Henry Livingston, Jr.


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Poet You Always Loved
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Thrice Happy
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From Dunder and Blixem! It's Henry Livingston! by Mary S. Van Deusen

The winter of 1804 was harsh and cold for New York but, in the town of Poughkeepsie, a spirit of optimism filled the air. It was the Christmas season, a time for children's songs and happy visits between friends and distant relatives. In the snug, stone house of Henry Livingston, the smells of cooking and the sounds of laughter filled the air. At 56 years old, Henry was once more the head of a growing family.

A metallic bang from the direction of the kitchen startled him. Helen! The little one was into her mother's pots again. Henry put down his quill, stopped to dab at the drop of ink he had splattered on the paper, then got up from the desk, ducking so as not to hit his head on the stairway above him, his desk being tucked under the staircase, and started to hurry toward the sounds that were getting louder by the minute. So loud, in fact, that they almost drowned out the small tapping on the big front door. Pausing in midstride, Henry smiled broadly at the familiar, tentative little sound, then turned around and headed to the door. Instead of pulling open the whole Dutch door, he opened only the top half and leaned out into the cold wind, making sure not to look down as he peered carefully this way and that.

"Who is at my door?" he shouted gruffly into the wind. A muffled giggle replied.

Shielding his eyes against the sun-bright snow, Henry grumbled loudly, "It must be elves. Who but elves would disturb a man at his work?"

The giggle grew louder. Looking down in feigned surprise, Henry exclaimed, "Dunder and blixem, it is an elf!"

The little multicolored pile of woolen scarves and shawls wiggled happily and a pink happy mouth appeared beneath bright blue eyes. "It's not an elf, Mr. Livingston. It's too cold for elves. They'd freeze their wings."

Henry pulled open the bottom part of the Dutch door and scooped the little girl into his arms, correcting her as he did, "Elves don't have wings, sweetness. That's fairies." Hugging her close in one arm, he closed the doors against the wind and set her back on the floor. Crouching down, he looked seriously into her bright eyes. "Well," he continued, tapping the side of his head and nodding, "if it's not an elf and it is Christmas eve," his own eyes grew suddenly wide with his discovery, "then it must be Santa Claus!" Henry used the broad Dutch form of the name, Sin' tur Claahhs.

Layers of woolens fell to the floor as the little bundle shook itself vigorously in denial. "I'm not Santa Claus, Mr. Livingston. I'm Eliza!" The last of the shawls fell to the floor revealing a seven year old girl with cherry pink cheeks, dressed in a snow-caked long dress.

Henry sat back on his heels. "Heavens, it is Eliza. And so bundled up I'd never know." He looked closer at her pink little hands, then took them in his and lightly rubbed them. "But you're so cold, child. Come with me." Henry rose to his feet and, one small hand still in his larger one, began to lead her down the long hall toward the kitchen. The rich odors of breakfast cooking made his stomach growl with anticipation. "What you need is a nice, warm fire to toast you like a piece of bread. Your grandmother would toast me if I let you freeze."

The little feet dug into the carpet and stopped their progress cold. Eliza Brewer patted her waist until she felt something and, from the folds of her skirt, triumphantly pulled out a small and slightly dirty piece of paper that she presented to Henry. "Grandma gave me this," she explained. Henry turned it over and saw that the scrap was blank. Putting back on his serious expression he turned it around and around as the little girl anxiously watched their familiar game unfold. Finally Henry nodded in decision. "Yes, it's a very good piece of paper. It's not big enough for a poem," he warned, "but it's just big enough for a little picture." Eliza smiled in shy pleasure. Like all the neighborhood children, she loved the fanciful creatures that Henry drew.

"What shall it be," Henry asked, "a mermaid perhaps?" Eliza shook her head. "What about a tree filled with tulips and roses and lots of spring flowers to warm us up." The little girl shook her head again. "Santa Claus," she said decisively. "I want a picture of Santa Claus."

Surprised by the request, but happy to please the child, Henry walked over to his desk and laid down the little scrap of paper. Eliza followed and climbed familiarly up onto his chair to peer at the black lines that filled the ink-blotted sheet on which he had been earlier writing. Running her finger along a line she slowly read, "But, hark what a" At her pause, Henry nodded and added "clatter." Eliza repeated the word and continued, "the jolly bells." She looked up again. Henry smiled. "Ringing."

