Old Smoke: American Byron

Written by William Bryk on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


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.

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