Dec 6, 2012

Imagining Christmas: Washington Irving's Solitary Walk, and a Stroll from Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea to O. Henry's Irving Place (Revised for 2012)

Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and O. Henry









(The following post includes material previously published on Walking Off the Big Apple, now gathered together around the virtual holiday hearth. Events noted below are updated for 2012.- TT)

Many of the ways we think of Christmas, in its secular and most popular forms - the chubby Santa and his reindeer, the newly fallen snow, the warm hearth donned with Christmas stockings, family and friends celebrating in cheer - can trace its roots to the pens of two New York native sons, Washington Irving (1783-1859) and Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), and to another popular storyteller who drifted to New York, William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known as O. Henry. What follows are biographical sketches and holiday walks inspired by their stories.

Washington Irving's Solitary Walk Through Christmas

"Stranger and sojourner as I am in the land,--though for me no social hearth may blaze, no hospitable roof throw open its doors, nor the warm grasp of friendship welcome me at the threshold,--yet I feel the influence of the season beaming into my soul from the happy looks of those around me." - Washington Irving

New York native and storyteller Washington Irving made Christmas an important holiday in the United States, reworking Dutch folk tales of Saint Nicholas to invent the jolly Santa Claus and publishing popular sketches of the time he spent Christmas in rural England with an aristocratic family.

A subtle and important aspect of Irving's writings about the holiday is how he approached a convivial family-oriented time of year as a homesick solitary man. The much loved and charming youngest child of a large New York merchant class family, Irving was pressured to study for the law though he loved literature and drawing. He and his brother Peter started writing a witty satirical history of New York, but he was left with finishing it when Peter was called away to England for the family business. During this time Washington fell in love with Matilda Hoffman, the 17-year-old daughter of a judge, and he put his literary career aside to join the judge's law practice to demonstrate his responsibility. Matilda soon took ill of consumption and died in April of 1809. Irving never married.

Irving left the United States in 1815 and remained overseas for the next seventeen years, spending most of the time in England. There he wrote The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, the book that includes his most well-known stories, including the Christmas sketches. In describing his experiences with the traditional English Christmas celebration, he admits to fighting what we would describe as seasonal affect disorder and the temptation to feel bitter about being all alone. He writes, "He who can turn churlishly away from contemplating the felicity of his fellow beings, and sit down darkling and repining in his loneliness when all around is joyful, may have his moments of strong excitement and selfish gratification, but he wants the genial and social sympathies which constitute the charm of a merry Christmas."

So, in describing how his feelings, he advocates letting the merry holiday contagion to reach those dark places inside. The important story is not that Washington Irving popularized the ideal of the family Christmas, but that he figured out, as a single person, how to cope with it. 


Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea

In 1822, wealthy New York scholar and poet Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) wrote the famous Christmas poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," known widely as "Twas the Night Before Christmas." The poem first appeared in a Troy, New York newspaper in 1823 with "anonymous" listed as the author, but Moore acknowledged authorship in 1844 after the poem became a standard. Some scholars suggest he appropriated a poem authored by Major Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828) and turned it into the most famous Christmas poem of all time.

Clement Clarke Moore Park at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street was once part of the Clarke family estate. The family mansion near Eighth Avenue and West 23rd was called "Chelsea," named for a old soldier's hospital in London. At the time he wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas," Moore was a Professor at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He had donated the family land for use as a seminary, and the still-thriving seminary stands today along Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets.

Exploring Moore's Chelsea and then walking almost directly east on 18th Street to O. Henry's Irving Place invites a myriad of associations about the season, both ecclesiastical and secular.



Strolling this area of Chelsea also offers a chance for some peace and quiet, a welcome respite from the frenzy of midtown during the holidays. The older townhouses along these streets have been restored and well-maintained. Be sure to ask to see the gardens at the General Theological Seminary, and stop to admire St. Peter's Church on W. 20th nearby. The German Evangelist Lutheran St. Paul's church on W. 22nd. is also worth seeing.

EVENT: The 38th Annual Chelsea Community Church Candlelight Carol Service takes place Sunday, December 16 at 6 p.m. at St. Peter's Church, 346 West 20th Street. The event is free. For more information, see the church's web page on the event here.

While he is associated with the Chelsea neighborhood, Moore is buried uptown in Trinity Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood. Moore's poem is also celebrated there.

EVENT: Every Christmas the Church of the Intercession on 155th Street and Broadway holds a holiday reading of Moore's famous poem followed by a lantern procession and wreath laying on Moore's tomb at the nearby cemetery. This year, the celebration takes place on December 23, 2012 at 4 p.m. More information here on the church's web page.

