Poetry to Thrill an Oyster

Gregory Woods

  • The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck by John W.M. Hallock
    Wisconsin, 226 pp, £14.95, April 2000, ISBN 0 299 16804 2

When the American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) travelled to Europe in 1822 he was carrying letters of introduction to Byron, Scott, Southey, Wordsworth, Lafayette and Talleyrand, though he never actually met any of them – whether through shyness or negligence or something else is not clear. Dickens called on Halleck on arrival in New York in 1842, but later wrote him off as a mere imitator. Richard Dana thought his ‘Marco Bozzaris’ was America’s best lyric poem. John Quincy Adams referred to one of his poems in a speech to the House of Representatives in 1836. Most inexplicable of all, on 15 May 1877, fifty thousand people gathered in Central Park to see President Hayes unveil a statue of Halleck in the so-called Poet’s Corner of America which, until that day, had contained memorials only to English and Scottish writers (Shakespeare, Burns, Scott).

The whole nation was still finding it hard to shake off the convention whereby nothing American could achieve real distinction except by comparison with a European model. (Such comparisons almost invariably do American achievements a disservice, since only towering European achievements were chosen as models.) So Halleck was the American Byron and his friend and collaborator Joseph Drake was the American Keats. Together, somewhat more compromisingly, Halleck and Drake were referred to as the Damon and Pythias of American poets.

As one would expect of a man so highly honoured, Halleck could count major cultural figures among his friends – Mozart’s librettist Da Ponte and James Fenimore Cooper, for instance. Others he kept at a slight distance. Having done time with the notorious bore Hawthorne, he had the wit to remark: ‘Last night Nathaniel Hawthorne and I sat together at dinner and talked for an hour, although Hawthorne said nothing.’ His admirers included some of the nation’s greatest men: in 1860, thanking a friend for a gift of Halleck’s poems, Abraham Lincoln wrote: ‘Many a month has passed since I have met with anything more admirable than his beautiful lines.’ His poetry was often extravagantly reviewed. ‘Should I beget children, it shall descend to them,’ a critic said of one of his volumes, but then added, obscurely: ‘such poetry would thrill an oyster, if the march of mind had penetrated the dominions of conchology.’ As if all this were not enough, Halleck gained a kind of afterlife in other men’s books. He is apparently present as Marko in Herman Melville’s Mardi (1849) and he and Drake reappear posthumously, living and working together under their own names, in Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973). So why is he now forgotten?

It is the aim of Hallock’s book to restore Halleck’s reputation. (As their names do and don’t suggest, poet and biographer are distant relatives.) He wants to make him interesting to a 21st-century audience. To do so, he has to out him. Homosexuality becomes the talent which recommends this versifier to our attention. Hallock refers to the unveiling of the statue as ‘the auspicious occasion commemorating America’s earliest homosexual poet’, as if that were the distinction for which the President was honouring Halleck. But Hallock goes further: he wants Halleck not only to happen to have been homosexual, but to act as a template for the late 20th century’s gay writers and, indeed, gay men in general. This is why he asks his key question: ‘What’s a gay man like Halleck doing in the 19th century?’

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