Sep 18, 2013
Guilford's Fitz-Greene Halleck: America's Forgotten "Byron"
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The town of Guilford recently announced that is has launched guilfordct375.org, a website dedicated to the town's 375th anniversary, part of the year-long celebration. According to a press release, the site will also serve "to build community and support among the town's businesses, organizations, civic groups, 22,000+ residents, and neighboring communities." It will be "a one-stop resource for all-things past, present, and future about the Town of Guilford."
One of the former residents sure to receive some attention is poet Fitz-Greene Halleck, once hailed as "the American Byron." Although the Guilford native's name now may be described as "obscure," there was a time when Edgar Allen Poe (no stranger to verse himself) said of Halleck, "No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck." He is the sole American writer memorialized in New York City's Central Park's Literary Walk, joining only William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns in the honor; Halleck's popularity was so enduring that when in 1877 (10 years after his death) the statue of his likeness was dedicated for the Walk, President Rutherford B. Hayes was on hand for the ceremony, along with and a crowd of 10.000.
Today, it would be a challenge to find 10 people who had ever even heard of Fitz-Greene Halleck.
Born on July 8, 1790, to Israel and Mary Halleck, Fitz-Greene was a bright child who eagerly consumed knowledge, at one point bragging that he had read "every book" available in Guilford's public library. He started composing poems around the age of 11, and in 1810, had his first works published in a New York newspaper called The Columbian. A year later he moved to New York City, where he found work in finance and was exposed to a more cosmopolitan culture than his simple hometown could offer, including opportunities to connect with other creative individuals.
He soon met Joseph Rodman Drake, a physician and aspiring poet, and over the next few years, the two formed a strong partnership that eventually led to the publication of the Croaker Papers in 1919. The collaborative effort yielded 35 satirical poems that appeared in the New York Evening Post and the National Advertiser, becoming a popular sensation thanks to their light and playful jibes at the topics of the day.
The success of the Croaker Papers helped Halleck's career and reputation as a poet really take off, as many appreciated his style and willingness to challenge societal beliefs. He soon found himself a member of the prestigious Knickerbocker Group that included literary notables James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant. From various accounts, Halleck was charming, quick-witted and sociable, and was very active in the burgeoning American literary scene.
In September 1820, his good friend Drake succumbed to tuberculosis, a passing that devasted Halleck and inspired him to write one of his better-known verses, "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake." Its expression of grief over the loss was especially notable for the opening stanza.
Green be the turf above thee,
Friend of my better days!
None knew thee but to love thee,
Nor named thee but to praise.
Many of Halleck's biographers have suggested that the poet was homosexual, and deeply in love with Drake. Although there is no direct evidence of a romance—not that there would be, given the public attitudes of the age—Halleck lamented having been forced to participate in Drake's wedding, suggesting that he was "committing a crime" knowing Drake's true feelings. Biographer Charles Hemstreet wrote: "[Halleck's] Muse was sorely wounded when Drake died, and the fuller poetic life that might have been his was buried on the green slope of the Bronx with his friend." In 1903, The New York Times reported that Drake's body was to be exhumed and re-buried next to Halleck's, in accordance to Halleck's will, although the request was never carried out.
Halleck never married, and in fact, created a few works that were critical of marriage and many others that had strong homosexual themes. In American Byron: Homosexuality & The Fall Of Fitz-Greene Halleck, John W.M. Hallock (a distant relative) presents a detailed study of "America's first homosexual poet," and Halleck's influence in that role. Many believe that the first homosexual novel published in the United States, Joseph and His Friend, written by Bayard Taylor in 1870, was a fictionalized account of Halleck's and Drake's relationship.