So when she learned last year of long-standing rumors that one of her ancestors might have been responsible for a beloved cornerstone of Christmas—the poem "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," also known to generations of stocking-hanging kids as "The Night Before Christmas"—Van Deusen flew like a flash into a quest to prove it. After dogged research she persuaded literary sleuth Don Foster (the Vassar College professor who unmasked political writer Joe Klein as Anonymous, the author of the 1996 bestseller Primary Colors) to analyze the poem, which was first published anonymously in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823. Now, in his new book, Author Unknown, Foster, 50, argues in favor of Van Deusen's claim: The real bard behind the "right jolly old elf" was likely Poughkeepsie, N.Y., judge and poet Henry Livingston Jr., not Clement Clarke Moore.
The evidence? For one thing Moore, a wealthy New York City Bible scholar, first took credit for the poem—publishing it in an 1844 collection of his verse—only after writing to the Troy newspaper to see if anyone could remember its origin (no one could). For another, Moore was apparently a bit of a grinch. "He was quite the curmudgeon," contends Foster, who points out that in his other writings Moore moralized against earthly pleasures, complained about children's "noisiness" and scorned smoking, though "A Visit's" St. Nick puffs a pipe.
Foster also cites stylistic similarities between "A Visit" and other poems by Livingston, a father of 12 whose verse appeared in a variety of periodicals before his death at age 80 in 1828. Livingston often used the word "all" as an adverb ("all through the house;" "all snug in their beds") and the phrase "Happy Christmas" instead of the more common "Merry Christmas." Another clue: Moore repeated a printer's error that changed two reindeer's names from Dunder and Blixem, the Dutch words for thunder and lightning, to Donder and Blitzen. Livingston was Dutch; Moore wasn't. "I'd characterize the evidence as being quite strong in Livingston's favor," says Foster.
But not everyone is persuaded. "Moore was not a self-aggrandizing fellow," says University of Massachusetts at Amherst historian Stephen Nissenbaum. "He had a real patrician's disdain for the vulgarity of self-promotion." Seth Kaller, a New York City antiques dealer who owns one of Moore's four handwritten copies of the poem, says Foster neglects accounts that support Moore's "tender side" and knowledge of Dutch culture.
Van Deusen, who lives outside Boston with husband Paul Kosinski, 58, a computer-systems architect, couldn't be merrier about the literary clatter. She began delving into her family's genealogy in 1995 to learn about her father, from whom her mother separated after she was born and who died in 1955. But she turned up little about him. "There was a hole I couldn't fill," she says.
So she decided to dig deeper into her family's past. Her Internet research (and some tips from then-Rep. Bob Livingston, a distant relative) turned up Revolutionary War colonels, a judge advocate in the Lincoln assassination trial—and a few conjectures about Henry Livingston's possible authorship of "A Visit." Perusing Moore's poetry, she decided he couldn't be the author. I "Moore is so moralistic and self-obsessed," she says.
She began pestering Foster, who has consulted on the Unabomber and JonBenét Ramsey cases, to take up her cause. He initially brushed her off. "Most of these family legends don't turn out to have anything to them," he says. But then Van Deusen got an invaluable boost from two fellow descendants: Rochester, N.Y., resident W. Stephen Thomas, 91, and his son Stephen, 50, longtime Livingston proponents who had a cache of almost every poem he had ever written. An intrigued Foster set to work, with Van Deusen providing research legwork. "She's indefatigable," he says.
Now laboring on a biography of Livingston, Van Deusen admits she's obsessed. "I live in the 1790s," she says with a smile. But whether or not the history books ultimately side with her, she feels she has found a kindred spirit in her whimsical, Christmas-loving forebear. "I want to know this man," she says. "I'm annoyed that he's dead."
Tom Duffy in Boston
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