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 A Contemporary Quandary

Will the Real Author Please Step Forward

Part 1 of 2

It’s a question that has been lurking in the background for some time. Was Clement Clarke Moore the real author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas"? The family of Henry Livingston, Jr., has maintained that it was he, and not Clement Clark Moore, who wrote the poem in question. Indeed, in 1977, a commemorative post card was issued which identified Livingston – and not Moore – as the true author.

First Day of Issue: October 21, 1977.

It was noted in the text:

For years it was thought that Clement Clarke Moore wrote and first published the story in 1844. But it has come to be accepted by scholars that Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), who had been a major in the Revolution, wrote it about 1800, a time when America was searching for its own traditions. Published anonymously in 1823 and titled An Account of a Visit of St. Nicholas, the colorful description of Santa Claus firmly established one vision in America's imagination:

Original painting for the Fleetwood® First Day Cover by Charles Berger. Actual size: 6-1/2 x 3-5/8 inches. Reverse of FDC contains historical background text. First Day Cover Design and text ©1977 Fleetwood®. A Unicover® Edition. All rights reserved.

This was hardly an isolated mention of the late Mr. Livingston (who was a Major in the Revolutionary War, and later a Judge in the state of New York). For example, the Urban Legends site discusses of this issue on their page which concerning the correct naming of the reindeer ("Dunder and Blixem").

The issue came to a head near Christmas, 2000, with the publication of Author Unknown : On the Trail of Anonymous, by Donald W. Foster. Here’s what Amazon.com had to say:,

This fascinating book describes how an English professor became a detective, sort of. Don Foster still teaches literature at Vassar College, but he's recognized as an expert in attributional theory--the idea that everybody has literary fingerprints, or, as he puts it, "no two individuals write exactly the same way, using the same words in the same combinations, or with the same patterns of spelling and punctuation." Foster is now an expert at identifying anonymous authors. He fell into this line of work accidentally. As a graduate student who spent his days reading forgotten Elizabethan texts, Foster stumbled upon "A Funeral Elegy" by one "W.S." Through careful research, recounted in Author Unknown, he showed that it was, in fact, a long-lost poem of Shakespeare's. His claim was controversial; a chapter on this experience is as much a lesson in academic politics as attribution theory. "To propose an addition to the Shakespeare canon is like announcing that you've found a lost book of the Bible, due for inclusion in future editions," he writes. "History shows that it is usually the attributor who gets burned." For Foster, however, it became a launching pad.

In what is his most interesting chapter, Foster explains how he deduced Joe Klein was "Anonymous," the author of the bestselling book Primary Colors. He also became involved in the Unabomber case and a search for the identity of the mysterious novelist Thomas Pynchon. Foster is sometimes said to use computer programs to determine an author's identity, but this is only partly true: he employs searchable databases, and then conducts all of the comparative analysis himself. "Give anonymous offenders enough verbal rope and column inches, and they will hang themselves for you, every time," he writes. The first three chapters--focusing on Shakespeare, Klein, and the Unabomber--are the best part of the book; the rest of it, at times, feels like filler. Yet as a whole, Author Unknown is a compelling blend of autobiography, detective story, and literary analysis. --John J. Miller

Part 2

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