Old Smoke: American Byron

Make text smaller Make text larger

On May 15, 1877, 50,000 people marched to Central Park’s Mall to dedicate J. Wilson MacDonald’s statue of a great poet. The National Guard escorted the dignitaries: the Cabinet, the Army’s general-in-chief, the governor, the mayor. Brass bands thumped away until 3:00 pm. Then the venerable William Cullen Bryant, poet ("To a Waterfowl" and "Thanatopsis") and editor of the New York Evening Post, introduced Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, who, in unveiling the statue, hailed as "the favored of all the early American poets," its subject, Fitz-Greene Halleck.

From Halleck’s first major publications in 1819 until long after his death in 1867, America’s critics sang his praises. Even Edgar Allen Poe, who rarely praised anything and whose savagery as a literary critic endures in the nickname "Old Tomahawk," called Halleck’s verse "the noblest…in all American poetry." But by the 1930s, Halleck, as the intellectuals might say, had been decanonized: purged from the body of literature that provides the common currency of intellectual discourse. The AIA Guide to New York City now describes the statue as "the prissy and pretentious bronze of a self-styled poet."

Fitz-Greene Halleck (originally spelled Hallock: He changed the spelling when he was 14 years old) was born in Guilford, CT, on July 8, 1790. His father, Israel Hallock, had been a Loyalist, serving as a sutler for the British cavalryman and war criminal, Banastre Tarleton, whose valor was equaled by his zeal for burning American homes. Israel loved music and literature and was proud of having read every book in Guilford’s library.

Halleck was educated in the local public schools. Like his father, he was an omnivorous reader. (According to John Hallock’s The American Byron, he once set his room on fire reading by candlelight.) A woman who watched him speak at the age of seven described him as intelligent, gentle and lovable. It was around this time that he seems to have begun writing verse: a schoolmate remarked, "He couldn’t help it." One notebook of juvenile verses, dated 1802, is augustly entitled, "The Poetical Works of Fitz Greene Hallock." At 15, after Halleck finished his schooling, Andrew Eliot, a kinsman, hired him as a clerk and taught him double-entry bookkeeping. Within a few months, Halleck’s abilities and character led Eliot to entrust him with managing the store. He joined the local militia company and, despite his dislike of flag-waving patriotism, took his duties seriously enough to be promoted to sergeant.

Halleck’s horizons broadened in 1808 when he first went to New York on business. He caught a play at the Park Theatre near City Hall, the kind of thing he later described as a departure from "Connecticut principles." He remained living at home for three more years, but the die was cast. He earned money for the move by teaching arithmetic, writing and bookkeeping to his neighbors. In May 1811, Greenwich Village became his home; within several months, Jacob Barker, a banker with offices on South St., hired him as a clerk: Halleck worked for Barker for the next 21 years. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, he enlisted in the Iron Grays, a local militia company. Samuel Swartwout, Halleck’s commanding officer, would later win distinction as America’s first public official to embezzle over $1 million. Halleck served as a part-time soldier in and around the Village and the Battery until the news of peace reached New York in February 1815.

Although Halleck was discreet, his correspondence betrays a strain of misogyny: he seems to have cordially disliked women and believed that most of his male friends had married only for money. By contrast, Halleck’s relationships with men, as reflected in his letters and verse, were often quite passionate, even making allowance for the florid terms in which the 19th century portrayed male friendship. His most emotional poems were all addressed to men: a dashing Cuban guest in Guilford, a French roommate in Greenwich Village. The closest relationship in his life began in 1813 when he met Joseph Rodman Drake, a native New Yorker who was studying medicine. Accounts of their first meeting all agree that Halleck, who found Drake "the handsomest man in New York," grasped his arm and said, "We must know each other." Soon they were inseparable. Their intimacy survived Halleck’s lone journeys to the Southern states and even Drake’s marriage.

Between March and June 1819, Drake and Halleck published a series of anonymous essays and verses in the New York Evening Post called "The Croaker Papers," after their pseudonyms, Croaker and Croaker Jr. (Drake and Halleck, respectively). The Croakers captivated local readers, poking fun at prominent figures and offbeat local customs. Today, with their subjects forgotten, the Croakers seem tedious and their satire irrelevant. Yet they were extremely popular in their day and, once the authors’ identities were revealed, made them both well known. Collections of the Croakers remained in print for another 50 years. In late 1819, Halleck published "Fanny," his longest poem, a mock-epic considered "an amusing satire on the fashion, follies, and public characters of the day," renowned for its "sparkle of wickedness and fun." Two editions sold out within 18 months: Now Halleck was famous.