He put his own finger at the start of the line and read out for her, "But hark what a clatter, the jolly bells ringing, the lads and lasses so jovially singing. 'Tis New Year's they shout and then haul me along in the midst of their merry-make juvenile throng."

"But tomorrow's Christmas." Eliza corrected. "You can't write about New Year until you write about Christmas." Before Henry could reply, a shout from ten year old Charlie interrupted them, and Henry could see from the look that came over Eliza's face that their conversation was over. From the time she could toddle, Eliza had adored this oldest son of his newest family. "Go off with you then," Henry encouraged her down from the chair as she ran off toward the kitchen with never a backward look.

Instead of following, he sank slowly onto his chair and looked at the poem, not really seeing it. Thoughts of New Year paper boys were completely gone from his head, crowded out by images of Santa Claus - a very small Santa Claus with very pink cheeks. Opening a drawer, Henry swept the half done piece onto a pile of other writing fragments and shut it again. Before pulling over a fresh sheet, though, he carefully filled his long clay pipe, lighted it with the small ceremony that the moment deserved, and let the smoke drift along the stair-tread ceiling above his head. Slowly and carefully he cut a new point onto his quill and dipped it into the glass inkwell, tapping off the excess ink. He stared at the paper for another moment and then began to write, "Twas the night before Christmas." He paused in indecision, pen raised, waiting for the poem to rush from his mind into his fingers as the good ones always did. His concentration was so deep that he almost didn't notice when something brushed his foot. Startled, he glanced down in time to see a small brown mouse disappear into an almost invisible hole deep under the lowest stair. A smile creased Henry's face and the pen returned to the paper, "And all thro' the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

The mouse, as well as the rest of the above story, is fiction, of course.

But so, too, are many of the richly detailed stories of Clement Clark Moore, the son of an Episcopalian bishop who was also rector of Trinity Church, going out on Christmas eve to buy a turkey, seeing a rotund Dutchman, and composing the entire 56 lines of An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas in his head, then memorizing it while he was being driven home from the market. The outline of the story was created by Moore, and later embroidered by other writers. The purpose of the stories was to explain why no one had ever seen an original, handwritten copy of the poem with all the crossouts and corrections that writers invariably make while they're composing. If there was no manuscript, then it must have sprung fully grown from Moore's head, much like the Goddess Athena was born from one of Zeus's Excedrin headaches. No birth pains, no crossouts. All the loose ends neatly stowed away. So much for The Case Of The Missing Manuscript.

As for Henry's corrected manuscript, it was found after his death by Henry's son Sidney. Before Sidney died, he passed the manuscript on to his brother Edwin. Edwin had the manuscript with him when he was living in Wisconsin with his sister Susan and her husband, and it was there in Wisconsin, about 1859, that the manuscript perished in a house fire. As for little Eliza, she grew up to marry Charles, and long before Clement Moore was taking credit for Henry's poem, Eliza and Charles were reading the poem to their own children, and telling them that it had been written by their grandfather, Henry Livingston. Eliza and Charles and Sidney all told their children that they remembered Henry coming out from his den under the stairs to read the poem to them as his own composition. They put their memory of the event to somewhere between 1805 and 1808 - many years before the poem first appeared in the 1823 Troy Sentinel. Charles and Eliza, being older, remembered Henry reading the poem in the evening. Sidney, being younger, spoke of hearing the poem read the following morning.

The above story was written to provide a simple way to "see" Henry in his home environment, rather than to create a false myth about the writing of the poem.

Every New Year, Henry would write a Carrier's Address, a poem for the newspaper delivery person to carry on his rounds and give to his customers as a gift.

Fun Activities for Christmas
  65 TV Xmas Music Videos
  Antique Illustrations to musical NBC Recitation
  CBS Good Morning America, 2000
  Comic Book Poetry with antique postcards
  The Poem's Story in Anapest
  Antique Illustrated Editions
   Antique Santa Postcards
And after the fun, fall asleep to Clement Moore's Poetry

All Henry Livingston's Poetry,     All Clement Moore's Poetry     Historical Articles About Authorship

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