Lambda Lore

A Knickerbocker love story

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The things they never teach you in high school English class about gay contributions to American and English prose are staggering. Oh, some brave pedagogues might allude to Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde being a tad bit lavender, but most high school kids live in a homosexual knowledge vacuum. Gertrude Stein? Never heard of her.

However, I dare say even the most ardent gay English teacher has never heard of the homo poet, Fitz-Greene Halleck, even though he was known as the “American Byron.” So popular was Halleck that a granite statue was erected in his home town of Guilford, Conn. to his memory – the first of its kind for any American poet. It’s ironic that Guilford, having hanged one of its founding fathers for sodomy, was the first town in America to honor (unbeknownst to them) a homosexual poet. William Plaine, the hanged gay Puritan, must have been smiling down from heaven on that day.

Now Halleck has not only one statue dedicated to him but he has two! Ten years after his death, another statue was erected in his honor in New York City’s Central Park in 1877. On that auspicious occasion, President Rutherford B. Hayes, joined by his entire cabinet, dedicated Hallecks’ likeness before no less than 30,000 admiring fans. His statue is still located on the Central Park’s Mall, though I am sure he would have rather been placed in the Rambles, that famous gay cruising spot.

Today, hardly anyone reads Halleck’s poetry except those who study homosexual themes in 19th century literature. But in his day, Halleck was big stuff and was associated with New York writers known as the Knickerbocker Group; James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and all those guys you had to read in Early American Lit class. He was published with them, became famous with them and met with all the visiting writers of his day, including Charles Dickens.

Halleck’s shtick was writing poetry and while very popular and widely read 150 years ago, he eventually fell out of favor. One of the reasons was because Edgar Allan Poe dissed Halleck and his boyfriend Joseph Rodman Drake, whom Poe called “second-rate and ordinary.” The reputations of both Halleck and Drake never quite recovered among literary eggheads after that.

But probably the real reason you never heard of him is because he was queer. In the late 19th century, as people got wise to homosexuals being in their midst, that was the end of Halleck ever being mentioned in high school textbooks. Moralists eventually caught on that his stuff was “infused with homosexual themes.” I imagine when the first Freudian read “Stiff memory is penetrated by a metaphoric dart, akin to Cupid’s arrow,” the jig was up.

It probably didn’t help either when the prominent poet Bayard Taylor published in 1870, Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania. Taylor dedicated his book “To those who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man, as man’s love for woman.” Taylor’s narrative recounted “an intimate friendship between two men” and perhaps because Taylor spoke at the dedication of Halleck’s monument in Guilford, his book is believed to be a fictionalized account of Halleck’s love for Drake. Taylor’s book is America’s first gay novel written a hundred years before the Stonewall Uprising.

Like many other gay young men, Halleck was drawn to New York City. In 1809, at the age of 19, he fell in love with a young Cuban named Carlos Menie, to whom he dedicated a few of his early poems. After that relationship ended, he met the beautiful Joseph Rodman Drake, a youth five years his junior. Although the teenager was studying to be a physician, he and Halleck found that they had a knack for drinking and writing poetry. They were young, talented and, not to mention, pretty, so they began hobnobbing with other writers. Halleck and Drake became part of New York’s literary society, the Knickerbocker Group. As the youngest members of that group of authors, they did what young smart alecks always do; they satirized and challenged the era’s “sacred institutions.” And because Halleck was witty and charming, and Drake was graceful and beautiful, they were loved for writing their piercing verses about New York society.

In 1816, Halleck, who was “madly in love” with the 21-year-old Drake, got into a snit when he decided to marry a girl for her father’s money. Halleck wrote in his journal: “He has married, and, as his wife’s father is rich, I imagine he will write no more. He was poor, as poets, of course, always are, and offered himself a sacrifice at the shrine of Hymen to shun the ‘pains and penalties’ of poverty. I officiated as groomsman, though much against my will. His wife was good natured, and loves him to distraction. He is perhaps the handsomest man in New York, –  a face like an angel, a form like an Apollo; and, as I well new 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.”

Though Drake went on to become a physician, he and Halleck still collaborated, though no longer cohabited.

Halleck made his mark in literary circles when he wrote the poem “Fanny” in 1819, a satire about Wall Street. The poem earned Halleck his comparison to Lord Byron and contains this veiled reference to his fondness for men.

Wine, wit, and wisdom, at a midnight rout,

 From dandy coachmen, whose “exquisite” grin

  And “ruffian” lounge flash brilliantly without,

 Down to their brother dandies ranged within,

  Gay as the Brussels carpeting they tread on,

  And sapient as the oysters they are fed on.

Also that year, Halleck and Drake published, anonymously, The Croaker Papers, the first popular literary satire of New York society, and they became widely recognized as “among the leading literary personalities and talents produced by America.” The poems were of course the talk of the town, and so were Halleck and Drake.

At the height of his popularity, handsome Drake died in 1820 of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Halleck “mortified with grief” wrote a funeral elegy he called “On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake.” The first stanza is, “Green be the turf above thee, Friend of my better days! None knew thee but to love thee, Nor named thee but to praise.” 

Millionaire and philanthropist John Jacob Astor hired Halleck to be his personal secretary and appointed him as one of the original trustees of the Astor Library. Halleck was given an annual annuity from Astor’s estate in 1849, and retired to Guilford, where he lived as a bachelor with his sister Marie for the remainder of his life. Halleck continued to be an American cultural celebrity until his death in 1867. The American Byron’s dying words were, “Marie bring me my pantaloons.”

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