Drake’s health failed during the spring of 1820. Halleck watched over him "with more than a brother’s love" until he died on September 21, 1820. At the graveside, Halleck murmured to a friend, "There will be less sunshine for me hereafter, now that Joe is gone." Fifty years later he still grieved. Halleck intermittently wrote verses to commemorate his beloved friend. One of them, "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake," which is considered his finest work, remained a popular high school recitation piece into the 1920s.

Green be the turf above thee,

Friend of my better days!

None knew thee but to love thee

Nor named thee but to praise.

When Halleck published an edition of his poems in 1827, including "Alnwick Castle," "Burns," and his verses on the Greek War of Independence, the Byronic "Marco Bozzaris," he came to rank among the city’s leading writers, a peer of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant. Yale elected him an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa, and Columbia College gave him an honorary degree. His works were reviewed across the country and in Europe; he was constantly anthologized.

All the while, Halleck maintained a career as a successful business executive. In 1832, John Jacob Astor hired him as his confidential secretary after Jacob Barker’s bank failed. Astor was then the richest man in America. Within months, Halleck became Astor’s chief executive officer, conducting the day-to-day management of Astor’s business affairs across the United States. Astor found Halleck supremely efficient: he paid the poet $5,000 a year at a time when a skilled laborer’s annual income might be $350.

In some respects, Halleck was a surprisingly modern figure in his apparent lack of prejudice, something that may reflect his revulsion to the Puritan heritage of his birthplace. The surviving papers of many leading New Yorkers, such as Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong, show strong, even violent distaste for the Irish, Catholics, Native Americans, nearly any foreign-born immigrant and negroes. Halleck’s do not. Moreover, Halleck apparently had many friends and acquaintances outside his worlds of business, society, and literature. Dr. Thomas Nichols wrote in his autobiography that, "I was walking on Broadway one day with the poet Halleck, when he stopped, turned back, took off his hat to, and shook hands with, this negro, then a white-headed old man. After a few words with him, he rejoined me and told me his story." Apparently, Halleck had realized moments after passing the old man that he was a friend and gone back to greet him.

Above all, Halleck possessed the evanescent quality of charm, and one difficulty in describing his personality is that many of his friends called him charming without ever elaborating upon what he did that made him so.

Wealth and literary fame made Halleck a public figure: he was naturally among the leading New Yorkers who signed the city’s letter of welcome to Charles Dickens, dated Jan. 24, 1842. Dickens described Halleck as "a merry little man" (odd, considering that at five-nine, Halleck was tall for the time). Perhaps Dickens was preoccupied. He was obsessed with the United States government’s refusal to recognize foreign copyrights, owing to which American publishers routinely pirated Dickens’ enormously popular books without paying a cent in royalties. This subject seems to have dominated Dickens’ dinner conversation, and there is childlike hurt and disappointment in his complaint that Halleck had nothing to say to him about international copyright law.

When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he was worth roughly $20 million. In his will, he appointed Halleck a trustee of the Astor Library, leaving him only an annuity of $200. Halleck’s friends were more appalled than he; the poet expressed gratitude for having been remembered at all. At 60, though, he could no longer afford to live in New York. He returned to Guilford, where he lived frugally with his sister Maria in a rented house.

Few Guilford residents knew Halleck, but many disliked him. He was known to drink. He disliked Puritanism (his poem "Connecticut" is an extended attack on the harshness and bigotry of the Puritan fathers) and took no part in politics. (He boasted that he had never voted for a president and claimed he had voted only twice–"once for an assistant alderman and once for a ten dollar bill: both of which proved counterfeit.") Also, he was a bachelor. Many locals believed that men had a duty to marry and propagate. Even Halleck’s elegant wardrobe, accumulated over the course of his 40 years in New York, seemed to them evidence of extravagance and degeneracy. And as he composed verse aloud while walking, there were those who thought he was out of his mind. A visitor once observed that Halleck’s polite greetings to passersby were often snubbed. The poet seems to have taken it all humorously, believing, perhaps, that good manners were their own reward.

Halleck visited New York several times every year. In October 1867, he did so for the last time. A "whoreson cold" that had been dogging him deteriorated into pneumonia. On November 19, 1867, during a conversation with his sister, she turned away for a moment and, when she looked back, he was dead. Three days later, he was buried beside his father’s grave in the Guilford cemetery. Only a few friends from New York learned of his death in time to attend the service. Fewer locals came. Most stayed away, believing that to be seen at the funeral of a man who had been known to knock back a few now and then might lead to gossip.

In 1870, Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts traveled to Guilford to dedicate a monument to Halleck. A century later, the Guilford library committee decided not to name a room at the public library after him because of his reputation for drinking.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters