Cultural History

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Papa Hemingway

I am writing to you from the Florida keys, Islamorada to be precise (west of Key Largo and east of Key West), where I’m spending the week with my wife’s side of the family. If you’re an English professor-type, the spot inspires thoughts of Ernest Hemingway.

I wrote earlier this month that Clement Clarke Moore’s penning  of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” might make a good “scene” for our cultural history.

Well, now that it actually is Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to invoke Moore’s poem once again.

The poem, they say, is one of the most parodied in the English language. Given my current locale, it seems right to present for your reading pleasure James Thurber’s parody, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER,” which originally appeared in the December 24, 1927 issue of The New Yorker.

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

“Father,” the children said.

There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.

“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“We have visions of sugarplums,” the children said.

“Go to sleep,” said mamma.

“We can’t sleep,” said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.

“Can you sleep?” asked the children.

“No,” I said.

“You ought to sleep.”

“I know. I ought to sleep.”

“Can we have some sugarplums?”

“You can’t have any sugarplums,” said mamma.

“We just asked you.”

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

“Is Saint Nicholas asleep?” asked the children.

“No,” mamma said. “Be quiet.”

“What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?” I asked.

“He might be,” the children said.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“Let’s try to sleep,” said mamma.

The house became quiet once more. I could hear the rustling noises the children made when they moved in their beds.

Out on the lawn a clatter arose. I got out of bed and went to the window. I opened the shutters; then I threw up the sash. The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them. He was lively and quick. He whistled and shouted at the reindeer and called them by their names. Their names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

He told them to dash away to the top of the porch, and then he told them to dash away to the top of the wall. They did. The sleigh was full of toys.

“Who is it?” mamma asked.

“Some guy,” I said. “A little guy.”

I pulled my head in out of the window and listened. I heard the reindeer on the roof. I could hear their hoofs pawing and prancing on the roof.

“Shut the window,” said mamma.

I stood still and listened.

“What do you hear?”

“Reindeer,” I said. I shut the window and walked about. It was cold. Mamma sat up in the bed and looked at me.

“How would they get on the roof?” mamma asked.

“They fly.”

“Get into bed. You’ll catch cold.”

Mamma lay down in bed. I didn’t get into bed. I kept walking around.

“What do you mean, they fly?” asked mamma.

“Just fly is all.”

Mamma turned away toward the wall. She didn’t say anything.

I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler’s pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn’t say anything.

He turned to the chimney and filled the stockings and turned away from the chimney. Laying his finger aside his nose, he gave a nod. Then he went up the chimney. I went to the chimney and looked up. I saw him get into his sleigh. He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed.

“What was it?” asked mamma. “Saint Nicholas?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” I said.

She sighed and turned in the bed.

“I saw him,” I said.

“Sure.”

“I did see him.”

“Sure you saw him.” She turned farther toward the wall.

“Father,” said the children.

“There you go,” mamma said. “You and your flying reindeer.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.

“Can we see Saint Nicholas when he comes?” the children asked.

“You got to be asleep,” I said. “You got to be asleep when he comes. You can’t see him unless you’re unconscious.”

“Father knows,” mamma said.

I pulled the covers over my mouth. It was warm under the covers. As I went to sleep I wondered if mamma was right.

James Thurber

Merry Christmas! (You can read an illustrated version of  Moore’ original at thenostalgialeague.com, where you can also find an introduction to Thurber’s parody.)

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.

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