Scenes for a Cultural History #1

night_xmas_1898.jpgI wrote last month about a possible model for Bryan’s and my cultural history of New York City, drawing inspiration from the recently published volume  A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Harvard UP). That volume presents its subject as a collection of some 220 “snapshots,” each 2,500 words long. Bryan and I have been talking seriously about doing our cultural history of New York as a set of fifty scenes, each presented in an essay of (surprise, surprise) 2,500 words.

Thinking about Bryan’s last post, it strikes me that one such scene might be this:

“Christmas Eve 1822, Chelsea, New York. Clement C. Moore reads his new poem, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, to his family.”

The story may well be apocrophyal, but it goes like this: Moore was returning home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey for his
family’s Christmas dinner, and passed the time by writing the poem for the amusement of his children, to whom he read it after dinner. The poem was published the following year without Moore’s knowledge; he published under his own name, finally, in 1844.

I imagine that an essay on this scene would draw not only on Nissenbaum’s book, which Bryan so ably described, but also on Elizabeth Bradley’s Knickerbocker: The Myth behind New York (Rutgers University Press) and Elisabeth Paling Funk’s essay “From Amsterdam to New Amsterdam: Washington Irving, the Dutch St. Nicholas, and the American Santa Claus,” which can be found in the anthology Explorers, Fortunes and Love Letters: A Window on New Netherland. We’d be able to explore the fascination with New Amsterdam in the wake of Irving’s 1809 History (which would no doubt get its own essay) and also Moore’s own family history, which is rooted not in Dutch but in British New York.

The essay would also give us the opportunity to evoke the Greenwich Village and Chelsea “scenes” circa 1822, which might well prove to be touchstones throughout the volume.

I note in passing that there is no entry devoted to “Moore, Clement Clarke” in Burrows and Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York to 1898. Add that to the list of reasons that Bryan and I need to write our cultural history.