Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Lingeman and Disch's 'St. Nicholas: A Textual Scandal'

Prefatory note: In going through some papers recently at the home of my late aunt and late uncle, I came across an envelope containing a copy of “St. Nicholas: A Textual Scandal,” which I had mailed to my uncle.

For several months in the late 1980s (probably ’87 and/or ’88, though without checking I can’t be sure), the letters column of the New York Review of Books carried a series of rather vitriolic exchanges about a revised/new edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. The antagonists were the project’s main editor, Hans Walter Gabler, and, if I recall correctly, several scholars who were critical of his edition (whose names I can’t remember).

In its issue of January 2, 1989, which subscribers probably would have received just around Christmas, The Nation published an elaborate spoof of the Ulysses exchange. Written by Richard Lingeman and the late Thomas Disch, “St. Nicholas: A Textual Scandal” debates which version of the poem commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” is more authoritative and definitive: a version written on a cocktail napkin while the author, Clement Moore, was in his cups, or a version Moore wrote the next day (“the so-called Morning-After Holograph”). The antagonists in this debate are Dr. Sebastian Ramsforth and Dr. Hartvig Ludendorff, editor of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: A New Definitive Synoptic Corrected Edition Collated From Original and Collateral Sources, published by Kansas Institute of Mining and Science Press.

The exchange opens with Ramsforth’s attack on the Ludendorff edition of the poem. Selective quotation cannot convey how clever Lingeman and Disch were here, but I will quote an excerpt to give an indication of the flavor:

“…Ludendorff and his drones have concocted an entirely spurious version of the poem, riddled with erroneous emendations. This saturnalia of textual deviation takes as its provenance the controversial holograph indited by Moore on a cocktail napkin from the Fraunces Tavern. (Footnote: Now in the Howard Hughes Collection, University of Las Vegas. It measures 4 by 6 inches and is imprinted with, in addition to the establishment’s name, silhouttes of a wine glass emitting bubbles and several scantily clad females, and the words ‘George Washington Made Whoopee Here.’ ”) Considerable scholarly debate has been expended on the authenticity of this paper most foul…. [which] could not be the authoritative text. Take for instance the lines:

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

In the Fraunces version, which Ludendorff et al. have now enshrined as the ‘final’ and ‘authentic’ text, we see:

With a red-suited Jehu, so droll and ridiculous,
I knew at once it must be St. Nicholas.

Never mind that the first line does not scan, and forget the Victorian cliché ‘Jehu’ for driver. Consider instead how the word ‘ridiculous’ alters the point of view of the poem, which is otherwise reverential toward the scarlet-clad saint. Worse, we lose the religious double-entendre of ‘St. Nick’ (as in Old Nick – Scratch, the devil).”

And here is an excerpt from Ludendorff’s reply:

“I am shocked that the editors of this once-distinguished journal should have seen fit to lend their pages to the scurrilous insinuations and pseudo-philological maunderings of Dr. (sic) Sebastian Ramsforth….

[Ramsforth] has gone so far as to project his own fevered imagining on the Rorshach-like wine stain on the recto side of the Frances Holograph, in which he pretends to see a ‘wine glass’ and ‘scantily clad females.’ No doubt it was this disposition to sniff out pornographic implications in the most innocent images that prompted Ramsforth to maintain in his notorious farrago of errors that disgraced the pages of Elsewhere that Moore’s beautiful and chaste lines,

The moon on the crest of the new-fallen snow
Lent a semblance of sunlight to th’icy tableau

should ‘properly’ take the form familiar to us from the later, corrupt editions of the work:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below.

Can Ramsforth really suppose that a man of such delicate sensibilities that he always scrupled to speak of ‘white meat’ and ‘dark meat’ when he dined on poultry would have wantonly endowed snow with breasts and rimed the entire landscape of his poem with a lubricious ‘lustre’? Of course not! Only the Satanic dipsomaniac of ‘Doc’ Ramsforth’s obsessed imagination could have conspired to introduce such immodesties into the innocent bowers of American childhood.”

And so on. The whole thing is available from The Nation’s archives (though not for free).

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