Monday, November 19, 2012

Deathday: Fitz-Greene Halleck 1867 Poet & Poe Associate

Fitz-Greene Halleck (July 8, 1790 – November 19, 1867) was an American poet, born and died at Guilford, Connecticut.


Early life

Fitz-Greene Halleck was born on July 8, 1790,[1] in Guilford, Connecticut at what was the corner of Whitfield and Water Streets.[2] At two years old, he was the victim of a prank when two soldiers fired off their guns next to his left ear; he was partially deaf for the remainder of his life.[3] He left school at 15 to work in his family's shop in Guilford.

Early career

In May 1811, Halleck moved to New York City to find work. After a month of searching, he had all but given up and made plans to move to Richmond, Virginia instead when he was hired by a banker named Jacob Barker.[4] He remained in Barker's employ for the next 20 years.

Halleck's first literary works of note were written with Joseph Rodman Drake. They penned the anonymous "Croaker Papers" which were satires of New York Society. The Croakers were perhaps the first popular literary satire of New York, and New York society (then far from a world cultural center) was overcome with excitement at being considered worthy of erudite derision.

Halleck then penned Fanny, his longest poem, was another satire on the literature, fashions, and politics of the time. Published anonymously in December 1819, it proved so popular that the initial 50 cent edition was fetching up to $10. Two years later, its continuing popularity inspired Halleck to amend an additional 50 stanzas.[5]

Drake had advised Halleck to pursue becoming a nationally-known poet and to sit on "Appalachia's brow" to take in the immense power of nature and use it to inspire his imagination.[6] A medical student, Drake died of consumption at 25 and Halleck commemorated his friend's death with a mournful poem that is considered by many as his most heartfelt, beginning "Green be the turf above thee" (1820). Drake's widow, Sarah Eckford Drake, attempted to make Halleck her second husband, despite Halleck's occasional satires of her, including one where he referred to her as a witch. She died eight years later.[7]

In 1822, Halleck visited Europe, and the traces of this are found in most of his subsequent poetry, e.g. his lines on Robert Burns, and on Alnwick Castle.

Professional and later life

On May 15, 1832, Halleck became the private secretary to John Jacob Astor and was appointed by him one of the original trustees of the Astor Library of New York. He also functioned as Astor's cultural tutor, advising him on what pieces of art to purchase. The immensely wealthy—and tightfisted—Astor in his will left to Halleck an annuity of only $200, a meager sum which Astor's son William increased to $1,500. In 1849 he retired to his hometown of Guilford where he spent the rest of his life living with his older unmarried sister.

As a writer, Halleck became associated with the New York-based Knickerbocker Group, as did his collaborator Drake.

In April 1860, a lingering illness caused enough concern for Halleck that he gave instructions for his funeral and burial.[8] Increasingly irritable in his later years, he often turned down requests for public appearances and complained about being pestered by "frequent appeals for letters to hard-hearted editors."[9] People even named their children after the poet, much to Halleck's annoyance. He wrote, "I am favored by affectionate fathers with epistles announcing that their eldest-born has been named after me, a calamity that costs me a letter of profound gratefulness."[9] Halleck's last major poem, "Young America," was published in 1867 in the New York Ledger.[3] On November 19, 1867, around 11:00 at night, he called out to his sister, "Marie, hand me my pantaloons, if you please." He died without making another sound before she could turn around.[10] He is buried at Alderbrook Cemetery in Guilford.[11]


It has been posited that Halleck was in love with Joseph Rodman Drake. This presumption is not without reason; Halleck describes serving as best man at Drake's wedding:

"[Drake] has married, and, as his wife's father is rich, I imagine he will write no more. He was poor, as poets, of course, always are, and offered himself a sacrifice at the shrine of Hymen to shun the 'pains and penalties' of poverty. I officiated as groomsman, though much against my will. His wife was good natured, and loves him to distraction. He is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, - a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well knew that his person was the true index of his mind, I felt myself during the ceremony as committing a crime in aiding and assisting such a sacrifice."[12]

