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'Author Unknown: On The Trail Of Anonymous' by Don Foster

Author makes it known that he has a talent for finding 'Anonymous'

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor


Author Unknown: On The Trail Of Anonymous

By Don Foster



Everybody knows a few lines of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” starting with the “T’was,” but do we remember who wrote it?

You may know the answer is Clement Clarke Moore, a Bible studies professor at a New York City seminary. The poem first appeared anonymously Dec. 23, 1823, in a Troy, N.Y., newspaper, and it wasn’t until 1836 that Moore’s name was attached to this Christmas standard.

But Moore isn’t the author; it was Henry Livingston, a Revolutionary War veteran and resident of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The claim is made by another Poughkeepsie resident, Don Foster, who teaches English at Vassar College.

Foster’s sidelight is literary sleuthing. He has a knack for proving or disproving authorship by studying writing styles. It was Foster who identified columnist Joe Klein as the author of “Primary Colors,” the fictional account of Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency, which was first published anonymously.

Other Foster discoveries include crediting Shakespeare for a rather ordinary poem, “Elegy”; firmly linking Theodore Kaczynski to the Unabomber letters; and absolving Monica Lewinsky of co-authoring the so-called “talking points” with Linda Tripp in the Starr investigation of Clinton.

His work in those cases is covered in the book, but this being the season of dancing sugar plums, Foster’s latest claim, recently given prominent mention in the press, is cause to examine his curious little piece of self-promotion.

First, Foster does not seek out clients; they beat a path to his door, because, as he tells us, he’s been “drawn into headline battles.” Last year, a Livingston relative called him out of the blue seeking help on the ancient family story that Henry, known as the Major, wrote “A Visit” in the early 1800s and that Moore later appropriated the work as his own.

Foster soon discovered that the Livingston legend is well known in Poughkeepsie, a Hudson Valley town proud of its Dutch settlers, of whom the Major was one of the best known.

He was a fun-loving, gregarious fellow famed for his ability to dash off poems, usually written in anapestic (da-da-DUM) meter, the same found in “A Visit,” about relatives and holidays. He wrote the poem in 1807 or ’08 and entertained the Livingston clan with it on Christmas Day.

The Major died in 1828, five years after the poem first appeared.

Moore, on the other hand, was renowned as a curmudgeon, prude and aspiring serious poet whose works have little in common with his one popular success, which he took years to acknowledge.

Analyzing the work of both men, including use of Dutch -- two of the reindeer were originally called Dunder and Blixem, a common Dutch oath (“thunder and lightning!”) -- Foster concludes that Moore was nothing more than a pathetic thief and liar who made up stories of the poem’s origin.

What links Moore to Christmas is yet another unattributed poem, “Old Santeclaus,” which he probably wrote in 1821 for a children’s publication. It has Moore’s “stylistic fingerprints all over it,” says Foster.

“Somewhere along the line, perhaps as early as 1829, Moore’s name became associated with the wrong Santa poem.”

It’s a fun little story for the holidays, without much chance of confirmation. It does illustrate the lengths to which Foster will go in practicing his somewhat singular talent of taking great pains to sift through thousands of words to find a common thread.

Despite his way with words, Foster is not a skilled enough writer to make his sleuthing a compelling tale. Most of “Anonymous” is a retelling of the various episodes he became involved in, most notably a rambling account of the Lewinsky saga.

However, citing legal considerations, Foster is uncharacteristically brief on his work in the JonBenet Ramsey case. It’s a curious omission, given his facility for notoriety.

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