manors by Elizabeth Louise Gebhard, who credits the James Watson Webb house in Claverack as the place where "The Night Before Christmas" was composed.

Milton Halsey Thomas edited the facsimile edition of Clement C. Moore's 1825 address, published by the Columbia University Press as The Early History of Columbia College (New York, 1940). As mentioned in his 1947 letter, Thomas contributed the biographical introduction for that volume.

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