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Halleck, Fitz-Greene (1790-1867)

Poet, Travel Writer

Fitz-Greene Halleck was born in Guilford, Connecticut to a family descended from the earliest Pilgrim Fathers. Halleck completed New England schooling at the age of fourteen, after which he served as a clerk to kinsman Andrew Eliot for six years. Eliot sent him on business to New York in 1808, where he met his future employers Jacob Barker and John Jacob Astor. He could join the Connecticut militia and open an evening school for clerk-related matters before returning to the city in 1811 at the age of twenty-one (Wilson).

Halleck “fell in with the literary people of the town and shared their eager interest in the current English output,” later becoming a leading figure in the Knickerbocker school (Boynton 133). To supplement his income, he worked as an accountant for Barker for twenty years, and later for Astor. Halleck met poet Joseph Rodman Drake, who would become a lifelong friend and intimate, in 1813, and the two collaboratively wrote the Croaker Papers for the Evening Post. The satirical verses, which include Halleck’s popular Fanny (1819), poked fun at New York high society and were immensely popular (Hemstreet 119). Halleck wrote “Alnwick Castle” and “Burns” while traveling through Europe in 1822, and his most widely known poem, “Marco Bozzaris,” in 1825. Halleck gained literary fame from these earlier efforts, which accompanied him throughout his life despite his few later writings (“Death of Fitz-Greene Halleck”). Despite being a well-respected author who was praised by Charles Dickins, Halleck once reportedly said, “When I die I shall have no literary reputation to leave behind me. What I have written has been for pastime, not for fame or money” (Walsh 165).

Halleck was amongst “the best known writers who frequented that cozy corner at Pfaff’s” (G. J. M. 9), to which he would often escape despite his “respectable and conservative” demeanor (Lause 79). Despite that Eugene Lalor calls him “one of the less committed Bohemians,” he appears to have had influenced several of the Pfaffians artistically, particularly Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Bayard Taylor (135-6). In a letter to E. C. Stedman regarding his “Prelude,” Aldrich says, “To my thinking that right-hand lower corner of your frontispiece would have been more fitly occupied by Fitz-Greene Halleck, whose 'Burns,’ 'Marco Bozzaris,’ and 'Red Jacket’ are poems which promise to live as long as any three pieces in the Anthology” (Greenslet 215). William Winter recollects that during his early days as a writer in Boston and Cambridge, Halleck was one of the writers with a “hallowed name” who was “never thought of without spontaneous admiration nor mentioned without profound respect” (Old Friends 107). During the time that he was at Pfaff’s, he also was a frequent guest of Daniel Biby’s hotel, one of the many “literary celebrities [that] would congregate to discuss the topics of the day” (591). with “all the writers of the day” (Hemstreet 137-8).

Halleck’s work has been studied for its homosexual themes, leading John W. M. Hallock to draw comparisons between it and the works of Walt Whitman. Hallock suggests that the poet, who never married, was in love with Drake (32). Halleck served as the best man in Drake’s wedding, and wrote of the experience, “[Drake] 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” (Wilson 184). Drake died of consumption at the age of twenty-five, and Halleck memorialized him in “The Death of Joseph Rodman Drake” (1820, which begins with the famous first lines, “Green be the turf above thee” (Hallock 90-92). Hemstreet claims that one may also discern the impact of Drake’s loss in “Marco Bozzaris.” Hemstreet writes, "During forty odd years from that time he continued the gently courteous, witty talker, the dignified life of each gathering he attended. But, as he knew so well, his 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 (124).

Astor would later name Halleck as one of the original trustees to the Astor Library and leave him an annuity of two hundred dollars, allowing him to retire to his hometown of Gilford (Derby 294-5). Halleck died in Gilford at the age of seventy-two, and subsequently a statue of him was commissioned for Central Park at the price of $12,000 (“A Statue to Fitz-Greene Halleck”). The statue was dedicated on May 15, 1877 before a crowd of 10,000, including President Rutherford B. Hayes and his entire cabinet, and remains in Central Park to this day (“Fitz Green Halleck”).