At the time of his death in 1867, he was one of the most popular writers in the city: a critically acclaimed poet, satirist, and social commentator whose work was published in leading periodicals and recited by schoolkids.
But chances are you’ve never heard of Fitz-Green Halleck (right), a forgotten man of New York letters.
Born in Connecticut in 1790, Halleck, like so many aspiring writers before and after him, moved to New York at age 21.
He made a name for himself as part of the Knickerbocker group, which included the city’s early 19th century literary hotshots like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.
He also met Joseph Rodman Drake, the scion of a wealthy New York family (below).
Drake was a medical student who collaborated with Halleck on a series of satirical verses published in the New York Evening Post.
It’s widely presumed that Halleck was in love with Drake. Upon Drake’s marriage, Halleck wrote his sister:
“[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.”
Drake died shortly after of tuberculosis. Halleck continued writing, earning the nickname “The American Byron” in the 1830s.
He also secured a job as John Jacob Astor’s personal secretary, which allowed Halleck access to the city’s social scene—and also an annuity upon Astor’s death that gave him an income independent of his art.
His poems tended to be overwrought and fanciful, but they were popular in his day, especially “Fanny,” from 1819 (below).
Halleck kicked around the bohemian scene at Pfaff’s, the bar at Bleecker Street and Broadway.
He moved back and forth between New York and Connecticut, living with his sister but never marrying.
By the 1860s, he’d earned a place in the city’s established literary scene.
In 1877, ten years after his death, he was still so popular that his statue commemorating him went up along Central Park’s Literary Walk.
“President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated his statue in 1877 before an estimated crowd of 10,000,” states poetryfoundation.org (right).
He’s the only American writer there, part of an esteemed club featuring William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott.
Fame was fleeting. Today, no one remembers his name or his work.
[Fourth image: gayatlcp.com; fifth image, NYPL]