SCOTT SIMON, Host:
But in his time, Clement Moore was also an essayist and a controversial pamphleteer who once wrote a screed against President Thomas Jefferson. Writing professor and our literary detective Paul Collins of Portland State University joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks very much for being with us Paul.
PAUL COLLINS: Oh, it's good to be here.
SIMON: Clement Moore's pamphlet is entitled - I'm going to take a deep breath first - "Observations Upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson's Notes on Virginia Which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion and Establish a False Philosophy." What made him write this pamphlet about Thomas Jefferson?
COLLINS: Most of "Notes on the State of Virginia" are about fairly, you know, prosaic straightforward things. He enumerates the rivers in Virginia. He goes over what kinds of trees grow in the state of Virginia for pages at a time. The first thing that really seems to have disturbed Moore was that Jefferson talked about the discovery of sea shells on mountaintops. This had been a great object of debate at the time and what did this imply exactly about the age of the Earth? Jefferson was pretty dubious about some of the biblical explanations of the Earth's age, and Moore was deeply disturbed by the implication that the earth might in fact be tens of thousands if not millions of years old.
SIMON: I think it's safe to say that the section of this pamphlet that Clement Moore wrote that stands at best over really the centuries is his attack of Thomas Jefferson for being a racist.
COLLINS: And when Moore points out, you of all people should know better, you know, you are a well-traveled man, you know a number of African-Americans, you should know better than to be saying this. A lot of Moore's attacks on Jefferson, particularly over Jefferson's science, haven't aged too well and they read perhaps a little comically today. But on this one sort of great profound error of Jefferson's, Moore is remarkably sharp.
SIMON: Did Moore's pamphlet have any political impact?
COLLINS: I mean it seems like a lot of the purpose behind the pamphlet was to attack Jefferson during his reelection campaign, and on those grounds I think it's safe to say that Moore did not succeed.
SIMON: Did Clement Moore's own family own slaves?
COLLINS: Indeed they did, and that was one of the big shocks for me. You know, initially upon reading the pamphlet I was really struck by this attack on racism. I thought what a man ahead of his time. Then I discovered that Moore himself owned slaves. To be fair, he didn't own them when he wrote the pamphlet. His father owned them. But Clement was the sole inheritor. And in fact, he did inherit them and he did not emancipate them. His four slaves were not emancipated until New York State got rid of slavery in 1827.
SIMON: Squalid question - did this poem, "The Night Before Christmas" that people are going to be reading to their children and to each other over this weekend, make him much money?
COLLINS: No. It certainly made him no money at all for decades, because initially it was published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel. And at that point it was then reprinted and probably pirated in gift books and newspapers all over the country for decades afterwards before Moore ever actually came forward and said that he had written it. And the pirating of work, particular of poems, was quite common back then. So I suppose it's possible late in his life that he might have seen some money from it. But you know, Moore was one of the wealthiest guys in New York City, so he didn't really need it.
SIMON: And why didn't he sign the poem when it was published? Was that just the fashion?
COLLINS: It was quite typical for people to publish works anonymously. Copyright laws were pretty loose. To put it bluntly, writing wasn't worth very much because everybody could steal it. Once writing became protected and a valuable property, then you started seeing people really being much more up front about staking out their ownership on pieces of writing.
SIMON: Paul Collins of Portland State University. His most recent book is "The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Payne." And by the way, the story of Clement Moore will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Paul, always nice to talk to you.
COLLINS: Oh, it's good to talk to you.