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Biography 24.3 (2001) 662-665

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John W. M. Hallock. The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2000. 226 pp. ISBN 0-299-16800-X, $50.00 cloth; ISBN 0-299-16804-2, $19.95 paper.

This splendid biographical essay explores the life and poetry of Fitz-Greene Halleck (8 July 1790-19 November 1867) against the shifting sands of nineteenth-century history, literature, and sexuality. Though The American Byron offers a concise and judicious summary of the changing understandings of sexual relations between men from colonial time until the present, studies on the topic of homosexuality continue to grow exponentially. By contrast, the literature on Halleck remains more manageable. A standard Poetical Writings and a traditional Life and Letters, both edited and written by James Grant Wilson, appeared two years after the poet's death. Another biography by Nelson Frederick Adkins, Fitz-Greene Halleck: An Early Knickerbocker Wit and Poet (Yale UP, 1930) exhausts the previous books on Halleck.

Biographer Hallock makes a convincing case that the poet Halleck has been excluded from the canon of U.S. poets because his person and his poetry were simply too gay. The dryness and straightness of the schoolroom poets, long memorialized in the colorless lithographs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, or John Greenleaf Whittier, have faded with time. The dipsomaniac Edgar Allen Poe may have been salvaged by his invention of the detective story, his celebration by the French, and his relentless "Raven," but poets like Whitman or novelists like Melville with homoerotic tones in their life and works have only recently achieved canonical acceptance. The biographer here takes on the task of reclaiming Halleck as "a significant figure in the development of American verse [and] as a prophet of the poetic and sexual revolution of which Walt Whitman was the messiah" (11).

The relative openness (within strict limits) of homosexual activity in the early nineteenth century is only recently being uncovered, as we break through the silence and discretion, which Whitman called his "indirection." Being thirty years older than Whitman, Fitz-Greene Halleck may perhaps have had greater opportunity than Whitman to be relatively open about his love for other men. Certainly one of the pleasures of reading The American Byron is that the biographer doesn't have to spend time in "correcting" numerous scholars, as is still the case with Whitman, whose biographers still maintain that the poet was asexual or heterosexual. Since few have cared about Fitz-Greene Halleck's reputation, few have spent time inventing false clues (sometimes dropped by the poet himself) that have plagued the Whitman industry with orthobiographies. [End Page 662]

In the literary world, Halleck has had the misfortune to have been famous among some pre-Civil War New Yorkers who particularly admired wealth. He may have once equaled in reputation such New Englanders as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, or Henry David Thoreau, but their working against the grain of commerce has helped their long-run reputations. Some of Halleck's fashionable contemporaries in New York--Lewis Gaylord Clark, Rufus Griswold, or Nathaniel Parker Willis--have long ago slid into obscurity, and taken him with them. Halleck is seriously handicapped by being part of the Knickerbocker circle, who depended too heavily on British models such as Lord Byron, whose reputation as a poet has somewhat declined. On the other hand, relative outsiders in New York City like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, or Edgar Allen Poe now command a worldwide following. Even in Halleck's time the fashionable poets often tended to be more from New England: William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or James Russell Lowell. Their reading public has now mostly receded to classrooms and encyclopedias.

The biographer's struggle with the dilemma of why Halleck, once relatively famous, became an obscure figure in the history of poetry and sexuality--or fell, as the title has it--raises significant questions for the biography. There is a curious gap in the history of poetry, literature, and homosexuality in the mid...


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