Friday, July 15, 2016

Birthday: Literature's Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863)
Author, educator, plagiarist and real estate speculator

Near-universally remembered today as the author of a poem he most likely didn’t write, Clement Clarke Moore still deserves remembrance an exemplar of his time and place, a forerunner of the modern Manhattan striver.

In a Henry James novel, the Moores would have been “new money” in New York society. Clement, son of the Anglican Bishop of New York and the daughter of an English officer who owned a large Manhattan Island estate, straddled in his life the divisions and contradictions between the British class system’s colonial upper echelons and the rising class of post-independence entrepreneurs and speculators.

Moore took his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia College (now the University, and where his father served two tours as president), in 1798 and 1801. Marrying in 1803, he fathered nine children. Moore dabbled in politics, publishing an 1804 pamphlet attacking President Jefferson’s fitness for re-election because of his heterodox religious views (Notes on the State of Virginia, Moore wrote, was "an instrument of infidelity"). In 1809 Moore published his two-volume Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, and he contributed poems to New York newspapers for years.

Savoring the role of country gentleman-scholar, Moore translated a French text, A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep, in 1811. After City Hall published a plan to convert New York to its present street grid that year, Moore discovered the new Ninth Avenue was slated to cut through the middle of the estate he inherited from his grandfather Clarke.

Summoning all his property and privilege (he owned slaves, and opposed abolition until New York law set the last of them free in 1827), Moore wrote and published a pamphlet calling on other "Proprietors of Real Estate" to fight the continued development of the city, which then ended at Houston Street. He thought it a conspiracy to increase political patronage and appease the city's lower classes. He also decried having to pay taxes for public works such as creating new streets, which he called "a tyranny no monarch in Europe would dare to exercise."

His fulminations and summons to class war were, of course, in vain. Moore did the only thing for it: he figured out how to make money from the change he so abhorred.

Moore subdivided his estate into lots, creating a planned community for the wealthy at the edge of New York City. His deeds restricted the presence of certain types of businesses, and imposed requirements for building design and materials. Two hundred years later, Chelsea- named after Moore’s estate- remains one of the toniest Manhattan neighbors, its once-ubiquitous gay clubs and art galleries forced out by the latest waves of re-gentrification.

In the process, Moore pioneered another aspect of Manhattan life that continues to this day- buying extra layers of gentility with his new cash. He gave 66 lots- his estate’s apple orchard- for the creation of the General Theological Seminary, another for the building of a parish church, St. Luke's in the Field. Between his seminary land grant and the donation of royalties from his Hebrew-English dictionary, reason was found to create a chair in Biblical Teaching for Moore, which he held from 1823 to 1850. The Seminary sits on the Moore land to this day.

Clement Moore died, five days shy of his 84th birthday, at his home in the fashionable summer colony of Newport, Rhode Island. The large wooden house, typical of the day but dwarfed by the marble mansions of the next generation, still stands.

Moore’s body was returned to New York, and he was buried at St. Luke’s in the Fields. By 1899, when his poem had become the most famous verse by an American, his remains were reinterred in the decidedly more upscale cemetery of Trinity Church on Broadway, amid Vanderbilts and Astors.

That poem. Moore, according to legend, thought it up on a pre-Christmas sleigh ride, then dashed off a copy to read to his kids for Christmas 1822. A friend steered Moore- and a copy- to the Troy Sentinel, an upstate newspaper, which ran it anonymously on December 23, 1823.

Drawing partly from old Dutch St. Nicholas tales, Moore invented many of the poem’s Christmas features out of whole cloth; he and Washington Irving share credit for cementing a distinctly American observation of the holiday into the nation’ mythology. One commentator has noted,

At the time that Moore wrote the poem, Christmas Day was overtaking New Year's Day as the preferred genteel family holiday of the season, but some Protestants viewed Christmas as the result of "Catholic ignorance and deception" and still had reservations. By having St. Nicholas arrive the night before, Moore "deftly shifted the focus away from Christmas Day with its still-problematic religious associations." As a result, "New Yorkers embraced Moore's child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives."

Victorian sensibilities and later politicovangelicalism have worked changes on the poem over two centuries:

Modern printings frequently incorporate alterations that reflect changing linguistic and cultural sensibilities. For example, breast in "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" is frequently bowdlerized to crest; the archaic ‘ere’ in "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight" is frequently replaced with ‘as’. Note that this change implies that Santa Claus made his exclamation during the moment that he disappeared from view, while the exclamation came before his disappearance in the original. "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night" is frequently rendered with the traditional English locution "'Merry Christmas'" and with "goodnight" as a single word.

Four copies of the work exist in Moore’s hand: three rest in museums; the fourth, signed by Moore in 1860, was purchased by an anonymous New York collector for $280,000 in 2006.

“A Visit From St. Nicholas” caught on, borrowed by other papers and endlessly republished as the years passed. Vain about his rep as a scholar- his partisans say- Moore denied authorship until 1837, when a friend identified him in print as the author. By 1844, when the 65-year-old published a valedictory collection of his poetry, he included the Christmas work on the insistence of his grown children and the realization that it had become so popular, being its author was a social plus.

In recent decades, however, the poem has been the subject of controversy. Donald Foster, a forensic literary conspiracist who cut his teeth in  “who really wrote Shakespeare?” circles, has long championed a long-forgotten claim by the Livingston family that a cousin of Moore’s mother, Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), was the poem’s real author (Applying computer analysis and what can best be described as Fawn Brodie-style pathology to not only identify Time writer Joe Klein as the author of the Clinton-era novel Primary Colors but to argue that his analysis of the text prove Klein had unresolved issues with blacks and women). Though the dispute continues, as such things do, the generality of scholarly opinion has shifted the laurel to Livingston, who was safely dead before Moore started claiming the work and, Foster argues, creating the paper trail that led his pen.

Moore is also not remembered as the author of a biography, George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania (1850), though he did, in fact, write it.

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