In his will, he asked for the body of his friend Drake to be dug up and reburied with him.[13] His wish almost came true in 1903, when plans were set to move the bodies of Drake, his wife, daughter, sister, and nephew to Halleck's plot in Guilford.[14] A biographer noted that Halleck's last major work, "Young America," was both "a jaded critique of marriage and a pederastic boy-worship reminiscent of classical homosexuality."[3]

Halleck's first infatuation with another man was much earlier. At nineteen, he became enamored with a young Cuban named Carlos Menie. A few early poems were dedicated to Menie.[15]

Critical response

In the mid to late 19th century, Halleck was regarded as one of America's leading poets, dubbed "the American Byron"..Amongst his most well-known was "Marco Bozzaris," which Halleck noted was "puffed in a thousand (more or less) magazines and newspapers" in the United States, England, Scotland, and Ireland.[16] Charles Dickens spoke very fondly of the "accomplished writer" in a January 1868 letter to William Makepeace Thackeray (as recounted in "Thackeray in the United States"). It is not clear how much of Dickens's fondness is based on Halleck's poetical ability and how much on his wit and charm, which is often lauded by his contemporaries. Abraham Lincoln occasionally read Halleck's poetry aloud to friends in the White House.

American writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Halleck's poetry collection Alnwick Castle. Regarding Halleck's poem "Fanny," he said, "to uncultivated ears... [it is] endurable, but to the practiced versifier it is little less than torture."[17] In the September 1843 issue of Graham's Magazine, Poe wrote that the Halleck "has nearly abandoned the Muses, much to the regret of his friends and to the neglect of his reputation."[17]

(Poe Forward note: When Poe's BROADWAY JOURNAL was in danger of going under, he appealed to Halleck for money and received a signed note of endorsement. Poe never got the money. How this affected his review of Halleck's work is up for speculation.)

Halleck spent several years without producing any literary works. After his death, poet William Cullen Bryant addressed the New York Historical Society on February 2, 1869, and spoke about this blank period in Halleck's career. He ultimately concluded: "Whatever the reason that Halleck ceased so early to write, let us congratulate ourselves that he wrote at all."[18]


In July 1869 a granite monument was erected to him in Guilford, Connecticut, the first monument ever erected in celebration of an American Poet. Poet Bayard Taylor, author of America's first homosexual novel Joseph and His Friend (1870), spoke at the commemoration.[19]

In 1877 a statue was erected to him, the first statue to commemorate an American poet. It still stands on the Literary Walk on the Mall in New York City's Central Park.

In 2006 The Fitz-Greene Halleck Society was founded to raise awareness of this forgotten historical figure. The Society sees Halleck's value as a lesson of the fleeting nature of fame, but in no way seeks to mock the now almost completely forgotten poet.

Further reading

Wilson, The Life and Letters of Fitz-Greene Halleck (New York, 1869)
Wilson, The Poetical Writings of Fitz-Greene Halleck (New York, 1869)
Hallock, John Wesley Matthew. "The First Statue: Fitz-Greene Halleck and Homotextual Representation in Nineteenth-Century America." [Temple U, 1997], DAI, Vol. 58-06A (1997): 2209.


1.^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 44. ISBN 086576008X
2.^ Ehrlich and Carruth, 76
3.^ Hallock, 9
4.^ Hallock, 43
5.^ Burt, Daniel S. The Chronology of American Literature: America's Literary Achievements From the Colonial Era to Modern Times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004: 126. ISBN 9780618168217
6.^ Callow, James T. Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807–1855. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967: 147.
7.^ Hallock, 90–92
8.^ Hallock, 142
9.^ Hallock, 143
10.^ Hallock, 150
11.^ Ehrlich and Carruth, 77
12.^ James Grant Wilson, The Life and Letters of Fitz-Greene Halleck, pg. 184. New York: Appleton and Company, 1869.
13.^ "To Exhume Drake's Body", The New York Times. September 19, 1903: p. 2
14.^ Hallock, 91
15.^ Hallock, 32
16.^ Hallock, 97
17.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 103. ISBN 081604161X
18.^ Chubb, Edwin Watts. Stories of Authors, British & American. Echo Library, 2008: 152. ISBN 9781406892536
19.^ Hallock, 151


Ehrlich, Eugene and Gorton Carruth. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 0195031865
Hallock, John W. M. The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. ISBN 0299168042

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