A Walk on 16th Street to Irving Place

The Christmas-themed walk that began in Clement Clarke Moore's Chelsea continues now to Irving Place. While an easy walk from west to east (and almost any street from 14th to 20th Streets would do), 16th Street, with its variety of architectural facades and some little-known wonders, affords a nice way to connect the west and east sides in this part of Manhattan.

Several places along W. 16th are worthy of attention, especially between Seventh and Fifth Avenues, including apartment buildings from the 1870s with intricate brickwork and balconies. Also of note, see the French Evangelical Church (126 W. 16th) and the Queen Anne cottage-picturesque architecture of the Young Adults Institute next door at 120 W. 16th St. The latter, built in 1878, was founded to help poor women learn how to sew.


Between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, the neo-Baroque Church of St. Francis Xavier (1887) at 40. W 16th Street stands out in much contrast to the surrounding structures, and then so does the modernist facade of the Center for Jewish History ahead and across the way. West 16th Street is eclectic throughout, including some modernist swagger with balcony apartments near the intersection of Fifth Avenue. Crossing Fifth Avenue, the buildings grow more massive in scale, clad mostly in popular styles of the 1890s.


Cutting through Union Square (and what fun), pick up E. 16th on the other side and continue to Irving Place. Here we see Washington Irving High School and a nice bust of Irving himself out in front of the school on the Irving Place side. 

Irving Place: O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi"

"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all."

When he lived at 55 Irving Place, short story writer O. Henry believed, like so many others, that Washington Irving once resided down the street. Irving was more of a downtown guy, and he probably never lived along in here, but that didn't stop a 19th-century real estate man, the same person who developed Gramercy Park to the north and gave this area its new Irving name, from making the whole thing up. The rumor was that Irving lived specifically at 49 Irving Place, a corner house occupied during O. Henry's time by Elsie de Wolfe, the first important professional interior designer, and her companion, Elisabeth Marbury

Sometime in 1905, in Pete's Tavern on the corner of Irving Place and E. 18th, O. Henry sat in his favorite booth, allegedly the second from the front, and quickly wrote "The Gift of the Magi," a story we can assume, in contrast to Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," to be his own intellectual property. The holiday tale wasn't his first Christmas story. "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking" in the December 1899 issue of McClure's Magazine may claim that honor, nor was it a great work of literature, but the story, published originally in The New York World, gained a sentimental following.

Nassau Street, Lower Manhattan. 1905
Library of Congress. Detroit Publishing Co.
In contrast to the warm and affluent coziness depicted in Clement Clarke Moore's poem of the 1820s, with its traditional nuclear family, a nice house, carefully-hung stockings, and a lawn with new fallen snow, etc., "The Gift of the Magi," like many of O. Henry's stories, suggests the weary masses of New York in the early 1900s. The spirit and milieu of the Bowery is more apparent than the reserved refinement of a Chelsea mansion.

By the time he arrived in New York in 1902, the writer O. Henry, born William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910), was trying to start life over. A North Carolinian by birth and a long-time Texas resident, he was a fresh ex-con, having been locked up in a prison in Ohio from 1898-1901 on charges he embezzled a bank in Austin, Texas while an employee. The imprisonment may have been unwarranted, as he wasn't good with money anyway. In order to support his daughter, Margaret, he started penning his short stories while in jail, and a friend would send them off to publishers. This is how his first Christmas story came to McClure's Magazine.

When he was released from prison he changed his name to O. Henry, and in 1902 he moved to New York, the city he would call "Baghdad-on-the-Subway."

Most know his famous tale. The story: It's Christmas Eve. A poor married couple live in a gritty apartment, and hard times have come. The husband, James, has suffered a recent pay cut, and his wife, Della, frets over how to buy him something nice for Christmas. She walks down the street and sells her beautiful long hair, her source of pride, then shops for a present. She buys the perfect gift, a fob for her husband's prized watch, blowing almost all her money. After she comes home and fixes and curls her short hair, James arrives home only to go into great shock at the sight of his wife. He's sold his watch to buy her beautiful and expensive combs for her hair, and now he has received a gift with no practical purpose. Ahhh, but 'tis the sacrifice for a greater gift of love that makes this spirit count.

From December 1903 to January 1906 O. Henry wrote for The New York World, submitting a story per week, and also writing for magazines. He penned six hundred stories while he was alive, and these stories were packaged into ten published collections. He lived in several different New York apartments, including the Hotel Chelsea, a place in Grove Court, 47 W. 24th St., and 55 Irving Place. He still couldn't keep count of money, and he drank too much. At the time he wrote "The Gift of the Magi," he was basically in a slow-motion fall, five years away from dying of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47. But he knew how to convey the spirit of Christmas.

"The poorer you are the more Christmas does for you."
- O. Henry, "An Unfinished Christmas Story"

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