20 June 2011

Halleck Street's Forgotten Namesake

Fitz-Greene Hallack has a couple nasty little street names after him in New York. One is up in The Bronx, in the Hunt's Point area. It's about two blocks long. The other is also in an industrial area, Red Hook, Brooklyn. This one is a mere one block long. And you could barely call it a street. It's more like an access point for unloading trucks.

Theses sad stretches of pavement are what's left to honor a man who was once New York's most famous and beloved poet. Hallack lived from 1790 to 1867. In is youthful years, he was widely read and called "the American Byron." He and his bosom friend Joseph Rodman Drake were both members of the Knickerbocker Group, which included such luminaries as William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. Charles Dickens admired Halleck. Lincoln read his poems aloud. We, of course, still know and read these names. Yet Hallack's works are covered in dust, even though his most famous poem, "Fanny," (1819) was once so popular that 50-cent editions of it were hawked for ten bucks.

I have read some of Halleck's poems. Sadly, they deserve their obscurity. They're sentimental and derivative. His best known poem today is perhaps the one he wrote in tribute to Drake, when the latter died at 25 of consumption. Halleck so lauds the man, you would think Keats had passed. Literary scholars today think Hallack was probably in love with Drake. It's hard to counter their claim. Hallack described his friend as "perhaps the handsomest man in New York—a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo." And, in his will, Halleck asked that Drake be dug up and reburied next to him. Remarkably, this was apparently done!

To see what Halleck looked like, go to Central Park. There's a statue of him on the Literary Walk. It was erected a decade after his death. Today, his is one of the few statues on the walk to regularly bring head-scratches from the passing crowd. It was far from thus when President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated the monument. An estimated crowd of 10,000 spectators attended, and so damaged to the surrounding turf that Park officials subsequently banned large crowds from the park.

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